Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ossman and Banta, the Vaudeville instumentalists

Vess L. Ossman and Frank P. Banta, the vaudeville duo, what an interesting concept that seems.
The Narcissus of the early recording business^^
And the silent and cunning professor. 

I know that I speak of these two together and separately on some posts here and there on this blog, but they were a duo in vaudeville that could not have been equalled. They were fascinating characters on their own, but when getting into the two of them as a duo, so many stories and ideas can come into the conversation. It's a story that can seem like many others in the early vaudeville business. 

It starts with Ossman in 1890. In that year, he was at his peak of his rise to popularity, and everything was going his way. He was in love with a beautiful 15-year-old(to be married to her when she was 16), and winning all of those banjo contests. Life was easy for him, and all vaudeville houses fought over him to have him on their stages. The only thing that he was in need of was a specialty pianist. Who could that be? He was just having the house pianists at all of these hall play behind him, but in reality, this wasn't always the best for Ossman's style. He had to find someone, but who? After auditioning a multitude of unqualified pianists. He tried out some sporting house professors in 1893, just rambling around after shows to see if any of these pianists were up to it. Of course, Vess was treated like royalty when he went to places like that, because he was a celebrity anyhow. At one of these places, he saw a slightly tall, black-haired, long nosed, slim-figured Frank Banta. His face from the side at first made Vess roll his eyes, but after hearing him play a few rowdy tunes without saying a word, his ears were captured by his playing. Within the next year, "Ossman and Banta" were on all of the famous stages all over the East coast, making hits wherever they went. 

It took until 1896 for the two of them so start to make record regularly, which added to their popularity greatly. But later that same year, Edison's manager Walter Miller took an interest in Banta, as he could see him working in their studio and reading anything that the artists would hand him. So by the end of 1896, that's just was they hired Banta to do. Even if it seems the two of them split, technically they didn't split up in vaudeville. Banta still went and did performances with Vess, until about 1900 when working at Edison and Victor was beginning to consume all of his time and energy. Banta still made tons of records with him between 1899 and 1903, as he's on all of Ossman's Victors. When I say all of them I mean ALL OF THEM(including his "A Bunch of Rags"). Ossman skewed from Banta when he made Columbia cylinders, instead of Banta, he had Hylands. Ossman came to find quick that Hylands was a whole other kind of piano monster than Banta, a kind that he must have been somewhat menaced by. The amount of intelligence and character that came with Hylands must have been too much for Vess to want to deal with regularly. He found the modesty and introvertedness of Frank Banta perfectly suited for him, so he could be himself while Banta stayed quiet and observed. 

When Vess performed with Banta, some tunes seemed almost like a battle, as Banta's time was shaky, and so was Ossman's. The tunes either stayed perfectly together, or there were issues occasionally with rhythm on either of their parts. When Ossman played with Hylands, that was a different kind of battle, instead of being one of rhythmic stability, Hylands made it a battle of appearance and musical ostentation(who could be more frivolous?). 

Banta must have found traveling with Ossman very tiring and boring only when they weren't onstage or at parties he was invited to. I'm sure Vess would get invited to big parties and gatherings that Banta didn't want to go to, or simply wasn't invited to. Banta wasn't the one who had all the "groupies", so he oftentimes was the one who wanted to go on back to the hotel and sleep as much as he could before the next performance. Sometimes, Vess would allow for that, but other times, he wanted him to come along and play for the party guests. Vess was a "life of the party"type(much like Len Spencer), and was invited to many of those gatherings that the Easton's had at the Waldorf in 1898 and 1899, but Banta was not even told of these, as it was Hylands who would inevitably be there as pianist at those. I also have the feeling that Hylands and Spencer endorsed Ossman on many events held by the members of their firm in 1899, disregarding Banta only as an Edison staff member, not one of the "Columbia Clan". When Ossman returned to work more with Banta in 1901, it was at Victor that he made some exceptional records with Banta, some that are as superior examples of Rag-Time as Spencer and Hylands cylinders in 1898 and 1899. 
Some of which you can hear:
Their perfect rendition of "A Bunch if Rags" (with LOTS OF FIFTHS!)
"Tell me Pretty Maiden"(Floradora)
"Salome Intermezzo", which he also recorded with Hylands on Columbia
S. R. Henry's "The Colored Major"(notice! the date right before this one was recorded, Leachman made a batch of records, also with Banta!)

Meanwhile, at Columbia, Ossman was getting flustered with Fred Hylands almost every day that he came in to make records with him. He much preferred Banta come to whatever studio he went to, but that simply was not possible, the Columbia people would not want Hylands to get replaced several times in a month, just because of a pianist who didn't work there(Notice! this is the reason that we don't hear Banta on Columbia's behind Ossman, as for a long time, that was the common belief). If Ossman ever dragged in Banta, Hyands would be cross for--- other reasons...(if you know what I mean...)
Even with the fights, Ossman made some fantastic cylinders with Hylands from 1898 to 1904, that sound just as great as the renditions with Banta from the same time frame:
"Sounds from Africa", 1898
"A Bunch of Rags", 1903
"The Darkey's Dream", 1898(fantastic piano accompaniment!)
"Whistling Rufus", 1899

Here's the problem with Ossman working with Hylands; Hylands always sped up when with Vess, no matter what record it is you're listening to, you will notice the speed change if you're keeping up with the rhythm. It's not just because they were running out of time(as most people still think for some reason), it was because of how Hylands worked with Ossman, and how Ossman worked with Hylands. This was still a problem with Banta, but it wasn't as combative as it was with Hylands. 
Anyhow, if Banta had lived longer, it be certain that Vess would have clung to him, and still had him as his accompanist after the piano accompaniment era ended, which, even if Banta had lived longer, still would have ended by 1907, just maybe a little bit later than the actual 1905 date. 

I hope you enjoyed this!