Hello everybody,

While searching for banjo records on a french radio website I stumbled upon this emission broadcasted in 2013, in which you can listen to two banjo records (which I find really enjoyable), played by Vance Lowry around 1926 : http://www.francemusique.fr/emission/le-fabuleux-monde-des-archives...

While listening to the first one (it starts at 11'53, following a few explanations by the person who curated the program) I thought he was playing a 4-string banjo (wether plectrum or tenor I'm not sure - there are some moments where it also sounds a bit like a 5-string, but I don't know the subject well enough to be sure), but the second (which starts around 12'30) seems to be a 5 string banjo played in the classic way (which would maybe explain that title, "l'harpo-banjo", which can be translated as "the harp-banjo" I think).

I'm quite curious about this player; does anybody knows exactly what kind of banjo he's playing in each of these records? Were his arrangements ever published? Do you have more informations about his life and other pieces or records? There are some informations on his life in France in the programme (where he apparently knew the poet Jean Cocteau), and somebody called Tony Thomas posted some interesting informations on this youtube video in which Lowry's playing can also be heard : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKXzR8a-_DE

Just in case he wouldn't be playing classic banjo and that discussion would be irrelevant to the present website, here is an other broadcast from the same website which features several classic banjo records (and this time I'm sure of it :) ) : http://www.francemusique.fr/emission/le-fabuleux-monde-des-archives...

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Just to correct an error.  I had been told by a friend about the origins of the remaining Clef Club in Philiadelphia and thought the organization had continued there.   It did not.  in the 1990s a group of African American leaders of one branch of the AFM, the US musicians union, felt that problems of discrimination with other locals of the union in the area and with employers were not being properly address.  They formed this as a special organizations that could take actions and stands beyond those that their branch of the union could properly take, and took the name of the Clef Club in honor of the previous historical organization to honor it.  This organization still exists in Philiadelphia.                                    

Going through the whole thing the first time.

You write "the context of his music which was in bands with horns and drums, "   This is not clear even in 1926.  Most of the  work Lowry did from at least 1911 until around 1923 or 4 was either as a soloist, but most often in ensembles without horns but with drums a piano, often a bass and sometimes a cello or cello banch, no horn, although he also played the bass saxophone and the alto saxophone and perhaps the clarinet.   Lowry's main work we know about was in bands origined in NYC that were associated with the Clef Club of which he was a prominent member.  The main aim of the organization was to get employment for African American musicians in venues frequented by and the private places and resorts of New York and Philiadelphia's ruling rich such as the Wanamkers and Vanderbilts in particular.    Performing in these palatial homes (I once went to a wedding on Park Avenue in NYC in the 1990s where a friend married a daughter of a family who are attorneys for Citi bank where the entire wedding with 250 guests was held in the apartment's "living room"  and the reception-dinner was held in the dinning room) it was considered inappropriate for Black musicians to play horns.  This also meshed with the previous practice that the Organization fought that in such places Black musicians were expected to act as wait servants and cleaners when not performing which itself meshed with the situation that many performers began as wait staff or cleaners who would  play instruments in their spare mnoments or after their shifts for tips.

The Clef Club acted more like a union hiring hall, sending out bands and trios who met their standards of dress and deportment and jmusicianship to these customers and it focused on musicians and ensembles playing lighter easier to play string instruments, especially banjos.  They favored a variety of mandolin descended banjos including a number of different types no longer extant.   Lowry's main group was formed by Louis Mitchell around 1911 variously called the Beaux  Art, Southern Symphony,  Clef Club, and Ciro Club quintet (although there were often up to 8 members) or Orchestra.  The linuep was a piano, drums, two bandolins or bandolin and five string or tenor or tango banjo, with a bass similar to one of the pictures one of the group members found and posted here.  Later he belonged to a similar outfit called the 7 Spades going from England and landing in france.  That outfit morphed into Louis Mitchels Jazz kings which had no horns.  Lowry left that band and started a collaborationist with french or Belgian pianist Jean Weiner where the only horn involved was when Lowry played alto sax instead of the banjo.  There were a mad number of permutations fo this across the 1920s.  However,  I do not know Lowry playing in a band with horns except mention of himself playing bass saxophone with Jean Sawyer's Persian Room Orchestra (LOL yet aother variant of that one group with changing names mentioned above)  and his alto playing in France of Lowry's  musical context including horns.  All these bands did include drums and the organizer and prime figure in these bands over this perod was trap drummer Louis Mitchell.



