Whilst no-one questions the position of the fiddler in any kind of folk band, the jazz violinist constantly has to justify himself in the face of sceptics who believe that we should stick to either Bach or barndances. The violin is still not widely seen as being a natural instrument for swing, despite a history going back to the early days of Jazz.
First among the pioneers of jazz violin was Joe Venuti (1903-78), an eccentric and highly accomplished swing player who enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with guitarist Eddie Lang, and had a great reputation as a practical joker. His style included many double stops, and he invented a bizarre method of playing by loosening the hairs of his bow and wrapping them round all four strings, with the bow stick underneath the violin; he could then scrape away with otherwise impossible quadruple stops! (MORE ON JOE VENUTI)
Eddie South (1904-62) learned classical violin before turning to jazz. Though American born he studied in Budapest and developed a warm, passionate gypsy feel to his playing which earned him the name "the Dark Angel of the violin". Much of his playing and recording career was spent in Paris.
Stuff Smith, another black American fiddler, had a much more raucous and bluesey approach, and continued the double stopping technique of Venuti.. His playing was characterised by the use of short, punchy horn lines, quite different from the long, flowing phrases of fiddlers like Grappelli. He used the bow "like a horn player uses breath control.", staying mostly at the tip to achieve control and attack. He worked with many of the jazz greats including Oscar Peterson, Jelly Roll Morton and Dizzy Gillespie. (MORE ON STUFF SMITH)
Other American jazz fiddlers included Paul Nero (1917-58), famous for his hugely popular The Hot Canary, Hal Otis (1922-74), who among others worked with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, and John Frigo (b.1916), whose playing encompasses Jazz, rock, country and Latin.
Not all the great jazz violinists were American. Svend Asmussen was a Danish fiddler, much influenced by Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti, who achieved much success in Scandinavia and throughout Europe; he was so busy that Benny Goodman was unable to persuade him to come and work in America. One of the landmarks of jazz violin history came in 1966 when Asmussen joined Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli and Jean-Luc Ponty in a "violin summit"- a live recorded performance in Switzerland which compared and contrasted four different styles of jazz violin to great effect. (MORE ON JEAN LUC PONTY)
The Hot Club
Undoubtedly the most influential jazz fiddler of his century was Stephane Grappelli who, with legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt created the Quintette du Hot Club de France. With a line-up including two rhythm guitars and double bass, theirs was a lively, swinging and distinctly European style of jazz.
After studying at the Paris Conservetoire; Grappelli began busking in restaurants and courtyards, mostly playing polkas and waltzes. He went on to play piano in a dance band, and it wasn't until he met Django at a venue called the Croix de Sud that he started seriously playing jazz violin. Though the two could hardly have been less compatible in their background- Stephane educated and elegant, Django the feckless gypsy-the two struck up an immediate musical rapport. They jammed backstage at every opportunity, and within a matter of months they had formed a quartet with a bass and rhythm guitar; Django quickly insisted that they add a second rhythm guitar since he didn't consider it fair that Stephane had two guitarists to back him while he had only one!
Their first recording, in 1934, was of four standards, Dinah, Tiger Rag, Lady be Good and I saw Stars; it was an immediate success, impressing critics and audience alike with its elegance and wit. They quickly established an international reputation, but whilst on tour in England they were separated by the outbreak of war, Stephane remaining in London while Django returned to a somewhat precarious existence in Paris. Six years later they were reunited, but failed to renew the impetus of their earlier work together. Django died of an illness in 1953, and Stephane's career stagnated until the 70's, when he was rediscovered by a new
generation of jazz fans, establishing him as headlining soloist the world over. One of the most talked-about highlights of his career was his TV and later recording duet with the classical virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. The latter, completely new to jazz, had all his solos written out for him and obviously lacked the subtlety of phrasing which can make a tune swing. Nevertheless it was a highly successful piece of musical diplomacy, did a great deal to widen both their public profiles, and demonstrated clearly how two highly contrasting approaches to music can nevertheless always find some common ground.
