Born in 1954 in St. Petersburg, Florida Jim is the younger of twin boys born to James & Patricia Coston. Jim was raised in Florida attending elementary schools in St. Petersburg and graduating from Zephyrhills (Fla.) High School in 1972.
While in High School, Jim worked at a Richardson's Funeral Home where he ran ambulance calls and assisted in mortuary duties such as embalming and removals.
Upon graduation, Jim obtained his E.M.T. (Emergency Medical Technician) certification at Pasco-Hernanado Community College and continued working in the EMS field at Jackson Memorial Hospital (Dade City, Fla.) and eventually SunCoast Ambulance Service in St. Petersburg.
In 1973, Jim moved west to Phoenix, Arizona where he spent two years working for Kord's Gold Cross Ambulance. Returning to Florida in 1975, Jim completed his Paramedic training at St. Petersburg Junior College and gained his state certification.
Upon completing certification, Jim was hired by Charleston County (S.C.) EMS and spent four years with the system. While working for Charleston Co. EMS, Jim gained S.C. Paramedic Certification (#172), Rescue Squad and Radiological Monitoring training.
While living in Charleston, Jim bought a tenor banjo in a pawn shop for $35 dollars, a decision that would eventually change his career path.
A love of music and show business in general led Jim to spend many hours each day practicing his new instrument. Unfortunately, there were no teachers of 4-string banjo in the Charleston area and the learning process was painfully slow. Jim drove 400 miles to Orlando, Florida on every opportunity just to listen to professional banjo players.
Finally, the realization that if he were to improve, he would need the support and guidence of other musicians led Jim to move to Orlando, Florida where he could surround himself with the talented performers from Disney World and Rosie O'Grady's.
In 1980, Jim began working for Herndon Ambulance Service in Orlando while studying the techniques of banjoists such as Randy Morris, Pat Terry Jr. & Eddie Erickson. In early 1981, there was an audition call for a new vaudeville-melodrama theatre called Daisy's Basement - Jim was hired on the spot.
Critically acclaimed by the Orlando Sentinel Star newspaper but unable to compete with the bigger downtown and area attractions, Daisy's Basement changed format in 1982 but not before Jim had gained valuable stage experience.
Unemployment didn't last long as the cruise ship "Scandinavian Sun" sailing out of Miami came calling, as did a 60 city national touring show called "The Riverboat Ragtime Revue" produced by Bill Fegan Attractions. "Riverboat Ragtime Review" featured many prominent New Orleans Jazz musicians including Bob French (Drums), Pud Brown (Clarinet) & Walter Payton (Bass).
Upon completion of the touring show, Jim returned to Orlando where he divided his time between spot jobs for Rosie O'Grady's, private parties and part time work at Herndon Ambulance.
In 1984, a decision was needed. Either Jim would renew his Florida Paramedic Certification and continue in EMS or he would pursue a full time career in show business. After 14 years of emergency work that included of 15,000 ambulance calls, Jim decided to let his state certification lapse.
Fortunately, the the choice was the right one. Within a month of leaving the ambulance service, Jim had secured another cruise ship ("Emerald Seas") as well as a six month contract at the 1984 World's Fair held in New Orleans.
While working at the Fair, Jim was hired by New Orleans Paddlewheels Inc. for their new riverboat "Creole Queen". Jim continued with the riverboat after the World's Fair closed, but the Louisiana economy suffered through off shore oil industry cutbacks and full time work became difficult to sustain.
The cruise industry again came calling with a rapid succession of headline cabaret contracts with Costa, Commodore and Carnival Cruises. In 1987, a call from the Bramson Entertainment Bureau in New York City led to artist representation that is still going strong today.
Along the way, in addition to cruise ships, Jim has been a Cruise Director on board the riverboat "Queen of the West" sailing from Portland, Oregon. Jim has also been Entertainment Director / Entertainer at Maxwell's Jazz Cabaret in New Orleans French Quarter, as well as having performed across the USA in theaters and nightclubs and numerous conventions.
An avid computer user since he bought his first Radio Shack TRS-80 in 1981, Jim has written software in BASIC, DBXL, VB5 as well as HTML design. Jim has served as a consultant for his twin brother Mike who has been a software developer for over 15 years.
In 1995, Jim was approached by Gale Research to write a chapter for their Career Advisor Series book "The Performing Arts Career Directory" pertaining to performing on cruise ships. Previously, Jim had served as Associate Editor for International Banjo Magazine from 1980 -1984 and still writes occasional articles for several publications nationally.
Today, Jim continues as a headline Cabaret Act for Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas & Oceania Cruises having appeared worldwide on over 85 different cruise ships.
For over 21 years he resided in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans, La. up until losing his home in Hurricane Kristina.
Currently, Jim is residing in Khao Sai, Thailand (just north of Bangkok) when not on tour.
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The Banjo Reserve recently interviewed Jim Coston, here's what she had to say.
Q. How did you learn the Banjo, and what method of learning do you feel is most effective?
A. I was largely self taught long before the advent of the Internet. I received a lot of support from Banjo Players I met at FIGA ( Fretted Instrument Guild of America ) Conventions in the late '70's & early '80's. Major influences were Pat Terry Jr., Randy Morris & Eddie Erickson who were all based out of Walt Disney World in Orlando FL.
The instructional book that first opened the door for me was a long out of print copy of Harry Reser's "Let's Play the Tenor Banjo". The last dozen pages showed every chord inversion up and down the neck of the banjo and that opened the world of "Chord Melody" playing to me.
Looking back, if I had the opportunity to take lessons from a live instructor, I probably would have learned a whole lot quicker. Not having a teacher meant I developed my own "sound", for better or for worse.
