Banjo Reminiscences.

Written exclusively for The Cadenza.

By Frank B. Converse, New York City.


Continuing with Mr. Ossman, and referring to his appearance in London, England, on the occasion of Essex and Cammeyer's Banjo Concert, May 10, 1900, he writes: "Believing, from the flattering public announcements, that great things were expected of me, and never having felt the pulse of an English audience, I underwent a slight mental disturbance, and unfortunately chose for my opening one of those heavy selections familiarly distinguished as an 'op.,' the work of an eminent foreign musician.

"While it was well received, yet the applause seemed lacking that solidity and hearty appreciation so easy to recognize and so assuring to a performer. It seemed more of a sympathetic, commiserating nature, as if saying: 'Poor fellow!--and just to think of his journeying three thousand miles just for that!' So I interpreted it, and concluded I had not produced the 'lost chord' that they were expecting; and so, on recall, I changed tactics, risking my arrangement of 'Bunch of Rags,' and it seemed as though Bedlam had broken loose. I had struck the responsive chord, and the recalls that followed drew heavily on my repertiore."

Of Mr. Ossman's repertiore, which includes the popular "opuses," overtures, "Carmen," "Poet and Peasant," "William Tell," Moszkowski's dances, Chopin, "Hungarian Rhapsodies" by Liszt, etc., etc., melodramatized to the capacity of the instrument, he naively says: "Why, I need them in my business, as it is necessary, you know, for a professional to cater to all sorts of tastes and intelligences, though, as a rule, my arrangements of our popular American composers are best received by our audiences."

Mr Ossman was a lustrous star in the brilliant galaxy of our representative artists assembled at the Grand Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar Festival Concert given at Boston Jan. 22; an epoch-marking event in the history of these instruments.

In April next Mr. Ossman is to appear again in London, at Clifford Essex' Banjo Concert; following which he will accept an engagement at the "Empire," the finest music hall in London.

It may savor of vanity, but pardonable, I trust, in one who has ever been ready to assist a learner, to clip the following from one of Mr. Ossman's letters:

"You may not be aware of it, but to you I owe a great deal. Your banjo arrangements, furnished me at the time I was learning the banjo, were my ideal, and anything with the name of Converse attached to it was 'good enough for me.' "

Mr. Ossman was born at Hudson, N.Y., Aug. 23, 1868, and possessed his first banjo at the age of twelve years. It was a homemade affair, built by a candymaker in the same town, who had some knowledge of the instrument, and from whom young Ossman received his first ideas in a course of ten lessons--"simplified method."

At the expiration of this "course" he had excelled his teacher, which progress so interested his father that he decided he should receive proper instruction, and to that end he engaged the services of the leader of the orchestra of the opera house, Joe Kelly, who, Ossman says, "was a good old soul and dearly loved the banjo." With Kelly he started with the rudiments, memorized his first scale, and began his real work. He remained with his teacher one year, receiving three lessons a week, and advanced so rapidly that at the expiration he "could read and play anything published in the banjo books of that time."

His popularity extended rapidly, and his services were constantly sought for parties, dances, concerts, even the church sociables; all of which he says "was good for me, made me enthuse all the more." Continuing, he says: "I then began to purchase banjo books and music, got a good banjo, and then the practice--how I did go at it! Fourteen hours a day was nothing. And many an hour did I put in on your 'Devil's Dance,' which selection, by the way, would be a good thing for the up-to-date banjoists to look over, who put 'op.' to their selections on their programmes.

"All this time my father kept a bakery in the town, and I drove the delivery wagon, and I assure you, everyone in the place knew Vess and his banjo; and to that I attribute the success of our bakery.

"About 1886, E. M. Hall visited our town with a minstrel show. I soon made his acquaintance, and we frequently played together. About the same period banjo tournaments were taking place along the river towns. Of course I had to put in an appearance, and was fortunate enough to win all the first prizes.

"Having learned that a grand banjo tournament was to come off at Chickering Hall, New York, introducing some of the most prominent players, I, at Mr. Hall's suggestion, and assurance--'go ahead, and you will win'--decided to participate. Well, I went, a stranger among them, and, to my surprise (having learned that the affair was not to be bona fide, that the prize-winners had been decided upon), I was awarded the second prize. Ruby Brooks, of course, received the first prize.

"However, it affords me much pleasure to state that my first piece elicited most enthusiastic approbation, which assured me greatly; and I followed with John M. Turner's 'opus' of 'Pretty Little Queen,' which was the recipient of equal demonstrative favor. You must remember that I was playing the plain, unadulterated banjo, with no piano-solo attachment (as with the others), and the favor I received from the audience assured me that they were all the better pleased for it. And this was my advent in the City of New York."

I regret that want of space precludes a more extended mention of Mr. Ossman, whose brilliant career furnishes so worthy an example for the encouragement of others. Suffice it to say that he has worked for what he has attained. In addition to his professional engagements here and abroad he has for the past twelve years supplied our best phonograph companies with their finest banjo music. He was also honored by being selected as the banjo soloist par excellence of America at the National Export Exposition in Philadelphia, Pa. A player whose execution, remarkable for its perfect clearness, with a repertiore practically inexhaustible, he displays a genius in adjusting the most elaborate admissible compositions to the unique capacities of the instrument.

In view of what he has accomplished with the banjo, it is deemed not too extravagant to say that Mr. Ossman stands to-day the foremost representative of his school.


from The Cadenza, Feb. 1902

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Hi Carl
I would just like to say, thank you very much for posting the artcle of Vess Ossman. I have many of his recordings and I've enjoyed his banjo playing over the years, but I knew nothing of his private life, so I found this most interesting. An insight to a real person. Many thanks once again Carl. Regards Ray

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