Why George Segal Plays the Banjo

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Tribute today to George Segal (b. 1934). Most of us know him as a likable comic (sometimes dramatic) actor and (like Elliott Gould and Dustin Hoffman) one of the first generation of New Yorky Jewish males to achieve leading man status in Hollywood, as opposed to being a) comedians, b) character actors, or c) downplaying their identity. Though Segal started getting national exposure in the early 60s, I think of his peak as the mid-1970s, in movies like Robert Altman’s California Split (1974), The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox with Goldie Hawn (1976), the disaster movie Rollercoaster (1977), and the comedy Fun with Dick and Jane with Jane Fonda (1977). Younger people know him from his stints as a regular on the sit-coms Just Shoot Me (1997-2003) and The Goldbergs (now). But what I really want to talk to you about is why George Segal plays the banjo.

If you’ve ever seen Segal on a talk show (or increasingly in the context of a role he’s supposed to be playing, like on a sit-com) surely you must be aware that he plays the banjo. You know this because he foists it upon you, he imposes it like an obnoxious relative, one who enjoys being obnoxious and relishes your eye-rolling. His enthusiasm for the instrument is child-like, always has been, and God bless him for it. Segal’s thing is Dixieland and that’s the thing I want to talk about, because as time goes on, and audiences get younger and younger, it seems to me that when he does his thing he must be increasingly hanging out there like a lost puzzle piece. A single puzzle piece, lacking the rest of the puzzle. He just kind of seems like a kook, or the last dodo, because there’s never any context for it. And there actually IS some context. Did you ever stop to wonder “Why Dixieland?” That style was well on the way to being over when Segal was born! But fortunately there are other pieces of the puzzle out there, and when you start to put them together it starts to add up to an interesting thread of jazz and pop culture history.

Here’s another piece of the puzzle, a clue, hanging out there in plain sight. Woody Allen, who plays clarinet in trad jazz bands, is about the same age as Segal. As is the cartoonist R. Crumb, who plays banjo in the same types of bands. (These examples will grate on actual jazz fans because they are merely celebrities from other fields who play jazz for pleasure. As it happens there are guys in the field who’ve devoted their whole lives to it, but their names are less well known to the general public. The best known outfit is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band). But think for a minute how old these guys are. They’re the wrong age. When they were young adults in the late 50s and early 60s, the mainstream music embraced by the older generation was big band inflected pop (Frank Sinatra); younger people listened to rock and roll or folk. So where are these other guys coming from?

Here’s your context!

First we have to rewind. Originally what we now call “Dixieland” was just jazz, right? In the teens and twenties that New Orleans style, with lots of simultaneous improvisation, and a line-up that included banjo, clarinet, trombone and trumpet or cornet (adapted from marching bands) was what defined the music. But then, in the 1930s and 40s the music began to change. Big bands and then swing became popular, with sophisticated arrangements, and guys using charts, and improvisation restricted to solos by key instruments at certain moments. Now, those of us who are interested in pop culture history have a simplistic tendency to think about everything as a progression. Thus, when you talk about jazz history, it tends to be: “Early jazz, followed by big band, followed by be bop, followed by free jazz and fusion, etc.” But in reality it’s never been that clean. When big band and swing became popular with mainstream audiences, there were many holdouts in the jazz community who were insistent on maintaining the purity of the earlier style. They became known pejoratively within the jazz community as “moldy figs”: conservative, reactionary, resistant to the new. To be playing what we now call Dixieland, the style of 1918, was considered pretty uncool in 1938.

By the time of be bop in the 1940s, this musical argument achieved greater clarity. Be bop itself was a radical movement with a fringe audience at best. In some ways it was a return to the anarchy of jazz’s beginnings, but in many other ways it broke new ground. The moldy figs became like jazz’s extreme right wing to be bop’s extreme left wing, for it was just as radical, just as eccentric a choice. By the 1950s, the choice to be a moldy fig became a lot cooler. Young people don’t have the baggage older people do about the styles their parents are backing away from. Louis Armstrong, one of the inventors of jazz, had a lot of hit records in the 50s and 60s. Dave Van Ronk writes about this period in The Mayor of MacDougal Street; early in his career he came down on the side of the moldy figs and played banjo in Dixieland bands, which were popular and got bookings in the 1950s!  And if you think about it, it begins to make a lot of sense. There would be this kind of crossover between trad jazz and folk, for example. Early mainstream folk had a lot of banjo in it. Looking backwards for inspiration was big. Trad jazz was even more popular in the U.K. (I wrote a bit about this in No Applause) and a lot of this crossed over into rock and roll and pyschedelia in the 60s. The Lovin’ Spoonful originally played jug band music; Janis Joplin had initially sung classic blues in the Bessie Smith style; and Paul McCartney had a grounding in trad jazz because of his father. The list is long.

So this the context. George Segal began playing in Dixieland bands in college in the 1950s, because oddly enough, there was an audience for it then! It was kind of hip! By 1967, thanks to his success as an actor, he was able to record his first Dixieland record The Yama Yama Man (named after the 1908 song). In 1974 he released another album A Touch of Ragtime. By that time Dixieland was WAY out of fashion again at least in the kind of versions he put out on the record. But Segal never stopped playing with various trad jazz ensembles throughout his career. And now we’ve reached a unique time when there is a simultaneous subculture for every style of music, be it Dixieland, be bop, doo wop or 80s technopop. And burlesque and vaudeville too have toeholds however tenuous.

Here’s Segal with Teresa Brewer performing Alexander’s Ragtime Band. His banjo playing is a little buried in this arrangement though!

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500  

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