Jody Stecher said:

There is a fair amount of information about Vance Lowry on the internet and several photos and photocopies of memorabilia. So far, I have found no photos of his banjo. But given the context of his music which was in bands with horns and drums, I think plectrum banjo is more likely than fingers. 

for instance

https://www.flickr.com/photos/puzzlemaster/3316370898/

These organizations were called and seen in publicity as "Jazz" , but if you listen to this recording, made fairly late in the 1920s,  I dont think they had much Jazz content.  This is more the kind of advanced rag time that banjo kings like Van Epps or Ossmnan played than  Jazz.   Banjo ensembles were really part of the late ragtime feelll.  It seems this remained popular in Europe,  particularly England after it faded from popularity in the US.   This was accentuated especially in the UK because when    the ODJB toured England, their original banjoist did not make the trip and banjos were not identified with "real jazz: as much as they became in the US                                                                                                On another project--one that eventually led to this over 10 years--Eli Kaufman told me he believed that on  different cylinder recordings  of some tunes,  he believes Van Epps used a plectrum and others of the same tune he used a finger style.  

I have seen pictures of him holding what must be a five-string banjo, pictures of him particularly in the 1930s with a tenor banjo, and pictures of him playing either a four-string mandolin banjo or a banjolin.  Curiously I cannot find a picture of him playing either Bass sax or alto jax.  LOL he was also a juggler throughout his career, and I cannot find pictures of him juggling

Tony Thomas MFA Black Banjoist said:

Going through the whole thing the first time.

You write "the context of his music which was in bands with horns and drums, "   This is not clear even in 1926.  Most of the  work Lowry did from at least 1911 until around 1923 or 4 was either as a soloist, but most often in ensembles without horns but with drums a piano, often a bass and sometimes a cello or cello banch, no horn, although he also played the bass saxophone and the alto saxophone and perhaps the clarinet.   Lowry's main work we know about was in bands origined in NYC that were associated with the Clef Club of which he was a prominent member.  The main aim of the organization was to get employment for African American musicians in venues frequented by and the private places and resorts of New York and Philiadelphia's ruling rich such as the Wanamkers and Vanderbilts in particular.    Performing in these palatial homes (I once went to a wedding on Park Avenue in NYC in the 1990s where a friend married a daughter of a family who are attorneys for Citi bank where the entire wedding with 250 guests was held in the apartment's "living room"  and the reception-dinner was held in the dinning room) it was considered inappropriate for Black musicians to play horns.  This also meshed with the previous practice that the Organization fought that in such places Black musicians were expected to act as wait servants and cleaners when not performing which itself meshed with the situation that many performers began as wait staff or cleaners who would  play instruments in their spare mnoments or after their shifts for tips.

The Clef Club acted more like a union hiring hall, sending out bands and trios who met their standards of dress and deportment and jmusicianship to these customers and it focused on musicians and ensembles playing lighter easier to play string instruments, especially banjos.  They favored a variety of mandolin descended banjos including a number of different types no longer extant.   Lowry's main group was formed by Louis Mitchell around 1911 variously called the Beaux  Art, Southern Symphony,  Clef Club, and Ciro Club quintet (although there were often up to 8 members) or Orchestra.  The linuep was a piano, drums, two bandolins or bandolin and five string or tenor or tango banjo, with a bass similar to one of the pictures one of the group members found and posted here.  Later he belonged to a similar outfit called the 7 Spades going from England and landing in france.  That outfit morphed into Louis Mitchels Jazz kings which had no horns.  Lowry left that band and started a collaborationist with french or Belgian pianist Jean Weiner where the only horn involved was when Lowry played alto sax instead of the banjo.  There were a mad number of permutations fo this across the 1920s.  However,  I do not know Lowry playing in a band with horns except mention of himself playing bass saxophone with Jean Sawyer's Persian Room Orchestra (LOL yet aother variant of that one group with changing names mentioned above)  and his alto playing in France of Lowry's  musical context including horns.  All these bands did include drums and the organizer and prime figure in these bands over this perod was trap drummer Louis Mitchell.