Q. During the early stages of learning to play the Banjo, what did you find most challenging?
A. Improvisation. I always had a pretty good "right hand" but the fret board was (and some days, still is) a major challenge. I once had a Banjoist tell me that it takes about 20 years to really truly begin to understand the Instrument. If that's true, I'm about 15 years behind schedule!
Q. What challenges do you still hope to master today?
A. I'd like to be a better player in all areas but primarily I'd like to be better at improvising. I'm pretty good at what I do as long as I don't "stray" too far from what I already know. I'd like to be able to have the confidence to go out on stage and really wing it!
I'd also like to be able to play without making weird facial expressions!
Q. Where do you see banjo music going and what is your role in that?
A. When I began doing my Banjo Cabaret Show on Cruise Ships in 1982, the average age of the passenger was 65, meaning they were born in 1917 and grew up with the music of the Roaring Twenties, the 1930's Movie Musicals and the Big Bands of the 1940's. My shows were the music of their generation and it enjoyed a good reception.
Flash forward to today. Cruise Ship passengers are STILL 65 years old (on average) but now they were born in 1950 and grew up with the music of Elvis, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin. My shows still "work" but now more as a novelty act - it's the music their parents (and grandparents) grew up with.
I've had people tell me I should "modernize" my shows, and to a certain extent, I have, but I'm not interested in playing "newer" music on the banjo just to attract a younger audience demographic. If the musics "feels right" on a banjo, I'm all for it but I'm not interested in playing just to satisfy a market.
After 33 years "on the road", I know I'm on the downside of my career. Thirty three years is a pretty good run and I'm hopeful there is still a little more gas in the tank. As long as there is a market for what I do and I'm still able to perform it well, I'll be out there strumming away.
Q. What most inspires you to play?
A. Playing the banjo has taken me to over 116 countries & territories and 46 US States. I've played with Grammy Award Winners and hung out with Astronauts, Authors & Academy Award Winners - all because of the banjo! The fact that playing the banjo has made ALL that happen inspires me to pick it up every day and hopefully, get a little bit better.
Q. What song(s) do you enjoy playing the most on your Banjo?
A. I love playing most everything in my shows. The great thing about doing your own show is that YOU choose what music you want to play, not some Show Producer or Director. I've always been able to play the music I loved. It's still a thrill to hear the audiences emotional reaction to a song like "Danny Boy" or "Stars & Stripes Forever".
I love playing things on the banjo that most people don't expect. The best comment I get after my shows is "Wow!, I never knew you could play _ _ _ _ _ on a banjo!".
Q. Based on your professional experiences as a Banjo Player, what advice do you have for beginners?
A. Play for the love of playing. I was lucky enough to start playing professionally 35 years ago. If I were were starting out now, I doubt the opportunities I had would then would present themselves today... but that wouldn't stop me from playing.
Don't try to copy other players "note for note", that has already been done (and probably a lot better!) Put yourself into the music and enjoy the ride where the music takes you.
Don't assume the banjo is only suitable for playing one style of music You'd be amazed at what the banjo can do, if you give it a chance.
Q. At the time of this interview TBR is not aware of any music that you have recorded to sell for retail. Has this ever been of interest to you? Do you have any plans to record in the future?
A. I recorded an album (Cassette) back in the 1990's with several members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at George Buck's Studio in New Orleans. I used to sell it "on the road" but never produced it for mass retail distribution.
I don't have any immediate plans to go back into the Studio but wouldn't rule it out if a project appealed to me.
Q. You've lived in Florida, South Carolina, New Orleans, and now Khao sai, Thailand. Does each location influence your technique in some way?
A. South Carolina was where I bought my first banjo in a pawn shop for $35. Unfortunately there were no teachers in the area which prompted me to quit my job there and move to Orlando, Fl . where I hoped I could pursue the instrument.
Living in Orlando, Florida was a major Disney World influence in the 1980's, lots of great musicians and friends and I learned a lot there. It also made working the Cruise Ships out of Miami an easy commute. New Orleans was a magical 20 years living in the French Quarter and playing with some of the greats such as Danny Barker & Pete Fountain.
Thailand is now home (after losing pretty much everything in Hurricane Katrina) and I adore it. I may be the only 4 string banjo player in the country!
Q. You have created the entertaining comic strip "Jim's Banjo World", demonstrating another talent of yours!
Tell us more about your interest in creating and developing this comic strip.
A. Comedy has always been a love of mine. I do a lot in my shows and about a year ago I found a website that allowed you to create comics quite easily. I did about a half dozen and posted them online to a pretty good response. After twelve months, I've created over 275 comics, all relating to banjos and banjo players (you can see them all on my Pinterest Account).
It's been a lot of fun but honestly, after almost 300 strips, I'm running out of new ideas! I'll continue to do them as I find funny subjects to tackle.
Q. At this point in your banjo playing career, what work or event are you most proud of?
A. I'm most proud that I have been a working entertainer who has managed to make a pretty decent career out of doing something I truly love. I've been extremely lucky and I know it.
Q. What other interests do you have?
A. I love old Radio, TV & Movies. I have approximately three terabytes of downloaded material still "waiting" to be watched! I love to travel and have begun travellng for enjoyment and not just for work.
Living in Thailand for the past ten years has truly been a wonderful experience. I love the food, culture and people here. I suspect I will live out the rest of my life here quite happily.
Q. Tell us something about yourself that you think our Community might enjoy.
A. I wasn't always going to be a Banjo Player. I didn't pick up the Instrument until I was 23 years old! In High School, I worked at a local Mortuary where I was an Embalmer and Ambulance Attendant. I went on to become an Advanced Cardiac Life Support Paramedic for a number of years until my banjo career took off.
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