Notes on playing the banjo uke (and the regular ukulele), as well as some of my favorite songs and videos, but mostly, you'll find information here on my particular obsession - the many models of banjo ukulele offered by Stromberg-Voisinet in the 1920's to 1931.

Monday, January 22, 2018

What The Heck IS This?

Greetings, friends -

It's been a long while.  If you're still out there, here's a couple of bits of news...

The Buck and a Quarter Quartet is performing four shows in February in Manhattan and all over Brooklyn, including Pete's Candy Store, Red Room, SISTERS Bklyn and Jalopy Theatre and School of Music.  We'll have some great guests at these venues; to find out who (you'll know when we know), then just follow our schedule on our website or via Facebook, or sign up for our mailing list here if you'd like to get two emails a month from me.

It's kind of pointless to describe music, but we are often asked what kind of music we play. "What IS this exactly?" we're asked at nearly every show these days, mostly in a positive, curious way.

We haven't really got an answer, so I turn to you.  How would you describe this kind of music? What category is it in?  None of the answers we give - i.e. traditional jazz, hot jazz, vintage pop, etc. seem to satisfy our questioners.

Here are a few recent videos to get you thinking...

That's our friend, the amazing Kat Edmonson, singing "Deed I Do".

"When I Take My Sugar to Tea," one of our signature numbers.  I get to play uke on this one; I say "sorry" on this to the poor couples dancing off camera...

John Gill plays this lovely old chestnut..."Someday Sweetheart".

Our own bass player Brian Nalepka puts forward the idea that we're a skiffle band that plays tunes a skiffle band wouldn't normally play.  That seems logical, but I'm still interested in your take.  Please, let me know in the comment section.

Until my next post, keep on strummin'!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

I'm Going Back To My Dreams

In my last entry more than a year ago, I posted a video of an original Christmas tune I'd written the year before.  Seems like my output has slowed to an annual crawl, but in fact, I've never been busier, thanks to our band, the Buck and a Quarter Quartet.  Playing music of the 20s and 30s, we're now doing about four gigs a month, and since I'm playing clarinet, saxophone and tenor banjo, there hasn't been a lot of time for me to play ukulele, let alone post about it.

But, I have been writing over the last year and have about a dozen songs.  This is one of them, "I'm Going Back to My Dreams".  Writing it took me back to dealing with that sinking feeling dealt by a less than true (now ex-) girlfriend and the curious elation you get (at least I did) when trying to keep your spirits up by retreating into fantasy.

I also did a short video of the chorus, no verse - as I wasn't yet happy with the verse at the moment I recorded this.  With two teenage daughters and a dog living in my two-bedroom apartment, my videos always get recorded wherever I can find a quite spot.  It isn't always a great looking spot, though!

Just so you know, I recorded the SoundCloud file not on a uke, but instead, playing a 1928 Gibson TG-0 tenor guitar.  Tenor guitars were the music industry's answer to the question, "what should tenor banjoists play during the ballads that were becoming increasingly popular by the late 20's?"

The Gibson looks a lot like a big uke. When I play this little guitar at gigs, I occasionally get asked if its a bass ukulele.  In the You Tube video, I'm playing Prince Wong's Martin style 2 standard uke.

Any road, I hope that you enjoy this song, and I'll record a few more of the originals I'm finishing up soon.  Until then, keep on...

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Happy New Year - The Holiday Creep

Happy New Year to those still following this infrequently posted blog. I hope that you had as good a holiday as I had!

I hate to recycle old material, but in keeping with the burgeoning green economy, I'm re-doing last year's Christmas song. I don't think I did such a hot job on the recording you might have seen on the blog from last year, so here's a newer, pared-down version of a tune I wrote called "The Holiday Creep".

Based on the kind reaction from several friends whose opinion I trust, I may post more of the many songs I've written, but haven't had the stomach to share with you before this.  Thanks friends and you know who you are...  :)

News to report: my band, the Buck and a Quarter Quartet, starts 2 residencies this month,

The first at Freddy's Bar on 5th Ave and 18th Street in Brooklyn's South Park Slope area, where we play the second Friday of every month at 8-9 p.m.  The second residency is at one of my favorite places to eat and drink, Jimmy's, which is at 43 East 7th Street, and we play there the last Thursday of every month, 9-12 p.m. We'll be joined there by special guests from the traditional jazz community.

Now, you might say, "Hey, John, that's not a quartet."  To that, I would reply, "Yeah. So?"

Keep on strumming and Happy New Year!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Why" Jelly Roll Morton

Not a lot to say about this number, learned from listening to Leon Redbone and Stovepipe Daddy.  Try finding the music for this one, I dares ya.

It's a tune I'm told is from 1938, though it feels like Jelly Roll Morton might have written it earlier, but not published it before then.  Jelly Roll always used to make statements like "I invented jazz" and even though you have to figure a large ego was at work, when you take everything he wrote and recorded into account, he may actually be judged as correct.

"Why?" is played in C, on Prince Wong's Martin Style 2 from the early 20's.  By the way, the uke was stained dark by Prince Wong or someone on his behalf, in case you're wondering why it is nearly black.

Enjoy, if possible.

Monday, February 10, 2014

"That's Why They Call Me Shine"

Written in 1910, lyrics by Cecil Mack and Lew Brown and music by Ford Dabney, "That's Why They Call Me Shine" became a jazz standard. Nowadays, it gets played a lot more than it gets sung.

The reason is pretty simple: it's hard to sing the lyrics. They are seemingly rooted in the 'coon song' tradition, and are full of the kind of references you associate with blackface performance, but it's actually not that simple a tune.

For 1910, "Shine's" theme was a surprising one for popular music - it wasn't minstrelsy so much as a commentary on it, and it may or may not have been inspired by an incident in the NY City race riot of 1900.

