Given the sorrow created by the deaths of John Sheridan and Phil Schaap, I felt the need for a different kind of post.
Todd Bryant Weeks, author of the fine biography of Hot Lips Page, LUCK’S IN MY CORNER, sent me the unidentified photograph below. He told me that the sender was a high school friend. “The face looked familiar and I thought he was quizzing me… But in fact it is from an old family scrapbook, and the owner of the scrapbook has passed away recently.” Todd added, “There is little or nothing to go on. The photograph was likely taken between 1950 and 1965 and may well have been taken in Massachusetts, possibly on the campus of Amherst College. The owner of the scrapbook is now deceased and his memory of the photograph was not clear enough to remember the time nor the location.”
Todd thought — and I hope — that some JAZZ LIVES readers might recognize this genial fellow. But beware: not everyone is or was famous.
See below! for a lovely answer to the question, provided by the wise Youngblood Colin Hancock, who knows.
And this just in, from eBay:
I can find nothing on either band.
The two pieces of tantalizing ephemera just remind me of a line from HAMLET: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your Jazz History books.”
Or, more seriously, there are always people playing and singing — documented only by a snapshot or perhaps as “Harlem’s Snappiest Night Club Entertainers,” than the books can contain. And that, whether at this distance or just two weeks ago, seems a wonderful thing, that the energetic music we cherish is overflowing its banks all the time, even if Ralph Peer of Victor wasn’t there to offer those bands a contract or no one can recall the banjoist’s name.
Here’s what Colin says about the happy man with the banjo:
The last addition to the Blue Ribbon Syncopators was banjoist Robert ‘Gil’ Roberts. Born on April 5, 1896 in Amherst, MA, he was a descendant of a prominent Black Massachusetts family that had fought in the Civil War as members of the legendary 5th Massachusetts Cavalry, the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and Connecticut 29th Colored Infantry. Roberts took up the banjo at a young age, and eventually found his way to Buffalo’s North side where he met George West and joined the Blue Ribbons. He performed with them on all of their recordings for both Okeh and Columbia. He left the band in 1928, eventually travelling to Europe with “Eubie Blake’s Blackbirds” in the early 1930s. He later went on to perform with Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong, before settling in Boston, then his hometown of Amherst, MA. He lived there working around Amherst College as a handyman, but also serving as a guardian to the limited number of African-American students at the school. He also was an honorary member of the New Black Eagle Jazz Band, performing with them for many years. He lived to be 106, passing away peacefully on October 6, 2002.
Roberts was more than a man with a banjo. Take the time to read this, please:
May your happiness increase!