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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published November 17 2013

Did You Know That: ‘Queen of the Jazz Guitar’ born and raised in North Dakota

The person known as “Queen of the Jazz Guitar,” the first woman to play the electric guitar professionally, was born and raised in North Dakota.

Mary Osborne grew up in a large musical family and was a child prodigy. As a teenager, she went to a club in Bismarck where a “territory band” was playing that featured Charlie Christian, an innovative swing and jazz guitarist, as a guest musician.

She said, “It was the most startling thing I had ever heard.” The next day, Osborne purchased a guitar just like Christian’s and had a friend build an amplifier.

Although she was only 17 years old at the time, Osborne had been playing professionally for several years. She incorporated a number of Christian’s techniques in her music, but the sound she produced was unique.

Orsborn was born July 17, 1921, in Epping, N.D., to Alvin and Estella (Rogers) Orsborn. Epping is in central Williams County, and Alvin, better known as “Elvie,” was the town barber.

During the 1920s, the Orsborns moved to Minot, where Mary attended elementary school. She began to pick out tunes on a ukulele at age 4 and, in elementary school, took lessons on the violin. When she was 10, Mary joined her father’s “ragtime and country string band,” playing the banjo, tap dancing, and singing. “Between the ages of 11 and 12,” she was heard twice weekly over radio station KLPM in Minot and was paid in Hershey candy bars.

Mary’s greatest fulfillment came when playing the guitar. Through radio, records and occasional live performances, she carefully observed the various musical techniques and sounds produced by professional guitarists. One musician she admired was jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

Mary, “when she was 12, led an all-girl trio in Bismarck,” where her family had recently relocated. Her trio performed hillbilly music, popular songs and light classical pieces. She met Winifred McDonnell in Bismarck.

In 1937, McDonnell was teaching piano in Bismarck. The next summer, she organized a group called the Debutantes, who performed across the Upper Midwest. McDonnell asked Mary if she would like to be part of a trio that she was forming to take on tour. Because of Mary’s age, McDonnell “became her [Mary’s] legal guardian.” I suspect it was at this time that Mary professionally changed her surname to Osborne.

During the first year, the Winifred McDonnell Trio “traveled around North Dakota and Minnesota, appearing on radio shows and in clubs,” where they played an assortment of jazz and popular songs. After returning to Bismarck, the trio had some off-nights while the Al Trent Sextet was in town playing at a hot local club called “The Dome.” Performing with them was Charlie Christian, who was rapidly acquiring many admirers because of the unique musical sounds he made with his electric Gibson ES-150. When Mary first heard him playing, she thought it was a tenor saxophone. She was so inspired by his music, she said, “all I wanted to do was to imitate him.”

Each night, Mary returned to “The Dome” to listen to the group, paying particular attention to chord changes used by Christian. When he played “Honeysuckle Rose,” she thought she observed something very familiar. With unrestrained curiosity, Mary felt compelled to ask Christian about it. After the set was over, she approached Christian and asked, “Those were Django’s chord changes on ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ weren’t they?” He acknowledged they were, and told her that anyone who could figure that out must be a guitar player.

Impressed with her knowledge and curiosity, Christian invited Mary to jam with him. As she played, he listened carefully and then constructively critiqued her. Christian directed Mary on how to purchase a guitar just like his, and she bought one the next day. The two developed a close friendship until his life was cut short by tuberculosis in 1942.

With a new electric guitar and heeding Christian’s observations, Mary was now determined to make a name for herself as a jazz guitarist. Music lovers in the Midwest soon became aware of a rising star. The Winifred Donnell Trio was growing in popularity to the point that club managers outside of the Midwest wanted them. In 1939, they received offers to play in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

With the trio, Mary sang solos and played the double bass, but audience members most appreciated her artistry on the guitar. Mary soon became the featured performer of the Winifred McDonnell Trio. While playing in Pittsburgh, the management of radio station KDKA asked the group if they were interested in playing on a daily basis on their station. They eagerly agreed.

After being featured on the radio for a year, the trio received an offer to become part of a big band fronted by Charles “Buddy” Rogers, a movie star and band leader who had recently married Mary Pickford. Going on the road with an established band appeared to be an offer they could not resist.

We will conclude our story about Mary Osborne next week. I want to thank Alan Greenwood, publisher of Vintage Guitar, for suggesting a profile on Mary Osborne.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by

Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.