Charlie Tagawa

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Charlie Tagawa
Charlie Tagawa, music director of the Peninsula Banjo Band
Background information
Birth name Zenzo Tagawa
Also known as Japan's 'Harry Reser'
Born (1935-10-27) 27 October 1935 (age 79)
Origin Tokyo, Japan
Genres Dixieland, Ragtime, Music of the early 1900s, 1920s, and 1930s.
Occupation(s) Entertainer and musician, music teacher, former chef & restaurant owner
Instruments Four-string banjo, tenor and plectrum
Years active 1956–present
Associated acts Ken Aoki, Fred "Mickey" Finn, Bill Lowrey, Peter Mezoian, Kevin McCabe, Sean Moyses, Don van Palta, Scotty Plummer, Cynthia Sayer, Georgette Twain, Buddy Wachter.
Notable instruments
4-string Banjo, tenor and plectrum

Charlie Tagawa (born October 27, 1935) is a Japanese-American musical entertainer, banjoist, and Japanese immigrant. His musical career has spanned seven decades and as a critically acclaimed performer he is regarded as one of the best (contemporary) banjo players and arguably one of the all-time best.[1] He performs regularly across the U.S. and in Japan where he is known professionally as Japan's 'Harry Reser'. A 2003 inductee into the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame,[2] Tagawa often performs as the headline act at banjo jazz festivals and shows. He is also the international good will ambassador for the Peninsula Banjo Band.

Early career[edit]

Charlie Tagawa in the 1980s

Born in Tokyo, Japan, a 21-year-old Tagawa was introduced to the banjo by one of Japan's top banjoists and recording artists, Takashi Tsunoda, in 1956.[3] Although he started on guitar, he found his calling upon picking up a four-string tenor banjo. Shortly thereafter Tagawa purchased a used tenor banjo for US$20.00. After graduating from Senshu University with a degree in Economics, he became a student of Tsunoda's. Tagawa was an apt student and quickly developed a style and manner of his own.[4] After three months of lessons and practicing Tagawa became a professional banjo player and started earning money from his performances.[5]

Tagawa joined one of the premier country-western bands in Tokyo playing lead banjo on a two-year tour.[5] He then joined the Dixieland Dukes as a soloist for three years. Tokyo's Gaslight Club was his next stop as a featured entertainer as his repertoire began to include favorite songs of other nations.

Later Achievements[edit]

In 1964 the owner of the Sakura Gardens restaurant in Mountain View, California was in Tokyo for the summer Olympics[6] and caught Tagawa's act. He was so impressed by Tagawa's extraordinary skill with a tenor banjo and versatility that he offered him a contract to play at his restaurant in the U.S. This break for Tagawa was also a great break for the jazz enthusiasts of Northern California. After reaching the United States, Zenzo Tagawa was rapidly Americanized to Charlie Tagawa and soon after he was discovered by numerous restaurant patrons as well as other banjo players in the area. Tagawa performed at Sakura Gardens, and its successor restaurant Imperial Gardens, for a total of fifteen years.

Over those years he developed a loyal following of fans who would come regularly to enjoy his musical talent. On many evenings, one or another of his banjo or Washtub bass ("gut bucket") playing friends would drop in to listen or to jam. He often augmented his experience and repertoire by playing with local musicians. This also included performances at other venues one of which a stint at San Francisco's Red Garter beer palace and night club that provided continuous entertainment. The Red Garter clubs were hotbeds of banjoists.[7][8][9]

It was in 1966 that Tagawa was asked to join a local band and met Chuck Ray. Ray was a banjo teacher and the leader of a fledgling group called the Cupertino Banjo Band. His interest and passion for the banjo was fueled in part by his frequent performances at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor. The Shakey's Pizza chain was known for its longtime use of banjo music in its restaurants. Sherwood "Shakey" Johnson personally played dixieland jazz piano to entertain patrons. Initially started in Sacramento, California, the Shakey's Pizza Parlors became known outside Sacramento, not for its pizza, but for the jazz program it sponsored on a regional radio network. Shakey's used banjo players performing (and jamming to) an array of Dixieland and Ragtime classics plus hits of the early 1900s, 20s, and 30s similar to the format of Jack Dupen's Red Garter club in San Francisco which spurred nationwide demand for banjo players and bands.[7] Many others, thrilled by the music, sought out banjo teachers to learn to play. Fortuitous timing for Tagawa.

