I'd Rather Switch Than Quit
Updated: Oct 1, 2018
There have been times that photographs have gotten reversed in the printing process and a right-handed banjo player appeared in BNL as left handed. The photographs of Jack Baker in this issue are not in error. As you will read in the interview, he changed from a right-handed picker to the left side out of necessity...
For at least twenty years. Jack Baker has been a friend of mine. And although his name might be unfamiliar to bluegrass musicians outside the New York metropolitan area, he has long been involved in many aspects of the music - playing, teaching, session work
and more. For example, he played banjo for many of the Sesame Street educational films (animations). And he happens to be an accomplished guitarist in the Chet Atkins style as well.
Tall and lanky with an engaging smile and a youthful vigor, Jack lives in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, where he operates the Fretted Instruments School of Folk Music, referred to by the New Yorker magazine as "the Julliard in its field."
Originally from the greater Baltimore, Maryland area, Jack grew up in a large family (seven brothers and eight sisters!) on a dairy farm. At the age of eight Jack began to play the ukelele, but soon switched to the guitar. Then one evening after his chores, his parents took him out to see a drive-in movie, and he was bitten by the bug.
Let's let Jack take it from there...
BK: TeII us bout the first time you heard Bluegrass music.
JB: I went to a drive in movie with my family in the late 1950's, and during the intermission, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys performed with Buck Graves and Paul Warren. The sound of Earl's banjo had an incredible impact on me - the tone, the power ,the smooth even attack, the pure acoustic drive, just took me over. Within a few weeks I had bought my first banjo, a Silvertone, from Sears & Roebuck, for $35, and searched out some records.
In those days around Baltimore where I grew up, there was very little bluegrass on the radio. There was some Country and Western; you'd hear Little Jimmy Dickens, Webb Pierce, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, and Patsy Kline, but you'd rarely if ever hear a banjo. Occasionally I'd hitch-hike up to the Rising Sun Ranch to see some of the bands I had heard about like Don Reno & Red Smiley and 'the Tennessee Cutups, Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatt and the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Larry Richardson.
The only way to learn was from records, so I slowed 78s down to 45 rpm, trying to duplicate what I heard. Of course, at that time there was no tablature available, and I didn't have a teacher. So for the first five years or so I figured things out from records.
When I was about 18 I joined the Navy, and for two years I was stationed in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. I used to take advantage of every spare moment to play, sometimes with a shipmate who played guitar. When I got out of the Navy I decided to stay in Honolulu, and formed a group called "The Barkantine Three", playing songs by the Weavers, the Brothers Four, and other folk-revival groups.
We would occasionally include some traditional bluegrass tunes, which got a great reaction from the audience.
Every Saturday evening I played on Don Ho's show, where he introduced me as "that boy from the mainland who plays that nervous banjo," and I'd usually play Flint Hill Special; the tuners usually turned people on.
In the late 1960's I decided to move on, and I went to New York City to get involved in the growing folk scene and got a job as the manager of the Figaro coffee house. I used to play in the club, also in some other clubs in Greenwich Village, where I got to know Emmy Lou Harris, Paul Seibel, David Bromberg and Phoebe Snow.
I also met Izzy Young (the proprietor of the Folklore Center) and Mark Silber, who ran the Fretted Instruments Shop, and Mark hired me to teach there.
When he moved to San Fransisco, I took over the business and renamed "The Fretted Instruments School of Folk Music." Some of the people we now consider to be well known taught there, including John Burke, Happy Traum and Artie Rosenbaum .
Every Sunday afternoon there would be an impromptu jam session in Washington Square Park, with pickers like Roger Sprung, Eric Weissberg, David Grisman, Bill Keith, Mark Horowitz, Steve Arkin, Steve Mandell, Bob Yellin, Artie Rose, Arnie Solomon, and Ralph Rinzler. There was quite a collection of bluegrass talent in the Village in those days.
It was during that period that I received a phone call from Children's Television Workshop - they needed a banjo player who could read music. So I auditioned and got the job, and made sound-tracks for about 15 of the early Sesame Street films, matching the banjo music to the scenes I saw on the monitor.
And then one day in 1968, it happened, Like a bolt of lightning. Gene Tambor and I were playing in a club with our group, the New York Frets, when in the midst of a fast song my index finger seemed to freeze up; it didn't want to respond. I was totally bewildered. So I went to see a specialist, who diagnosed a condition called "Dupuytren's Contractor", which affects the tendons passing through the center of the palm. The doctors told me that the position of my hand, with the wrist turned hard to the right, made the condition worse.
After an operation which corrected this condition, things were OK, but after about two years, I had to have a second operation. Five years later, another recurrence led me to decide that the best way to continue to play would be to relearn the banjo left-handed. And I decided this time to keep my wrist straight, lowering the banjo to let the arm fall on the armrest at a more natural angle.