Jody Stecher said:

There is a fair amount of information about Vance Lowry on the internet and several photos and photocopies of memorabilia. So far, I have found no photos of his banjo. But given the context of his music which was in bands with horns and drums, I think plectrum banjo is more likely than fingers. 

for instance

https://www.flickr.com/photos/puzzlemaster/3316370898/

My late judgment after finally figuring out how to record the selections from the french web site after years,  is not as astitute as those offered here.  Lowry began playing banjo as a child or teenager.  I have a newspaper article from 1906 of his playing in the streets of Topeka Kansas for tips with his father playing guitar to accompany him and the newspaper hailing him as a  prodigy although he was 15 years old.  He was a professional show business banjo performer at least by 1910 but probably 1909 touring with a vaudeville act led by "Kid Brown."  making United Time, refering to the main national vaudeville organization.   Already notices and articles on--where performers are-- in Black newspapers like the New York Age and the Indianapolis Freemen whose show business coverage was followed nationally,  refer to Lowry's engagements or moves from on act to another as if the reader is expected to know who he was.

    He was certainly a performing banjoist before the tenor banjo became standardized or before it became popular.  At least reading lots of black newspapers over the years from this period. you dont hear a lot about mandolin banjos and tenor banjos until around 1910-12.    When I studied Jazz guitar, I was taught to play certain tunes holding the plectrum with thumb and index finger and doing finger rolls with my  remaining fingers.  However, as I detail in my article on Gus Cannon, this really only works on slow tunes,  I think my teacher taught me Nat Cole"s  "Christmas Song"  that way, or at least struggle to teach me, LOL.

One notice  I read yesterday from a British newspaper review of the Ciro Club band after Lowry joined it in 1916 speak of an unidentified banjoist's  amazing play with thumb and fore finger.

LOL  since in other cases even the great and fairly decisively opinionated ELI KAUFMAN the GReat has said there are some recordings he cannot tell are plectrum or guitar-banjo style,  I  leave it for great minds than mine,.   '

Lowry played a variety of banjos five string back when there were only five strings,  four string mandolin banjo, bandolins, and tenor banjos with both plectrum and finger style.  

I think it is close.

Trapdoor2 said:

I would agree with Joel (and Ian)...although I cannot hear a second banjo.

In the photograph of Lowry, compare his right hand with that of the banjolin player. The banjolin player is obviously holding a plectrum between his thumb and forefinger, his index and middle fingers are split exactly as expected since he's anchored to the head with his remaining fingers. Lowery's thumb is advanced further out, in textbook classic fingerstyle position. Awkward to hold a plectrum this way (although I've seen it done).

In looking closely a the banjo (Weaver or Essex, I dunno), The tension hoop where the strings pass over is reflective and appears to have 5 lines (reflections of strings). I don't know if this model has a relief cut out for the strings at the heel of the neck...if it does, that top string reflection might be the top of the cut-out.

Tony, I'm looking forward to hearing your presentation in November. I'll be there!

Because this photograph shows Lowry playing a five string banjo with four strings,  it does not mean that in the recording made years later by my judgment  he was playing a five string banjo without the fifth string.  The photo looks like it was taken probably 1916 or 17 when Lowry was performing with the Ciro Club band in London,.The pianist appears to be Dan Kildare who killed himself in 1919 or 1920  

  IDboth recordings were made in 1929, NOT 1926, as the French radio web site says.  I have jpgs of the 78s!  He played in a lot of contexts and appears to have played  the 5 string banjo with or without a fifth string, mando banjos of various derivations including bandolins and tenors and four-string mandolin banjos (know after Lowry played them as melody banjos) and certainly played tenors and bandolins with plectrums


Joel Hooks said:

My opinion on the recordings (which you can hear by following the link to a podcast in the original post) is that the first piece is a duet with a "fingerstyle banjo" and a plectrum banjo.  With headphones I can hear two distinct voices.  The second piece is pure fingerstyle banjo complete with rasps or drum slides, the old drumming on the head trick (difficult to do with a plectrum) and chord tremolo at the end (finger waggle tremolo has a very different timbre from plectrum playing).

I can't rule out the possibility that he is finger picking on four strings (like Frank Lawes did) but that is unlikely.  The fifth string makes position jumps seamless and efficient.  His playing is very lively and polished.  I don't see why he would handicap himself by removing the 5th string.

The "metallic" sound of the 4th string could be due to him over playing it causing it to buzz.  He is picking the heck out of those strings with a very strong attack.  The strings will often not only buzz against the frets but the fourth can buzz against the 5th string on a fortissimo bass solo.

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