Pick of the Week

Banjo Bonanza

Think banjo, and certain memories may come to mind, depending on your age: watching the Mickie Finn Show on NBC in 1966--which featured banjoist Don Val Palta; having dinner at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in the '70s--where banjo tunes filled the air; and hearing the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies--about a man named Jed--starting in 1962.

While the banjo may have been more popular in the past, enthusiasts are eager to share the versatility and music of their beloved instrument. In the early 2000s, RV and banjo lovers gathered in Dewey, Ariz., for annual banjo blasts--where performers, teachers and fans would gather for several days to play, learn and spread the word.

When plans for this year's Dewey blast fell through, local banjoist Rob Wright found a place to hold the event in Tucson. Wright, a banjo player since the age of 10, is a member of The Original Wildcat Jass Band, a traditional jazz band that performs throughout the Southwest.

The Arizona Banjo Blast takes place from Thursday, March 30, through Saturday, April 1, at the Riverpark Inn, 350 S. Freeway Road. Registration begins at 9 a.m. each day. Tickets are $25 or $10 per day at the door. For a complete schedule of events, visit the Banjo Blast Web site. Call 544-0476 for more information.

Wright says it's a bit of an anomaly to have the lineup of performers he has gathered. The headliners are Dick and Helen Martin, but Wright admits many of the others could be headliners as well. Banjo Hall of Fame inductee Don Van Palta will be on hand, as well as Jack Convery, Dave Frey, Barry Grant, Tyler Jackson, Scott Whitfield, the Dallas Banjo Band and others, including Wright's Wildcats.

The event offers participants a chance to play in jam sessions, take a look at merchandise and listen to their favorite performers. Workshops will be offered by Van Palta, Frey and others. Proceeds from the event will go toward the next blast and possibly music scholarships, depending on how much money is raised. Wright expects visitors from California to New York, but hopes to make a local impact as well.

"This (event) is about furthering the banjo. My hope is we can uncover some of the local banjo people and for others to come out and say, 'I want to do this,'" he says.

While more people play the five-string banjo--popular in bluegrass and country music--Wright says his event features performers who play plectrum banjos, which are four-string instruments.

"This is more strumming with a pick, not picking with three fingers. You are strumming the banjo. The most common place to see four-string banjos are in Dixieland bands," explains Wright.

Another four-string enthusiast to perform at the blast is Jack Convery, who explains more about his instrument via e-mail. "The four-string banjo, which the banjo blast is promoting, has been a part of America's musical history since the late 1700s. It is in danger of passing into history, as not many young people play it anymore. Although many people still play the five-string banjo, the four-string banjo has nearly been forgotten."

Wright and Convery want to keep the music alive, and with other performers, will showcase the four-string banjo and its versatility. "You'll hear a whole array (of music) during the evening performances--from modern jazz, popular standards and showtunes," says Wright.

Showtune lovers may hear music from Oklahoma!, The Phantom of the Opera, The Music Man and others, as Van Palta is apt to play some of these during his performances. "In our genre, he's kind of a legend," explains Wright. "He's the reason I started. He was my hero as a kid."

Van Palta, who lives in Southern Arizona, came to the United States at the age of 14 from Holland. The year was 1946, and Van Palta "bought a banjo out of a hock shop window." His interest in the instrument started when he was in Holland.

"After the war, we got movies from England featuring a banjo/ukulele player named George Formby. The banjo/ukulele sounded like a banjo. He did some fancy strokes on that. It got me interested in the banjo.

"It was tough going in those days. There were no teachers, no banjo music. Eddie Peabody was going strong, and I got some of his records. There were 78 rpm, but I played them at 33 1/3 so it would be half-speed. I could tell what he was doing, and that was one way I learned. After struggling five years, I found a teacher."

Van Palta began playing at the original Shakey's Pizza in Sacramento, Calif., in 1954. His long career includes playing on the Mickie Finn Show on NBC--with guests including Vic Damone, Johnny Rivers and Bobby Darin--and performing for 23 years on cruise ships around the world. Today, Van Palta performs at retirement homes, rehab units and similar venues. Van Palta also teaches the banjo, "by video and DVD to students all over the world."

Van Palta says he plays everything from Stephen Foster to Rhapsody in Blue. He also likes to talk to the audience and tell jokes during his performances. "That's what I enjoy--seeing people smile, clapping and laughing. That's the fun."

With varied music, workshops, jam sessions and famous performers, the Arizona Banjo Blast is set to bring fun to its participants. "It's happy music," says Convery. "You can't play a sad song on a banjo."

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