LONGMONT, Colo. — Mark Vann, 39, banjo player with the Colorado-based bluegrass/jam band Leftover Salmon, died at his home March 4, 2002. He died after a six-month battle with the skin cancer melanoma. He was born Dec. 28, 1962 in Rockville, Md.
Vann first became interested in playing the banjo at age 9, after hearing Carl Patger at the Festival of American Folklife. He formed a band with brother Mike on mandolin, father Bryant on guitar, and mother Ricki on upright bass.
After two years of college, Vann retreated to the pines of northern Virginia where he built himself a one-room cabin and played the banjo all day for two years.
Vann met Jennifer Loud while on a trip to upstate New York. They married and started a carpentry business building decks.
Vann won the banjo contest at the Telluride Bluegrass festival in 1989, where he met mandolinist Drew Emmitt and guitarist Vince Herman, who convinced him he needed to play banjo for a living. Soon he and Jennifer loaded up the truck and headed for Longmont to join the Left-Hand String Band. Shortly afterwards, Leftover Salmon was born.
For the next twelve years, Vann brought the banjo to whole new audiences and genres of music. He quickly became one of the most respected players in his field.
He has played with musicians such as Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, Earl Scruggs, Sally Van Meter, Taj Mahal, Del McCoury, Lucinda Williams, members of Widespread Panic, Blues Traveller, and Sam Bush and John Cowan, of Newgrass Revival fame.
“If Earl Scruggs invented the bluegrass banjo and Bela Fleck invented jazz banjo, then Mark was the guy who put then together,” said Chuck Morris, who managed Leftover Salmon for six years.
Vann was an energetic force, even during his illness. “Mark lived life to its fullest and he would insist that we do so as well,” said Herman. “He will be greatly missed and will continue to be an inspiration to many to go big.”
Scores of fans left messages on e-mail lists, mourning Vann’s passing.
One said: “I haven’t been this sad since Jerry (Garcia, guitarist for the Grateful Dead) died.” Another fan remembered how Vann would always stop and talk with him at concerts. Many noted Vann’s influence on their own banjo playing.
Leftover Salmon influenced many bands in the Denver-Boulder area, most notably The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.
Dave Johnson, banjo player for Yonder Mountain, credits Vann and Leftover Salmon with a large measure of his own band’s success.
“They always extended their arms and said ‘come along,’” he said. They would tell promoters about us and helped us get a large chunk of the journey faster. They were supportive older brothers.”
Vann wasn’t given the credit he was due, Johnson said.
“I always thought Mark was under-rated. I like to try and model myself not so much after his playing, but how he was a team player. He was a huge part of the band, and made these three guys (Emmitt, Herman and Vann) become this musical entity. He was the glue that held them together,” Johnson said.
Jeff Austin, mandolinist for Yonder Mountain remembers Vann as a risk taker.
“He was the guy who would stick his neck out and take risks, he would always say pick it, play it and don’t (mess) around,” Austin said.
Mark was a dedicated musician, not just to being a banjo player but the music as a whole. Vann was in love with the fact that Leftover Salmon was making this music with the vibe of bluegrass or rock but also doing something completely different.
“You know we have a million guitarists who sound like Jerry Garcia or Trey Anastazio or Duane Allman. In a world where everyone sounds like somebody else, Mark Vann sounded like Mark Vann,” Austin said. “When he would play the Stump (a banjo he and another instrument maker built, literally, out of a tree stump) he had this amazing tone, and I could say, ‘yeah, that is Mark Vann.’”
A fund has been set up to offset medical costs. Donations, cards, or letters can be sent to: Mark and Jennifer Vann Fund, P.O. Box 393, Nederland,Colo., 80466.