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Elmer Snowden's Harlem Banjo

I have brought this post back up front because I added another selection by this Elmer Snowden quartet. Here they are  Doin' the New Lowdown, which was quite different from doing the Down Low, as we know it today. I also found the only photo I have from the session, the quality is not the best, but it was scanned from Se & Hør, a Danish TV/Radio magazine that probably no longer exists. (BTW, the depicted packet of guitar string is from Elmer's shoebox)

If you have done some browsing on this blog, you may have come across the name of Elmer Snowden. He was the listener who called me during a show at WHAT and informed me that Lonnie Johnson was in Philadelphia. I subsequently recorded Lonnie and Elmer for the Prestige label and they appeared on my WHAT-FM show.

Elmer's name is not as well known as Lonnie's, but he was a man without whom the history of jazz would be different. That is mainly because it was Elmer who brought Duke Ellington to New York, from Washington, D.C. and eventually allowed him to take over his band, The Washingtonians. That was nearly ninety years ago. More recently, fifty years ago, I suggested to Bill Grauer—my boss and founder of Riverside Records—that we do an album with Elmer.

Bill had a passion for early jazz and Elmer's name was one of those mystical once people read after blowing the dust away. Thinking of him as an old man who hadn't been heard from in several years and at this point probably had only his memories to offer, Bill suggested the kind of album one was most likely to find on Moe Asche's  Folkways label. "Have him talk about the old days and strum a few examples," he said. I knew that we could come up with an album that would surprise and delight him, so I just nodded and began thinking of a suitable group.

Click on image to enlarge
It wasn't as easy as I had thought it would be. It seemed logical to have Ray Bryant on piano, for Elmer had been a mentor to him and his older brother, Tommy, back in Philadelphia. "Elmer always booked me when he had a gig," Ray once told me. "We played weddings and all kinds of parties, and when there was no piano, Elmer had me banging on the bongos." As it turned out, two sessions with Ray's working trio didn't work out. I added Garvin Bushell and Gene Sedric on one of them, but the sound I had in mind just wasn't there, so I aborted both sessions, leaving six hitherto unissued tracks. They are probably boxed in some dark corner of a Concord Records vault. 

Then I remembered that Elmer had spoken of The Red Hot Eskimos, a trio or quartet  that he led and did rent party gigs with during the Depression. That led me to the idea of having Cliff Jackson play piano, Elmer's eyes lit up. "That's it!", he said, "Cliff knows what to do." He explained that he used to hire Jackson to front a Snowden band back in the days when business was booming and he had as many as four running concurrently. Before long, we had Tommy Bryant, Ray's older brother, on bass, and Jimmy Crawford the old Lunceford drummer moving it all along. This was the group we did our third session with, and it worked—we hit our stride, so to speak.

A few months later, I did get Elmer and Ray into the studio for a successful session, with Bud Freeman and another Snowden alumnus, Roy Eldridge, as well as Tommy on bass and Jo Jones on drums. I also did a solo album with Cliff Jackson (whose wife was Maxine Sullivan) and we did a couple of Prestige sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's studio. 

Getting back to the Riverside album, I named it "Harlem Banjo!" and Bill Grauer was, indeed, happily surprised when he heard it.  I have to confess that I never cared much for the banjo as a jazz instrument, but I had never before heard it played the way Elmer did it—he took it to another level. Well, you be the judge. Here is Running Wild from that session. I would really like to hear what you think, so please leave a comment.

Here is the second selection, Doin' the New Lowdown:


  1. I am fascinated that the record came to life only when the musicians were comfortable to do what they were willing.

    I like the New Orleans style of rhythm section banjo, I didn't know Elmer Snowden's banjo Jazz style exist until I heard "Harlem Banjo".

    I wonder how Elmer kept his play in excellent condition as such after that many years.

  2. Thank you for your comment, tommersl.

    Yes, having the right combination of musicians is very important.

    Elmer never really stopped playing, he just became too local (Philadelphia) to attract attention, and most of his activity was on the guitar. Fortunately, he brought his banjo to my apartment and when he played it my feelings about that instrument changed. As for his style, even jazz players were basically strummers so Elmer really had his own thing going. Today, Cynthia Sayers—inspired by Elmer—keeps it alive.

  3. Very swingin', in my humble opinion. We do not have so much of Banjo in Germany!


  4. Thanks, Brew. There should be nothing humble about your opinion—Elmer did, indeed, swing on an instrument that in most hands is somewhat rigid.
    That's my humble opinion :)

  5. An absolute charming delight - and great to know there was life after Duke for Elmer :-)
    Bill Egan

  6. Yes, Elmer deserved it—he spent too many years in relative obscurity, but he was never a bitter man. Elmer knew how to enjoy life, and he did.

  7. Excited to read anything I can about this landmark recording. Thanks! Do you know of any other recordings with the 4-string banjo up front like that?

  8. Thanks for commenting, Lanny. No, I'm afraid that I don't know of other 4-string banjo recordings, but that does not mean that they don't exist. Have you listened to Cynthia Sayers?

  9. Thanks Chris for posting this info. I started taking tenor lessons when I was 11. My teacher had me listen to this album and it changed everything. I modeled my style after Snowden's. He's the only tenor player that Im aware of that really improvises like a jazz musician. Im always on the look out for other recordings of him soloing. If you can ever dig up those unreleased recordings you'd be doing a great service to so many people! Is the album he did with Roy Eldridge available? What was its name? Did he play banjo or guitar? Thanks again.

  10. Thanks for your comments, Jamie. I am looking for the rejected sessions I did with Elmer and I will post them as soon as I can. The album with Roy Eldridge was originally issued in Europe on Fontana, under Elmer's name (as "Saturday Night Fish Fry"), but they subsequently put it out on Black Lion as an Eldridge album—it has Elmer playing guitar, but that same year, we did a Cliff Jackson Prestige Swingville session (4 selections) with a small band that has him on banjo. I'll post something from that very soon.

    Good luck with your music.

  11. Chris, thanks for all the info. It would be HUGE if you can unearth any of those tracks! I researched the Eldridge album. Very difficult and expensive to get. Its my hunch that Snowdens guitar playing is on tenor guitar (4 string). The voicings sound tenor tuning rather than 6 string. Any recollection there? Very eager to hear both Eldridge and Jackson tracks. Thanks again.

  12. Elmer was my Dad but I only knew him for a short time before he died. I visited him in his West Philly studio several times and then he passed away in 1973. I burried him and donated his banjo to the New York Local 801 Musicians Union. Eura and Pearl Baily assisted in the burial and Duke sent a telegram.

    I am very pleased to see his memory still lives on. You obviously were a friend of his and knew him more than I did. It did my heart good to see the posts and the interest in his music. My name is Joseph Urbano (Snowden) and I live in Colorado now. Elmer had me with Rita Urbano in 1955. He then went to Canada to form a band or he with his band; I'm not sure which. My Grandmother gave him the money to finance the band.

    Anyway, its nice to think of him and see that others appreciated his music.

    1. I am very pleased that we have made contact and that I now can put what I have of your father's memorabilia into your possession, where it belongs.

  13. Want more 4 String Tenor and Plectrum banjo? Google FIGA. Fretted. Instrument Guild of America. Or, Jazz Banjo. Your off and running.
    Incidentally, Elmer Snowden was inducted into the, Banjo Hall of Fame, last year, 2015 in Oklahoma.