With Tagawa's leadership and reputation the Cupertino Banjo Band grew at a steady pace, so much so that they temporarily changed the group's name to the Golden Gate Banjo Band. Then in 1971 the group voted to be known as the Peninsula Banjo Band as acknowledgment that members came from as far south as Santa Cruz and Burlingame to the north on the San Francisco Peninsula.

In 1978 Tagawa's reputation earned him an invitation to perform with a group of musicians from Japan. Yoshio Toyama's Dixieland Saints performed in concert at Stanford University. The session also generated a recording released on LP, Live "Stanford University", in May of that year.[10]

Musical Development[edit]

Tagawa was once a protégé of the great tenor banjoist, Harry Reser, who advised and encouraged Tagawa in his quest for perfection in single string technique. Out of respect and admiration for Reser, Tagawa will on occasion perform one of Reser's original compositions such as The Cat and the Dog, Cracker Jack, or Lolly Pops.

Educator & Music Director[edit]

Peninsula Banjo Band in the 1970s
Peninsula Banjo Band in the 1980s
Peninsula Banjo Band in the 1990s
The Peninsula Banjo Band circa July 2003 (from Peninsula Banjo Band archives)

As an educator, Tagawa can lay claim to having taught several hundred students, many of whom have gone onto successful musical careers.[11] Some of these musicians include Bill Lowrey, Kevin McCabe, and Scotty Plummer. He has been the music director of the Peninsula Banjo Band for all but one year since 1966. As a full-time performer and music teacher in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s, Tagawa can claim responsibility for teaching most of the band's members.

Tagawa has also had great success in instructing children. He uses a modified form of the Suzuki method to teach young students to play the banjo singly and in a group. In 1972, a band was formed by group of Tagawa's young students. They called their group the Junior Banjo Band and its purpose was the application of what they had learned along with the creation of discipline and musicianship. Practice under Tagawa's direction, with the cooperation of their parents, made this possible. The group consisted of young people ranging in age from eleven to sixteen years with six months to five years experience. It was difficult to maintain a constant high level of performance without some of the experienced players who had to leave the group when they graduate on their seventeenth birthday. With Tagawa's diligence and patience, new players rose up to fill the ranks.

Soon after forming, the band was performing for the public on television shows and in various venues such as Marriott's Great America amusement park, county fairs, and at various charitable organizations' functions and clubs such as Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, Optimist Clubs, and the Shriners.

In 1975 they played at the Fretted Instrument Guild of America annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Before heading back to California, they took a detour to Orlando, Florida where the band was treated to a visit to Disney World by Tagawa.[12]

A high point for the Junior Banjo Band members was a three-week long musical friendship and sight-seeing tour of Japan in the summer of 1976. With Japan-born Tagawa overseeing the excursion, twelve of the band's young players and three mothers from the group made the trip representing the cities of San Jose, Mountain View, and Oakland to their respective sister cities of Okayama, Iwata, and Fukuoka. For the duration of the trip the band changed its name to the Banjo Ambassadors. Overall the group traveled from Tokyo to Nagasaki—1,200 miles (1,900 km)—and stopped or performed in thirteen cities. Their greatest performance was at a Banjo Jubilee jazz festival in Tokyo sponsored by the Alligator Jazz Club (Pres. Akira Tsumura). This was a combination of professional banjo players working with semi-professionals to produce a successful show. The Junior Banjo Band also played at several schools, on two television shows, on one radio show, for two Rotary Clubs, and in three Shakey's Pizza Parlors![12]

The Junior Banjo Band disbanded in 1985 with their last public performance at the Peninsula Banjo Band's annual Banjo Jubilee Jazz Festival. The five remaining members took the stage at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino without Tagawa on stage leading the band. Unknown at the time that this would be the last public performance of the group, Chris Bracher, brothers Scott and Bruce Morley, Joe Wagner, and Tagawa's youngest son Leon closed out a twenty-five minute set to a standing ovation. Later that year two of the older members (Morley and Wagner) graduated and left the area to attend college effectively ending the band.

