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Elmer Snowden's Harlem Banjo!

Posted by sixwatergrog on Friday, March 16, 2012

In the world of tenor banjo, especially jazz tenor banjo, Elmer Snowden's 1960 album "Harlem Banjo!" is considered the Holy Grail.  At the time of its release, four-string banjoists were basically just strummers, but Elmer did more: he alternated between inventive leads and tasteful, intuitive backup.  Interestingly, he played tenor banjo tuned a fifth lower than most players of that time, with a low G on his bottom string, like a mandolin.  This is the same tuning that the innovative Irish tenor banjoist Barney McKenna of the Dubliners would later adopt.  Nowadays GDAE tuned tenor banjo is commonplace, no small thanks to Elmer.
Elmer Snowden Quartet - Harlem Banjo!
Snowden began his musical career in the 1920's and even worked with Duke Ellington and Count Basie early on.  Elmer fronted many bands over the next three decades including one with the very cool name of The Red Hot Eskimos. Unfortunately none of these bands were ever recorded and Elmer spent most of his career far from the limelight in relative obscurity.  Elmer was "rediscovered" at age 59 in 1959 when Philadelphia area producer and radio host Chris Alpertson heard him playing banjo and decided to record him. After scrapping an initial recording session that didn't quite work, Alpertson assembled a backing band consisting of Cliff Jackson piano, Tommy Bryant on bass, and drummer Jimmy Crawford.  This quartet gelled. "Harlem Banjo!" was the result and it was Elmer's first appearance as a leader on a recording. Additional recordings of Snowden playing banjo from these and other sessions are rumored to exist, but those have yet to surface.
 
Elmer played with a hot, swingy style and had an amazing sense of drive. Raw and primitive yet free-spirited and soulful.  Accomplished musicians like Cynthia Sayer and Jamie Masefield list Elmer Snowden as a primary influence. Sayer considers Snowden to be one of her two main "teachers", along with Django Reinhardt.  She even once transcribed all of his solos from this album!  Masefield modeled his style after Snowden and regards him as the only tenor banjo player to really improvise like a jazz musician.
Elmer Snowden, 1960
Although "Harlem Banjo!" has had a significant impact within the insular 4-string banjo community, banjo remains an under-appreciated instrument.  It's thought of as being backwoods by some and theatrical by others - something you might play for fun but not something to make real music with.  Nevertheless, Elmer Snowden helped prove that any instrument is as good as you choose to make it.


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