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Harry Reser

When one thinks of pre-bop banjoists, it is of purely rhythmic players whose chordal solos differ little from what they play during ensembles. Harry Reser however was quite a bit different, an outstanding virtuoso who was arguably the finest banjoist of the 1920's. Less an improviser than a brilliant technician who could play novelty ragtime with the speed of a pianist, Reser was also one of the most recorded musicians of the era. Reser actually started on the guitar when he was five and soon he was playing violin, cello and piano; later on he would add marimba, trumpet and saxophone. It was not until he was 16 (inspired by Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps), that Reser switched to banjo. After playing locally in dance bands, in 1921 Reser moved to New York where he was quickly in great demand. Over time he would play with Ben Selvin, Sam Lanin, Bennie Kruger and Paul Whiteman (even subbing once with Whiteman on trumpet!).

Reser started making records with many obscure groups almost immediately and in 1922 he recorded his first solo records including a remarkable version of Zez Confrey's "Kitten On The Keys." In addition to his series of virtuoso banjo workouts (writing more than twenty novelty rags) that still sound very impressive today, Reser recorded at the head of a huge number of overlapping dance bands (also writing many of the arrangements) that used a bewildering series of pseudonyms. Among the names he used were the Blue Kittens, the Bostonians, the Campus Boys, the Four Minstrels, the High Hatters, Phil Hughes' Orchestra, the Jazz Pilots, Jimmy Johnston's Rebels, the Night Club Orchestra, the Okeh Syncopators, Earl Oliver's Jazz Babies, the Parlophone Syncopators, the Plantation Players, the Rounders, the Seven Rag Pickers, the Seven Wild Men, the Six Hayseeds, the Six Jumping Jacks, Tom Stacks and his Minute Men, the Victorian Syncopators, Bill Wirges' Orchestra and the Seven Little Polar Bears! The best-known name was the Cliquot Club Eskimos, a radio band that for ten years (1925-35) helped sell soft drinks; the musicians appeared on radio dressed in eskimo suits! Their many recordings, with novelty vocals by Tom Stacks, were peppy, swinging in their own way and featured short solos.

After that band ran its course, Reser freelanced, playing in many settings throughout the world and writing ten instruction books for the banjo, guitar and ukulele. His last job was playing guitar in the orchestra for the 1965 Broadway musical, Fiddler On The Roof, dying of a heart attack in the pit as he was warming up for the night's performance. ~ Scott Yanow
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