Banjo Chronicles

Posted on April 9, 2013 by GuitarRodeo There have been 6 comment(s)

In the late 1970's, I was recruited by Ted Unseth, the leader of The Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra, for the position of rhythm banjo and guitarist. My main qualification was the fact I owned a banjo. No matter that it was a 5-string banjo (typically, either a tenor or plectrum banjo would be used for this type of music, and they both had 4 strings). I  took the job (and took off the fifth string), thinking it would be fun to learn the book they played. The Wolverines were what is known as a repertory jazz band. Thirteen pieces playing the big band hits from the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's. Think "Mickey Mouse cartoon sound track" and you are pretty much there. I did learn a lot. We played all over the country, coast to coast and border to border. We performed at the Detroit Jazz Festival, backing up Lionel Hampton and Marian McPartland (two jazz greats), the New Orleans Jazz Festival (twice), The Queen Mary in LA, and numerous colleges and venues in between. The Wolves had an old school bus and the thirteen of us piled on with all of our gear and off to the gig we went. Yikes. The road trips were epic, but brutal. My favorite regular gig was playing at the Commodore Hotel in St Paul, the same hotel that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lot of time at back in his day. The great trumpet player from the 20's, Jabbo Smith, had been found by Ted working in a car wash in Chicago and Jabbo joined us for many months playing the Commodore. He sat next to me. One of my job requirements was to perform a couple of Django Reinhardt tunes on guitar. By the late 70"s, I was pretty good on the banjo, and I knew almost any chord a cowboy was likely to know on a guitar. I was familiar with Django and loved his playing, but I was hardly a jazz soloist and Django's technique still transcends mortal guitar playing, as evidenced by the fact that there is a big Gypsy Jazz culture these days, and none of these guys goes much further than Django did with technique. I tabbed out the solos and started practicing them. I have one of them, Swing 41, down pretty good these days.......

This post was posted in Uncategorized, Guitars, News

6 Responses to Banjo Chronicles

  • Nope. Last month...... or maybe in 1970.....

    Posted on April 10, 2013 at 9:13 am

  • peter says:


    I presume that photograph was taken just last week...?


    Posted on April 10, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  • Yes I play the banjo and have done some recording this year. Some of it is not yet released, but one cut I like is on-line. Google "Peter Ostroushko" and look for the "Mandolin Chronicles" CD. You should be able to hear a track named "Mr Bill Hinkley's March to the Promised Land". That is my old friend Peter on mandolin and me on 5-string banjo. I hope you can find it and listen.

    Posted on April 11, 2013 at 10:44 am

  • Jan says:

    Engaging story, Jim - hope you are planning to continue?

    Posted on April 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  • Tony says:

    Hi Jim, I used to go to the Commodore to see you guys on a pretty regular basis with a buddy....must have been early- mid 70's. Was a hoot to sit at the bar with long hair, beards, tshirts and cutoffs listening to the band that looked as scruffy as us (although in tuxes, but pretty wrinkled and nowhere near properly fitted) and watching the very nicely dressed older couples dancing in that setting. I live a couple of blocks from the Commodore......the bar is still there but is private. Although there has been talk of a local guy re-opening it as a public bar. Best regards, Tony

    Posted on January 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm

  • Tony,

    That was quite a while ago. Did you happen to catch Jabbo Smith at any of those gigs? He would have been the elderly black man playing trumpet who sat next to me at the Commodore when he joined us. Jabbo was a big name in the twenties and was a rival to Louis Armstrong for the title of trumpet king back in that day. Louis got that title but Jabbo blew a mean horn anyway. Those days were fun and it was interesting times for me. I am really grateful for the experience of playing those old jazz tunes with a 13 piece jazz orchestra. Big fun.

    Posted on January 3, 2014 at 5:52 am