Come to one of the East Bay Banjo Club's many events and it won't be long before there's a smile on your face. On stage or grouped together, you're apt to see between 20 and 30 banjo players, along with a gut bucket, washboard, tuba and bass, all nattily decked out in their formal uniform of black pants, white shirt, black bowtie and flashy gold lame vest.

Accompanied by vocalists singing lyrics from "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Bye Bye Blues" or the Beatles' "Eight Days a Week," the band is there to entertain and get your toes tapping to their four-string, flat-picked banjo jazz.

If you go on to talk to a member of the club, the word "fun" will be liberally sprinkled throughout the conversation -- a fun instrument, fun music and a fun group of people.

Founded in 1963 as a nonprofit organization, the East Bay Banjo Club is dedicated to the spirit of happy banjo music, playing at various civic and private events and donating earnings to a number of charitable organizations, including the We Care Center, Las Trampas School and the Bay Area Crisis Center.

Members are not surprised that the club is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. "Why have we been successful, I can tell you that in a heartbeat -- it's fun," said Bill Cooper, musical director. "We're there to have fun. The music is what brings us together and banjo is such a happy instrument."


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Concord resident Sheila Welt, club president, has been a member for three years and learned to play the banjo with the club. "We're successful because we take people who want to learn to play the banjo," she said. "We're a teaching group and we all help each other."

Cooper, of Concord, represents the club's old-timers; he's been a member for 49 years and musical director for 34 and is responsible for how the band sounds.

"I've always enjoyed the music from the early part of the 20th century, which makes up the backbone of what we play, but we do tunes from all eras," Cooper said. "If it's a good song we'll play it."

Antioch's Jim Blankenship is the club librarian, in charge of the 250 songs every member has in their binders.

"I love playing the banjo and the four-string banjo is kind of fading out," he said.

The club meets weekly to practice at Bambino's Restaurant in preparation for playing at civic events, private parties, and senior and retirement homes.

"Each one is different but they're all fun," Welt said. "It depends on the audience -- some people get up and dance, some sing with us, some just sit and listen. When we play 'The Saints Go Marching In' we encourage people to form a conga line and follow us around the room."

Though the club numbers around 80 members, ranging from two youngsters, both 7, to others in their 90s, they are always looking for more, and the qualities that set this club apart also make it attractive to new banjo musicians.

"We allow virtual beginners to come in; we have banjos for sale or lease and can get them hooked up with a teacher," Cooper said. "From day one of learning, they're completely part of the band."

"They start from zero and work their way up," Blankenship added. "They assimilate the music by sitting in there and playing and learning one chord at a time."

Three years into the club, Welt is feeling pretty good about her banjo playing and describes the group as user-friendly. So if "banjo" and "fun" strike a chord, the East Bay Banjo Club's enthusiastic, welcoming members have a music binder and chair waiting for you.

East BAy Banjo CLUB
When: Meets Tuesdays from 7 to 9 p.m.
Where: Bambino's Restaurant, 1895 Farm Bureau Road, Concord. The practice sessions are open to the public.
Info: Sheila Welt at 925-689-4643 or www.eastbaybanjo.org