Straight-ahead Jazz For Banjo, from Pat Cloud

Playing jazz on the five string banjo is a daunting task. The instrument is not laid out well for the sort of long, linear passages common in jazz, and not many banjo players have done the homework necessary to really get their heads around jazz harmony.

Sure…  Béla Fleck has recorded with Chick Corea, and Ryan Cavanaugh with sax man Bill Evans – both brilliantly, by the way – but serious attempts at developing jazz chops for banjo are few and far between.

Even less common are the sort of “how to” manuals that exist for most other instruments on which one might hope to bop. David Crisler has two very good volumes on this subject, and a new one from Pat Cloud due for publication by Mel Bay this spring will be a very valuable addition.

Pat is a west coast banjo picker long known for his passion for both bluegrass and straight-ahead jazz. He has one current title with Mel Bay, Key to Five String Banjo (1999), and has spent a lifetime developing the skills and techniques required to excel in both genres.

Unless you follow avant-garde banjo music closely, you may not be familiar with Pat or his music. Much of his performing career has been spent in Japan, and he has not toured extensively with bluegrass bands. I caught up with him earlier this week to find out what he has been doing, and get a few details about the new book he has just completed.

The book will be titled Straight-ahead Jazz For Banjo, and is designed as a method book for banjo pickers who want to start an exploration of jazz harmony and technique on the five string.

“Yes, I have it confirmed from Mel Bay that they are going to release the new book sometime this spring.

I am currently playing plectrum banjo full time at Disneyland in Anaheim in a dixieland band (four horn players, and a drummer – all flat keys). I still play and love bluegrass (always my first love!) and I am working on a new Django Reinhardt style CD this year.

The book has some 97 jazz foundation exercises on CD and 36 original jazz phrases which will be downloadable for free from the Mel Bay site. It was originally proffered 7 years ago to Bill Bay as a jazz phrase book, and I started to expand it until it included explanations for the theory that the phrases infer.”

I got a sneak peek at the finished volume, and it is every bit as comprehensive as Pat’s overview suggests. He said he felt as though it was his “life’s work” – understandable after three major rewrites – and it will serve as a very useful study tool for any banjo player who wants to learn some basic harmony and theory for banjo, whether they have an interest in approaching jazz or not.

Pat also tells me that he has begun offering banjo lessons online.

“I have just started this webcam lesson deal and so far it has been very good. I use Skype and I offer a custom lesson with a custom PDF of some of the things covered, or a PDF which is pre-prepared for whatever the student requests. My students seem to like it and so do I.”

You can contact Pat from his web site, where you can also hear a number of audio samples of his playing.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.