Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC – Banjo music always makes me think of jazz icon Nat King Cole, the American Wild West, the vast and flat sagebrush plains, the majestic Rocky Mountains and the Marlboro Man. It makes me want to go to Montana, Arizona or Texas to ride a horse on a mountain range, where the sky is so big that you must see it to believe it.
But WHY BANJO? Well, because it evokes memories of the first Wild West movie I ever watched at Salma Movie Theater in Zagazig, Egypt when I was 14. The movie starts with Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye playing banjo and singing.
The box-office hit movie, Cat Ballou, was one of the best western comedies ever made. It starred the talented Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda — two of my favorite Hollywood stars. Cole later became one of my favorite jazz artists. The legendary singer-pianist-composer was the first to be profiled on my Jazz Club USA radio show in 1992. Two years later, his romantic, hit “Autumn Leaves” (that I highlighted on my show) was the first song played at my wedding on a Nile cruise boat in Cairo.
Many articles have been written about Cole, who made it big as a singer after Cat Ballou. His grainy but smooth baritone voice made it unimaginable for anyone else to sing “Mona Lisa”, “Autumn Leaves” or “Unforgettable” as far as I was concerned. I talked about Cole, his life and those three songs in particular, during a 1996 live show here with my fellow broadcaster Nermine Mahmoud.
In Cat Ballou, the utterly brilliant, Oscar-winning dual-role Lee Marvin — in one hilarious scene — was leaning on a pub wall, dead-drunk in the saddle with his horse cross-legged. Former Academy Awards director and filmmaker, Robert Wise, who made the West Side Story and The Sound of Music, once told me in Cairo that Marvin’s unrepeatable act was not only comedic, but iconic.
Those are the comedic performances and images that click into my mental view-masters when velvet-voiced Nat King Cole is mentioned or when I listen to banjo music. Such wonderful memories made me want to come to the United States to ride a horse across landscapes, drive a horse-drawn wagon and herd cattle to get the feeling of a cowboy, although not the real McCoy.
Cole, Marvin and Fonda bring to mind all those fantasies about cowboys and the old Wild West. How I wished I had lived with them at the time! I was fascinated (and still I am) by American cowboys and classic cowboy movies. In 1989, 10 months after I came to the U.S.,I had the chance to see the Great Centennial Cattle Drive in Montana. It was a great time to recapture those memories and get a feel for what was it like to be a cowboy. I thought the Marlboro Man had never really existed, but I was wrong. There are many guys like him in Montana.
For more on jazz music, listen to VOA’s Jazz America