Annually, the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City holds a 3 day extravaganza of talent, recognition, and pure love for America’s instrument, the banjo.
Banjo Fest 2019 kicked off with its traditional BBQ, including the grand-opening of the new exhibit, Reflections of Our Past. Live music was provided by Hall of Fame banjoists, Debbie Schreyer and Lee Floyd, and also the four time national five string banjo champion, Gary “Biscuit” Davis. The evening was topped off with the presentation of the American Banjo Museum Awards of Excellence. Recipients of the 2019 American Banjo Museum Awards of Excellence wer : Don Dempsey, St Louis, MO; Joe Feager, St Louis, MO; and Devon Tower of Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
Friday afternoon held a special Q&A session with collector Jim Bollman. Bollman, donning his “gator playing banjo shirt,” took the audience on a virtual walk-through of his home via the historic banjos and unique artifacts on display. Items in this one-of-a-kind tribute to the banjo were anything banjo… from coffee mugs, tin signs, to Silver Belles. This collection is a must see, and will be on display in OKC until December 2019.
Everything has a main event. For BanjoFest 2019, the main event was the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which took place atop the Devon Tower in historical downtown Oklahoma City. As always, each nominee for the Hall of Fame has significant lifelong contributions to the banjo, and has modified the way the world sees and hears America’s instrument. A formal event, black ties, tuxedos with tails, and formal evening gowns, were flowing upon the red carpet. After a scrumptious dinner, as we sipped our coffee, the ceremony began. The categories of the inductees each year are:
- Five String Performance
- Four String Performance
- Instruction and Education
- Four String Performance
This year’s inductees included:
Alison Brown: Five String Performance – Brown born in Hartford, CT, began playing the banjo at the age of ten. After winning the Canadian National Banjo Championship and an appearance at The Grand Ole Opry, Brown attended Harvard University. In 1987, a personal invitation to join Union Station was presented and without hesitation, Alison took the gig, and played with Alison Krauss & Union Station for 3 years. During her tenure, Alison was also named International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year in 1991. Brown has also won a Grammy for the 1990 Album, I’ve Got That Old Feeling, where she plays her instrument of choice, the banjo. Brown set her trail and her path ablaze with her gravitation toward a blend of bluegrass with a taste of jazz, and a feel of folk. Alison Brown is a co-founder of Compass records and has established an excellent repertoire of artists she has produced.
Jimmy Mazzy: Four String Performance – One of the best known traditional tenor banjoists and vocalists, Mazzy has remained a familiar face on the traditional jazz circuit since the 1970s. Performing worldwide and throughout the United States, he appears at major jazz festivals including Sacramento, San Diego, Essex, and many Connecticut festivals. Jimmy still performs with the Paramount Jazz Band, the Wolverine Jazz Band, and takes the time to freelance with others such as the Yankee Rhythm Kings, the Magnolia Jazz Five, and the Back Bay Ramblers.
John Hartford: Historical – Internationally known multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and entertainer John Hartford became the face of the banjo in the 1960s. He won Grammy awards in three different decades, recorded over 30 albums, and wrote one of the most popular songs of all times, Gentle On My Mind. John became a regular guest and contributor on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour and the Smothers Brothers Show. John plowed through his two loves, music and the Mississippi River where he learned to be a steamboat pilot. An American original, John was a musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, calligrapher, dancer, folklorist, father, and historian. Born John Cowan Harford (T added later in life) in New York on December 30, 1937, John grew up in St. Louis. He was a descendent of Patrick Henry, and cousin of Tennessee Williams. His grandfather was a founder of the Missouri Bar Association and his father was a prominent doctor. Hartford was a co-founder of the newgrass movement in the late 1960s and remained passionate and faithful to his roots in traditional music. Hartford danced along to his tunes on the banjo and fiddle, and entertained all who saw him perform. In 2001, with many songs left unsung or played, Hartford passed away at the age of 63.
Bob Snow/Rosie O’Grady’s: Promotion – In 1972, former Navy pilot and Dixieland jazz trumpet player, Bob Snow, opened a jazz club called Rosie O’ Grady’s in a derelict area of downtown Pensacola, FL. Rosie O Grady’s Goodtime Jazz Band set the tempo for jazz on the Panhandle for years to come. Snow featured the banjo in tens of thousands of shows at Rosie O’Grady’s, as well as in advertising, promotion, and imagery. Bob Snow’s vision allowed people to enjoy the music and good time entertainment associated with the banjo.
Johnny Baier: Four String Performance – Well known as the Executive Director of the American Banjo Museum, Baier has been entertaining audiences since 1971, when he began leading the sing-a-longs at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Oshkosh, WI. It was his exceptional passion, study, and countless hours of practice that led Baier into a unique solo tenor banjo style. Johnny continues his quest for excellence in performance, and the elevation of the perception and musicality of the banjo. Note also that despite Johnny’s own ruling prohibiting such an award to American Banjo Museum employees and directors, as Doug Parsons related, the board made an exception.
Janet Davis: Instruction and Education – Davis is most associated with the retail music business, but it is in her role as a musical educator that she has made her most lasting legacy in the banjo world. In 1978, Davis began selling self-produced instructional publications, at the same time that she and her husband, Jim, also began a music instrument and accessory business. Davis has been a regular contributor to the Banjo NewsLetter, and one of the world’s most published authors of banjo instructional books with over 100 titles published by Mel Bay alone.
After an evening of jams and socializing, one would think that there isn’t much more to be offered. However, Saturday night, Oklahoma City Community College was all abuzz as BanjoFest offered its final hoorah for the weekend. IBMA Banjo Player of the Year, Ned Luberecki, hosted the event, which was held at the Performing Arts Center. The concert featured Grammy Award winner, Allison Brown and her Quintet, The Grascals (featuring IBMA Banjo Player of the Year and 2018 Steve Martin Prize Winner, Kristin Scott Benson), and jazz banjo virtuosi Buddy Wachter and Johnny Baier.
BanjoFest provided an elite performance from each artist, blowing the glass ceiling off of the weekend. What a better way to share America’s instrument, by allowing over 30 banjo players to grace the stage and perform Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land.