Part VI – Open Ears & The New York Banjo Ensemble

Frank “Sonny” Dallas was a great teacher of jazz and well-known bassist who worked extensively with Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz and Elvin Jones among others. One day in conversation, he dropped a great quote – “It can be a fine line between being in a groove and being in a rut.” The teachers, musicians and colleagues that I’ve enjoyed the most are ones who bring diversity to the table. Sy Shaffer opened my ears to Bartok, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Schoenberg and Schillinger among others. One of my most surprising sessions with Roy Smeck was the day after John Lennon’s death; not only was Roy emotionally upset (“I never thought I’d see the day they’d gun down a musician in the street”), but he showed that he had more knowledge of the Beatles’ music than anyone would have expected. Both of them demonstrated the perspective of “open ears” to me.

My first banjo epiphany was at the first Long Island Banjo Spectacular show at Hofstra University Playhouse. Plenty of great banjo performers were on hand, most playing from the familiar repertoire of solos – “The World is Waiting For The Sunrise”, “China Boy”, Broadway show tunes, or pieces that showcase speed and technique like “William Tell Overture” or “Flight of the Bumble Bee”.

I remember when Eddy Davis took the stage and announced that he would play Fletcher Henderson’s “The Stampede”…I was only recently familiar with the song at that time, but had never conceived of how a tune with that kind of harmonic density and arrangement could translate to a mere four strings. I bought a couple of Eddy’s LPs that weekend which he kindly autographed for me, and invited me to sit with him in the display area and try out an instrument which I hadn’t heard of before – a cello banjo. Tuned an octave lower than the tenor, it had thick gauge strings and was suited very nicely to playing bass lines. I attempted to feel my way around the instrument as Eddy played beautiful tunes from Ellington, Waller and Gershwin. It was an elevating experience which was only surpassed a few weeks later when I received a call inviting me to join Eddy, Cynthia Sayer and Frank Vignola to try out some material on cello banjo at a rehearsal for the New York Banjo Ensemble!

Cynthia and Eddy had developed an entertaining and educational program which ambitiously attempted to expand the palate of the banjo as a classic instrument in recordings and in live performances. Ragtime, jazz, show tunes, classical…the ensemble covered it all. Over the years, I got to play with others who rotated through the group – Howard Alden, Mike Peters, Wayne Wright, Joel Eckhaus and Pete Compo to name a few. It was my first experience working with established professional musicians; intimidating for sure, but also the best learning experience I could get. I was also getting a glimpse of life as a touring performer – festivals, venues, hotels, travel – and getting a sense of how jazz performers have particularly become an endangered and vastly under-appreciated social treasure in the very country where jazz developed.

As with my “formal” teachers, I owe Cynthia Sayer and Eddy Davis a debt of gratitude for their support of my development as a musician. The quartet (as I first rehearsed with them) had something of a “reunion” as part of a larger group recreating a concert by James Reese Europe’s famed Clef Club Orchestra at Carnegie Hall a few years later – another musical high point in my life. It’s my honor to have shared those experiences with such fine people and great musicians.


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