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Salute to The Rhythmakers This Week on Riverwalk Jazz

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This week on Riverwalk Jazz, New Orleans-based trumpeter Duke Heitger, along with Bay Area guitarist Clint Baker, join the Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band for a tribute to the remarkable set of hot 1932 recordings known today as The Rhythmakers.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

It all started with a routine business trip to Cleveland for jazz impresario Irving Mills, who discovered and signed the quirky, new singing talent—Billy Banks. Mills brought his protégé to New York to headline at Harlem's popular nightspot, Connie's Inn. To promote Banks and his New York engagement, Mills hired guitarist and bandleader Eddie Condon to put together a band for a series of records.

And what a band it was! Condon assembled a remarkable gathering of jazz titans. Trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, bass players Al Morgan and Pops Foster, and drummer Zutty Singleton were all from New Orleans. Condon hired fellow Chicagoan, pianist Joe Sullivan; Missourian Jack Bland on guitar; and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell from St. Louis. For the later sessions, Condon added Fats Waller and a 27-year-old rising star of the trombone, Tommy Dorsey.

Over time, Billy Banks' gender-bending vocals on The Rhythmakers tracks have been famously mistaken for those of the 1930s bandleader Una Mae Carlisle. Banks had a parallel career as a female impersonator on the vaudeville stage.

Legally imposed racial segregation enforced throughout the country made it impossible for The Rhythmakers to perform in public in the '30s. American audiences were simply not ready to see black and white performing together.

Today Billy Banks is mostly forgotten, but the Rhythmakers discs are highly prized by musicians, collectors, jazz writers and fans. Through an atmosphere of lighthearted fun, one can hear the fiery chemistry between horn players Russell and Allen and the propulsive rhythmic feel of the New Orleans rhythm men.

Also noteworthy is the use of two unusual strummed instruments played by Condon and Bland—lutes with plectrum necks made by the Vega Banjo Company. Vega had manufactured these unusual hybrid instruments in the 1920s so that jazz banjo players like Condon could play a guitar-like instrument without having to learn new fingering.

After the Rhythmakers sessions and headlining at Connie's Inn, Billy Banks worked around New York for a short while, then toured Europe, eventually settling in Tokyo.

Three decades later in 1964, on tour with the Eddie Condon All-Stars in Japan, Pee Wee Russell ran into Billy Banks. Pee Wee had not seen Banks since the Rhythmakers sessions in 1932 in New York. After an initial greeting, Pee Wee asked Banks, “So—you got any more gigs?"

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