Tagawa has continued his musical educational efforts.[1] He still plays once a week with the Peninsula Banjo Band at Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose, and when he's not playing he's teaching students, most in their golden years.

"Teaching the banjo is interesting and almost nobody is under 40 years old," Tagawa said. "Most of my students are over 50 years old and they decided to play after they retired."

Junior Banjo Band era: 1972 - 1985[edit]

Charlie Tagawa and his Junior Banjo Band in the 1980s

In the early 70's several of Tagawa's students formed a band in order to extend their skills with the banjo. The members ranged in age from 6 to 17 and included banjos, guitars, a piano, and both stand-up and washtub basses. Soon after Tagawa became the group's leader and continued to lead and teach the band through the mid-1980s.[5] The group was eventually asked to perform in public at which time they chose to go by the name Charlie Tagawa's Junior Banjo Band. The band also regularly performed at the same Straw Hat Pizza Parlor in Campbell as the "Peninsula Junior Banjo Band" on Thursday evenings.

The band's sole-released recording was the LP The Stars & Stripes Are Forever (1977). Several of that group have progressed to full professionalism, for example, Bill Lowrey, Kevin McCabe, Scott Hartford, Bruce Jolly, Pat Dutrow and Nori Tagawa.

A highlight for this group was their two-week long trip to Japan in 1974 during which they called themselves the Banjo Ambassadors. They traveled from Tokyo in the north to Nagasaki in the south, playing at several points along the way, plus appearances on TV and in the first Tokyo Banjo Jubilee. In 1975, they played at the Fretted Instrument Guild of America convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Tagawa treated the band members to a visit to Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, before heading home.

The Junior Banjo Band performed in public regularly from 1972 until its last performance at the annual Banjo Jubilee jazz festival in 1985. The five remaining members took the stage at Cupertino’s Flint Center for the Performing Arts. Chris Bracher, brothers Scott and Bruce Morely, Joe Wagner, and Tagawa’s younger son Leon closed out a 25 minute set to a standing ovation. Later that year two of the oldest members graduated from high school and went off to college thus ending that chapter of the band’s history.

In 2001 a Junior Banjo Band Reunion was held at the annual Banjo Jubilee. Former members from the entire thirteen-year span attended. Due largely to Tagawa's adaptation of the Suzuki method for teaching violin in giving banjo lessons, during a practice session the day before their performance, the group of twelve returning students synchronized their playing within the span of one song.

There has been interest in starting another Junior Banjo Band, with a new generation of students. A small assortment of student banjos has been collected, and there has been interest by many of the members to recruit from local schools and music programs.[13]

The Peninsula Banjo Band era, since 1966[edit]

One of the greatest achievements and influential areas of Tagawa's life has been his involvement with the Peninsula Banjo Band. His reputation and notoriety have been heightened by his command of the group and his ability to hone and synchronize the performance skills of a band ranging in size from twenty five to well over one hundred performers. Regarded as one of, if not arguably, the best of the large banjo bands[14] in North America, the Peninsula Banjo Band has earned its fair share of accolades and fame.

Starting in 1975, the band has recorded and produced four collections of performances along with numerous "special edition" recordings distributed to band members only and not-for-sale to the public. Just Because, was released originally on an LP (long playing) record. More! More! More! (1981) was released on both LP record and audio tape. Just One More Time (1996) was released on tape and the then new digital format, compact disc (CD). That Charlie Sound (2008) is the band's most involved effort thus far. The CD includes fifteen tracks by the band and features Tagawa with a small combo that includes his sons Nori and Leon along with Bill Lowrey. This is currently the only professional recording that captures Tagawa's virtuosity on the tenor banjo. None of these recordings would have been possible without his direction, discipline, and determination to come as close to achieving performance perfection as a large band is capable.