Grappelli's playing on the early recordings had a hard edge with aggressive riffs and many "blue" notes (flattened 3rds, fifths and sevenths). He made particular use of harmonics, incorporating them into melodies such as Daphne and HCQ Strut, as well as into solos. He also favoured the use of runs in parallel fifths, fingering two adjacent strings simultaneously. His later playing, particularly after his "comeback" in the seventies, was increasingly elegant and lyrical, making the most elaborate improvisations seem entirely effortless. His playing has been analysed and copied by many jazz violinists, and many of his trademark licks will live on in his absence.
(MORE ON STEPHANE GRAPPELLI)
One of the leading players following the Grapelli legacy today is Tim Kliphuis from Holland; he has toured extensively with Fapy Lafertin, Robin Nolan and Angelo Debarre, and now with his own trio The Grapelli Project.
The jazz violin was taken a step further by such players as Jean-Luc Ponty and Didier Lockwood, both of whom combine superb technique with electronic wizardry moving through bebop to jazz-rock. These players made good use of electric violins which, originally designed to eliminate the danger of feedback during performance, became increasingly sophisticated and attractive, with skeletal bodies and high-tech transparent or brightly coloured metallic materials.
The blues is an important element of any jazz violinist's playing style; even if you're not playing an actual 12-bar blues, you're almost certain to make some use the blues scales (either the major blues scale- a major pentatonic with an extra flattened third), or the minor blues scale (which also has the flattened fifth and flattened seventh) (MORE ABOUT THE BLUES SCALE)
Papa John Creach was probably the best exponent of pure blues violin; he reached wide attention through his work with Jefferson Airplane, but subsequently released several solo albums showing off his style to the full;passionate, soulful playing with simple repeated phrases from the minor blues scale. (MORE ABOUT PAPA JOHN CREACH). A contemporary of Papa John was Don Sugarcane Harris, who worked with Frank Zappa in the early 70's. (MORE ABOUT SUGAR CANE HARRIS)
Perhaps the best British jazz fiddler today is Christian Garrick, who masters the hot club style, the more modern repertoire, and gypsy fiddling. He has developed a fearsome reputation for his work with the gypsy band Szapora, with guitarist John Etheridge, and his own solo projects.
We have Ornette Coleman to thank for “free jazz”-music in which rhythm, harmony, melody and structure are largely abandoned in favour of free expression. He started his career in the early 50’s playing sax in various R&B groups, and soon graduating to bebop. This he found restrictive, and was soon developing his own voice, throwing out all the rules, and making himself very unpopular with other musicians, many of whom would leave the stage when he started to play. His 1960 album “Free Jazz-a collective improvisation” proved both highly divisive and highly influential. Many hated it and everything it stood for, but it opened up new avenues for a whole host of modern free-thinking jazz musicians. In the 1960’s Coleman began playing violin- left handed and self taught. The fact that he had no technique to speak of made little difference within the style of music he was playing. “I think he should stick to his alto sax” was the comment of veteran swing fiddler Stuff Smith.
Among the violinists to follow Coleman’s lead into free jazz are a trio of black American players.
Leroy Jenkins (1932-2007) was a classically trained violinist who trod an uncompromising and highly individual path in modern jazz. His music, either free or composed, was harmonically challenging to say the least. He often performed solo, but was best known for his work with the Revolutionary Ensemble. If you’re looking for hummable melodies, foot-tapping rhythms and sweet harmonies, keep looking.
Much rougher in tone and with weaker intonation than Jenkins, nevertheless Billy Bang, who names Jenkins as his chief inspiration, has a much more approachable style. Along with some free and experimental sounds Bang has a strong dose of swing and blues in his playing, and in 1992, with Sun Ra (with whom he worked for 10 years) he recorded a tribute to Stuff Smith. He has over 14 albums under his own name, as well as a number witht the String Trio of New York.
Michael White, based in San Francisco, was another pioneer in free jazz on the violin, and despite having made little impact on the jazz world as a whole, has worked with a number of leading artists including Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Stevie Wonder, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. He manages to mix total cacophony with some quite accessible material.