I haven't done the verse here, only the refrain, but I have the lyrics to both below from the original sheet music:

When I was born they christened me plain Samuel Johnson Brown
But I hadn't grown so very big, 'fore some folks in this town
Had changed it 'round to "Sambo"; I was "Rastus" to a few
Then "Chocolate Drop" was added by some others that I knew
And then to cap the climax, I was strolling down the line
When someone shouted, "Fellas, hey! Come on and pipe the shine!"
But I don't care a bit. Here's how I figure it:

Well, just because my hair is curly
And just because my teeth are pearly
Just because I always wear a smile
Likes to dress up in the latest style
Just because I'm glad I'm livin'
Take troubles smilin', never whine
Just because my color's shady,
Slightly different, maybe
That's why they call me shine.

The first time I heard the verse was back in 1980 or so when I bought Ry Cooder's excellent album "Jazz", which really is an amazing record.

I love Remco Houtman Jensen's (Ukulelezaza's) take on this tune, and my approach is fully inspired by his fantastic version, here heard in a medley with "Five-Foot-Two".

Both ukuleles are Ludwig Wendell Halls from the late 20's, a great instrument. Mine has been made even easier to play by the great repair work of Mamie Minch, who runs Brooklyn Lutherie with Chloe Swantner. I recommend their shop highly for all your fretted instrument or violin repairs!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas - The Holiday Creep

Happy holidays to you, if you're checking this before or during the big Christmas day-off. If you're like me, and God help you if you are, you celebrate a combination of Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and Saturnalia, with heavy emphasis on the last one (ie. drinking, feasting, gift giving, the tree - all Saturnalia contributions, by the way), but instead of a slave, we traditionally sacrifice a couple of lasagnas.

Speaking of tradition, I was immensely happy to have been included in Meg Reichardt and Kurt Hoffman's tradition. Meg and Kurt are the nucleus of Les Chauds Lapins, the truly wonderful banjo-uke focused sting quintet that plays the pop and jazz of of 1920s-1940's France. Every year, they host a holiday recording party in which Meg records an entire album of original holiday songs composed especially for that year's get together. Just take a look at who's on the album and you'll see I'm playing above my weight.

I had a great time and was truly honored to have been invited to join in on several songs, in addition to playing my own tune, "The Holiday Creep".

Have a happy holiday, whichever one you celebrate, and do remember what they're really all about: hanging out with people you love, and eating and drinking just a little too much.

~ John

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Joy of Plastic

Wow. Wait a minute! Is that...? Yes, it really is!

A Flamingo!

OK, perhaps I wouldn't be as excited about this little plastic Flamingo ukulele if it weren't for the fact that Ms. Page is holding it en déshabillé, but there are plenty of people out there right now, after seeing this, who are excited by...plastic ukuleles, God help them.

This particular instrument is a molded styrene-plastic concoction, and these and millions like them were inspired by or built by guitar designer and maker Mario Maccaferri. They were produced in the fifties, and surprisingly, they aren't junk - not by a longshot. I've got many friends who collect plastics, play them and will go to lengths to keep them playable (plastic has a tendency to degrade over time, and the top is sometimes in need of shoring up after decades of being under tension from the strings). They aren't rare, and there are many kinds, but the best are those built by Maccaferri: the Islander and the TV Pal. They're real instruments, fun to play, and certainly unique in sound.

For years, I'd been told that the other popular plastic uke of the 50's, the Mastro TV Pal, was the main competitor to Maccaferri's Islander range. Nope. They are both Maccaferris, as evidenced by the identical bridge and saddle construction, headstock, neck, fretboard and just about everything else about them. Turns out that Mastro is the name of the company that did the injection molding of the Maccaferri TV Pal instrument (a company in which Maccaferri had a controlling interest). Earlier models don't say Mastro on them, but they were also molded by Mastro.
Whether they said Mastro on them or not, Maccaferri still got the lion's share of the between $2.70 and, later, $5.95 that they cost the American suburbanite. A pretty good value, regardless of the material of construction. Here's me playing a TV Pal at Rivington Guitars last year. It sounds...well, pretty good, even if I don't!

And it turns out that the name 'TV Pal' is a tribute to Mr. Maccaferri's TV pal - the fellow who endorsed his instruments on his coast-to-coast broadcast in the early 50's - Arthur Godfrey. Most of you will know that Godfrey was the popularizer of the baritone uke, a new instrument at that time. He also played tenor banjo in Chicago tuning, and rumor has it, he wasn't a very nice man. My grandmother - not very nice herself - loved him, for what that's worth.

Here's another uke Godfrey endorsed - The Flamingo, though slightly different from Betty's above. This one is fitted with a Maccaferri device - with Godfrey's name right on it - the patented 'uke player,' which allows you to play six chords with just the press of a button. Like the Maccaferri, the Flamingo was manufactured in durable 'Styron.' The Flamingo was the chief competitor to Maccaferri's plastics. I've never played one, so can't vouch for its qualities.

Apparently, sopranos aren't the only ukes that Macaferri made. Here's my friend Chris Tarman, who is a great player and has some amazing ukuleles, with an excellent view of his ultra-rare Macaferri Islander baritone ukulele. Note the amazingly helpful cut out that allows the player to fret the uke right up to the sound hole! Macaferri also offered a TV Pal baritone uke, in addition to the soprano.

So, it turns out that while the prop person over at Irving Klaw's photographic establishment on West 14th probably just went out and got the cheapest ukulele they could find for Betty, they picked one of a type that has become oddly collectible, very playable and certainly the object of much affection.

Still, as nice as it is, I find it very easy to look past the neat little plastic ukulele in these photos. I wonder why?

Hmmmm... I'll think about that one upon closer study...