Last September, the Tacoma Banjo Club celebrated its 26th birthday. Founded in 1985, the group of musicians is still going strong. Although the average club member is 75 years old, these are not your average seniors. These are folk who get out and perform and practice on their instruments three or four times a week. Judging by their attitude, they have a lot of fun doing it too.
“We have a great time, it’s like a family,” said Colleen Delaney at a recent rehearsal session. “Its like a family,” she said of membership in the club.
Club membership is open to anyone with interest in the banjo. There are also three tuba players, a pair of piano players (who rotate their duties) and a washboard player. One does not need to be a senior to join the band. Currently there are members in their 50s. Banjo playing children are known to have played with the group. Two of the present members, however, are in their 90s and are still going strong.
In the hands of these elder musicians, the banjo is made into an instrument of vitality. Their music works as an elixir of life, seeming to fill the players with a joyful zest.
“We’re all hams at heart,” confided Jeanne Wheelock, who has been with the club almost since the beginning of its existence.
“We’re open to anyone with a four-string banjo,” said club President Gary Hauenstein. He explained that the four-string instrument (unlike the five-string, bluegrass banjo) is used for the music of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s that are the group’s bread and butter. Currently the club boasts in the neighborhood of 30 banjo players.
The group meets every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon for rehearsals, which the public is invited to attend free of charge. These are held at the new STAR Center, Metro Parks’ new facility (located at 3873 S. 66th Street).
During these free and easy sessions audience members can delight in such favorites as “Carolina in the Morning,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “The Tennessee Waltz.” There are jaunty polkas and tunes from the roaring ‘20s. The audience sings along to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” While many of the songs are instrumental, club members sometimes take the microphone to sing, as when silky-voiced Delaney sang “Charlie My Boy” or when club M.C. John Hipkins sings the “Too Fat Polka” in his gravelly voice. Driven by Betty Cooley’s jaunty piano and supported by the brass um-pa-pa of the tubas, the multitude of banjos puts up a wall of twang – a melodic buzz of taunt strings strummed by many hands.
The club performs at rest homes and retirement centers, at weddings and funerals. Every year they play at the Western Washington Fair in Puyallup. Often the group participates in events that raise money for charitable causes and organizations. The group is also central to the Western Washington 4 String Banjo Festival that will take place June 1, 2 and 3 at the Little Creek Casino in Shelton.
Anyone with pluck or with a hankering for some banjo should get his or her keister to the STAR Center to witness a Friday morning performance. The comedian Steve Martin once said that you can’t play a sad song on the banjo. “It’s such a happy instrument,” he said. Judging from the faces of the members of the Tacoma Banjo Club, Martin had it just about right.
For further information on the Tacoma Banjo Club visit their website. The club also has a Facebook presence: enter “Tacoma Banjo” in the site’s search box. Those interested in membership or performances can contact Hauenstein at email@example.com.