In 1974 the members of the Peninsula Banjo Band elected Tagawa as their first president in preparation to file as a charitable, nonprofit California corporation. This was in response to the success of the previous year's inaugural Banjo Jubilee Jazz Festival. The Jubilees are a means to generate a relatively large fund to then donate to a worthy cause or deserving charitable group. Tagawa contributes countless hours towards the production of each annual jazz festival that includes the selection and booking of the participating bands and soloists as well as creating custom arrangements for the Peninsula Banjo Band's performance.

As an experienced band leader, Tagawa has been responsible for creating banjo oriented arrangements for all but a few of the over 250 songs in the band library. He has continuously and without hesitation donated these arrangements for the benefit of the band and its fans.

Additionally, Tagawa devotes many hours a year to performing as a community service for various groups that normally could not afford to hire a professional musician or an entire musical group.


Charlie Tagawa's induction into the Banjo Hall of Fame, Guthrie, Oklahoma, 2003 for contributions in banjo education (Joan Goldstein, photographer, from Peninsula Banjo Band archives)

In 1967 he was elected "Best Banjo Player of the Year" by the New Orleans Jazz Club of Northern California. George Barnes, writing in England's BMG magazine, said that (Tagawa) is one of that rare breed who is dedicated to play and teach the banjo as it should be played. Tagawa said, "Playing the banjo is my life—I love it."[15] Tagawa continued to receive high praise and accolades for his playing over the years. This culminated in 2003 when he was inducted into the Four String Banjo Hall of Fame for his musical education efforts in May. He traveled to the American Banjo Museum, at the time, in Guthrie, Oklahoma to be honored.

Filmed in June 2001 (airing in October 21), Tagawa and the Peninsula Banjo Band were featured in a segment of the television show Bay Area Backroads hosted by Doug McConnell and produced for Bay Area station KRON, an NBC affiliate. The episode is archived on the San Francisco Chronicle website and viewable here (QuickTime format). After the main segment, the episode closes with a short segment with McConnell singing When the Saints Go Marching In with the band.

In September 2001 during the annual Banjo Jubilee jazz festival Tagawa was awarded the "Lifetime Achievement Award" by Banjos Unlimited—a nonprofit association of banjo bands and individual banjo players dedicated to the preservation of the banjo and its music. And again that day Tagawa was further acknowledged as the 2001 Jubilee Honoree for his contributions to the Peninsula Banjo Band. Lastly, arguably one of the proudest moments in the life of a music teacher, twelve of Tagawa's former students attended the festival for a Junior Banjo Band reunion performance. Former band members from the entire thirteen-year span attended. Many had not touched their instruments since the 1970s or 80s and one would think that it would be difficult to play even for just one performance. Due largely to Tagawa's adaptation of the Suzuki method for instruction to play the banjo, in a practice session the day before their performance, the group synchronized their playing within the span one song.[16] What was more amazing was the fact that some of these former students had never performed together, previously having joined and left the band before later members.

Personal life[edit]

Tagawa was married to Masako Tagawa who died in the mid-1990s after a short-term battle with cancer. Her musical contribution to the Tagawa family was as a piano player and teacher.

Tagawa is father to two sons, Nori and Leon. Each is an accomplished musician in his own right. His older son, Nori, often performs with him at jazz festivals and banjo shows. When Nori is not performing he is a full-time violin teacher and freelance professional musician. He plays an array of instruments that include: cello, violin, viola, oboe, and the four-string banjo. Younger son Leon has worked for various high tech companies in Silicon Valley and plays banjo infrequently. He played snare drum as a member of the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps from 1990 to 1992. He is married and is the father of three children.

Both sons were original members of Tagawa's all youngster Junior Banjo Band. Leon performed up until the band's last public appearance in 1985.

Tagawa enjoys cooking, having been a chef and the owner of a Japanese restaurant in Cupertino, California. He is also a wrist watch enthusiast who enjoys finding bargains on Girard-Perregaux, Cartier, and other premier watch brands.[17]

Officially retired, Tagawa enjoys an active life as a traveling musician, band leader, and grandfather.