A fierce and uncompromising contemporary British exponent of free jazz violin is Graham Clark. You can hear him on “Improvisations series one” with pianist Stephen Grew- recorded “with no prior preparation and no subsequent manipulation”. He is also well known for his work with the reformed jazz/rock/fusion band Gong
JAZZ VIOLIN TECHNIQUE
For the fiddle player, jazz has several challenging aspects which set it apart from most folk styles. Each number in a jazz performance starts and ends with a melody which is played more or less "straight" (as written), but the bulk of the number is made up of improvised solos which, whilst following the basic chord sequence, will have little if anything to do with the original tune. This is the opportunity for the soloist to state and develop his own ideas and to inter-react with the rest of the band. Each solo may run several times round the sequence ,and occasionally the band will do "fours", where four bar solos are alternated between musicians. Hopefully the excitement will mount as each soloist tries to copy and elaborate on the other's previous effort. If the audience start leaving, it's clearly time to get back to the "head" and on with the next number!
The jazz violinist needs to be able to play in the higher positions, to be relaxed in almost any key (particularly the flat keys, beloved of wind players), and to play with a rich tone, particularly on slow numbers. Pentatonic and blues scales are invaluable but shouldn't be overused, and a good knowledge of chord structures and sequences is essential, though this can be instinctive rather than conscious.
Most important, and perhaps most elusive of all, the fiddler must be able to swing. This comes mainly from the bowing patterns; notes are typically grouped in dotted pairs but with a subtle and constantly changing emphasis. (MORE ON JAZZ VIOLIN TECHNIQUE)
Among the best-known tunes of the "Hot Club" repertoire are Dinah, Honeysuckle Rose, Sweet Georgia Brown and Undecided. Django and Stephane added many of their own compositions, including Djangology, Minor Swing, Swing '39 and the beautiful ballad Nuages.
Many jazz venues and festivals will occasionally feature a violinist, but one of the best places to hear Hot Club music today is at the annual midsummer festival of Samois-sur-Seine near Paris, where many gypsy musicians gather to celebrate Django and Stephane's remarkable legacy.
CONTEMPORARY GYPSY JAZZ
The music of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli is usually referred to either as Hot Club or Gypsy Jazz. The gypsy element of the music- the minor keys, furious tempos and chromatic runs came from Reinhardt. Grappelli outlived his partner by many years, and gradually moved away from the style he had used in the 30’s. Gypsy jazz, however, has grown and developed vigorously since Django’s death, among gypsies and non-gypsies alike.
A visit to the Samois festival (held every June in the French town on the Seine where Django lived in his final years), or any other gypsy jazz festival, will quickly show you that the genre is dominated by guitarists, who gather in their hundreds to compare string gauges, plectrum designs and chord substitutions. Yes, they’re an exciting lot. As a fiddle player, you’ll be a rare but highly valued species.
Among the best contemporary gypsy jazz violinists is the Romanian –born Florin Niculescu. He received a full classical training at the George Enescu Academy in Bucharest, before moving to Paris in the early 90’s where he began working with Boulou and Elios Ferre, two of the top gypsy jazz guitarists, with Babik Reinhardt’s “New Quintette du Hot Club de France” and Birelli Legrene’s “Gypsy Project”.
Dorado Schmidt is both a fiddler and guitarist, noted for his fine melodic compositions, and mastery of the gypsy bossa style; his tune Bossa Dorado is now widely played. Also worth discovering are the blind Belgian violinist Tcha Limberger, the German Titi Winterstein, Watti Rosenberg from the famous musical gypsy family from Holland, and from Amsterdam Tim Kliphuis- not a gypsy but a talented and dedicated Grappelli stylist.
Chris Haigh is a jazz violinist based in London; he has played with The Kimbara Brothers, Diz Disley, Le Jazz, The Hot Club of London, Robin Katz and the Quecumbar Allstars. He gives lessons and workshops on jazz violin technique, and has taught jazz violin at Middlesex and Brunel Universities and Truro College. He is the author of several books on fiddle playing, including Exploring Jazz Violin (Schott, 2010)
INTERESTED IN JAZZ VIOLIN LESSONS IN LONDON? CLICK HERE FOR A PAGE ON JAZZ VIOLIN TECHNIQUE AND DETAILS OF TUITION
EXPLORING JAZZ VIOLIN
by Chris Haigh
Mark Chung's Jazz Strings site
Joe Venuti page on "Red Hot Jazz"site
Joe Venuti (on "All about Jazz" site
Bret Arenson's Stuff Smith biography on Jazz Owl
The Hot Club- source page for all Grappelli's recordings
London is very lucky to have a venue dedicated to French gypsy jazz , the amazing Quecumbar in Battersea