During this time, I was studying music at New York University and I got my BA degree in Composition, and began my master's degree. I had always had an interest in writing, so to generate some more business I began to write a "teach-in" column for Sing Out magazine, and did some articles for Frets magazine. I also edited Peter Wernick's book "How to play the Five--string Banjo," and Tony Trischka's first banjo instruction book.
I want to emphasize that although my formal musical education may have helped me on a creative level, I don't think it helped me in a measurable way with my banjo playing. I do believe, however, that working with a competent teacher is very important in the early stages of learning an instrument as technically demanding as the banjo.
I continued to teach, using tapes, and confirmed my decision to learn re-play left-handed. In the mid 1970's I went down to stay with Tom Morgan in Tennessee, who made me a left-handed neck.
When I began to play left-handed, it was terribly frustrating and demoralizing, even terrifying. It was even more difficult than starting from scratch, because I could still do everything right-handed. It took about a year before I could do a simple slide or pull-off without my hand falling off the edge of the neck. I also experienced side effects like being totally off-balance - I stumbled around like I had lost my internal gyroscope. It was as though I had to retrain the entire thinking process. I was so upset that at one point I threw a new banjo across the room. Luckily it landed on the bed, and wasn't damaged.
So I said: "Let's get back to basics," and started slowly, working on the simplest maneuvers, for at least a year, as if I were my own student, working on simple tunes like Cripple Creek, Cumberland Gap , and Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
I went to see Tony Trischka looking for advice. He was extremely helpful and patient, and worked with me for about a year to help me over this hurdle.
I still play the guitar right-handed, keeping my wrist completely straight, an since I'm now playing banjo left-handed, not all the of playing is put on the right wrist.
If anyone else has had this problem or a similar one, my advice would be to have patience, perseverance, positive attitude. Just don't quit. For me, the choice was either to give up the banjo entirely or to learn to play left-handed. And the pleasure from playing made it worth all the effort.
BK: What are your current projects?
JB: The Fretted Instrument School is going in full swing, with Marty Laster teaching fiddle and Allan Feldman and Hank Sapoznik teaching old-time banjo. I teach bluegrass banjo and
I've also been working with the Parks Department in New York to organize some bluegrass concerts and square-dances at the band shell in Central Park, with a group I put together (Marty Laster on fiddle, Richard Smith on mandolin, and Rick Palley on bass). We've also played some square-dances with Gene Yellin on guitar and vocals, and Bill Keith on banjo (on these occasions I switched to guitar). Kenny Kosek occasionally substitutes for Marty on fiddle.
For several years I've been tutoring first and second year Music Theory majors in four-part writing and Chorale composition. I like to keep up my contacts with NYU and the classical music scene.
BK: How would you describe your teaching style?
JB: I spend a lot of time organizing and preparing materials for my lessons. One of the most important things I do is to introduce people to the classics in Bluegrass music - Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Don Reno, etc. Correct technique and posture is also important. Undoing bad habits is more difficult than learning it right the first time. I also think of people as friends more than customers, and whenever possible, I stretch the students time. I teach with tablature which I make from recorded examples, using two breaks from each tune where possible to show variations. I also stress the importance of counting, making clean slides (the 2nd to 3rd, 2nd to 4th fret), and accurate chokes at the 10th fret.
BK: How do you deal with the disadvantages of tablature?
JB: The purpose of the note-for-note tabs is to build the student's confidence. Then I think it is imperative for students to get away from the tabs and express themselves. So after a year or two, I try to wean students from the tablature, and encourage them to find their own way to play a tune, keeping the melody but finding their own licks. At first this can be scary, but once the groundwork is laid and the positive attitude and confidence are there, it can be done.
I've made up a tape of 53 songs with first and second breaks. This helps the student appreciate the banjo in context of the band and hear how the banjo fills the role of backup, which I consider one of the most important and difficult things a banjo picker must learn. Accompanying tablatures help the student grow beyond the initial tab ,
I also like to have picking parties for all my students to encourage them to play with other musicians. I stress the importance of listening to the other musicians (playing softly when others are playing lead) and inter-reacting with them. I remember hearing Bill Monroe say that it is important that everybody has his time to shine, but that playing in a band is a cooperative effort made by and for the group, not a forum for one person to dominate.
BK: What musicians influenced you the most?
JB: I admire Earl Scruggs for making a revolutionary spring bringing about the transition from the broken three-finger roll to the smooth bluegrass style and establishing the banjo in the foreground of the music with drive and great tone. Don Reno's incredibly daring chord work stimulated my own use of chords. And you, Bill, your contribution of the melodic style was more evolutionary, bringing something new to the music.
I'd also like to mention that Chet Atkins has for a long time ranked high up there as one of my favorite musicians, and I've collected all of his albums and learned many of his arrangements. In fact, I spend as much time playing guitar as I do playing banjo. But that's a whole other story...
Banjo NewsLetter, August 1991