  • Just Because (PBB Recordings, 1976, first edition on LP & cassette)
  • The Stars and Stripes are Forever (C. Tagawa and his Junior Banjo Band, 1977, first edition on LP & cassette)
  • Dixieland Saints, Live "Stanford University" (Yoshio Toyama, 1978)
  • More! More! More! (PBB Recordings, 1981, first edition on LP & cassette)
  • Just One More Time! (PBB Recordings, 1996, first edition on CD & cassette)
  • Just Because, second edition (Discmakers, 2002, remastered, reissued on CD)
  • More! More! More!, second edition (Discmakers, 2002, remastered, reissued on CD)
  • King of Banjo Players - Mr. Charlie Tagawa, His Friends At Minton House Recorded live in Yokohama, Japan, Jan. 11, 2006 (JasRac, 2006, Musicell/Advance Co.)
  • That Charlie Sound (Suspect Studios/Discmakers, 2008, first edition on CD)
  • The Stars and Stripes are Forever - featuring Charlie Tagawa and his Junior Banjo Band, special 35th anniversary international edition (Discmakers, 2012, remastered, reissued on CD) Album notes are in American English and Japanese

Music Shows and Jazz Festivals[edit]

A listing of the Music Shows and Jazz Festivals that Tagawa has headlined or participated:

  • Banjo Jubilee Jazz Festival
  • Banjo Hall of Fame Inductions & Bricktown Banjo Bash
  • FIGA Convention
  • North American International Banjo Convention
  • Sacramento Banjo-Rama
  • Summer Jazz Banjo Festival
  • Sacramento Jazz Festival and Jubilee

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Jordan, Robert (2012-09-25). "Bay Area banjo players saving the four-string tradition". Contra Costa Times. Retrieved 17 April 2013. 
  2. ^, Hall of Fame members list, retrieved August 8, 2010
  3. ^ Knight, Heather. Picking and Grinning: The Peninsula Banjo Band keeps its music alive—and its fans smiling, page 1. San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2001. Retrieved from online archive,, August 8, 2010.
  4. ^ Atkinson, Glenn: Charlie Tagawa & his Junior Banjo Band, LP jacket notes The Stars & Stripes Are Forever. 1977.
  5. ^ a b c Zhang, Jennifer: Charlie Tagawa has plied his melodic trade for a half-century, page 1. The Cupertino Courier, SVCN, LLC., 2002.
  6. ^ Droubie, Paul (2008-07-31). "Japan's Rebirth at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics". About Japan: A Teacher's Resource. Retrieved 2010-01-10. 
  7. ^ a b Staff writer:Music-Dance, Night Spots. Newsweek Magazine, Volume 57, Number 1, pg. 85–86, 1961.
  8. ^ Staff writer, Life Guide – Nightclubs. Life Magazine, December 8, pg. 26, 1961.
  9. ^ Tiegel, Eliot, "The Merry, Mad, Musical, Mod City". Billboard Magazine, May 6th, pg. SF-10, "Spotlight on San Francisco", center section, 1967.
  10. ^ Lord, Tom. The Jazz Discography, Volume 23. Cadence, New York, 1998.
  11. ^ Zhang, Jennifer: Charlie Tagawa has plied his melodic trade for a half-century, page 1. The Cupertino Courier, SVCN, LLC., 2002. Retrieved from online archive Cover story, August 9, 2010.
  12. ^ a b Atkinson, Glenn: Charlie Tagawa & his junior banjo band, LP jacket notes The Stars & Stripes Are Forever. 1977.
  13. ^ Strickland, Jim (2012). PBB News & Views. 
  14. ^ Rossi, Frank:various articles. "The Resonator", Banjos Unlimited, 1980–2010.
  15. ^ Barnes, George: B.M.G. magazine. Clifford Essex Music Company, 1967.
  16. ^ Sandberg, Gene. PBB News & Views. October, 2001
  17. ^ Bert, Adam Cornelius (2011). Charlie Tagawa. Germany: Chromo. p. 72. ISBN 978-613-5-94594-2. 

External links[edit]