Joe Venuti (1903-'78)
Joe Venuti is widely regarded as the first
great jazz violinist. Born to Italian parents who emigrated to
the States (he claimed to have been born on the boat, though as
we'll see, all his stories are to be taken with a pinch of salt!);
he learned classical violin as a child, the fruits of which can
be clearly seen in his exciting melodic and rhythmic technique.
At school in Philadelphia in 1913 he met guitarist Eddie Lang; they started playing together , at first playing polkas, inventing and trading variations, quickly moving into jazz. It was a fortuitous and rewarding partnership. From 1926 to 33 they made many recordings, in a variety of small band line-ups, becoming internationally famous, not least because the novelty of the guitar/violin combination.
Venuti's technique was groundbreaking; he had
a sharp, bright tone, excellent intonation, and an ability to
play in any key, anywhere on the violin. He developed what has
become known as the "violin capo" technique, using his
first finger as the root and fifth of whatever key he was playing
in. In A flat, for example, he would start with his first finger
on the low A flat on the G string, and B flat on the D string,
playing one octave up to the fourth finger on the D string. If
he wanted to move higher he would move to fourth position, replacing
the top A flat (fourth finger) with his first finger; this gave
him a a new octave on the D and A strings. Moving up again gave
him yet another octave on the A and E strings. This made playing
in any key easy,as well as allowing double stops and rocking bow
patterns anywhere up and down the neck.
He was probably the first violinist to popularise the "double shuffle" ( a 123,123, 123,123,12,12 pattern rocking across two or three strings, and extending across two or more bars) which was quickly adopted by western swing and later bluegrass fiddlers.
He made frequent use of clean, accurate harmonics; both true harmonics and the more difficult artificial harmonics (created by "stopping" the string with the first finger, and lightly touching the same string with the fourth finger, a fourth interval higher) He used frequent choppy double stops, and could do extended swinging pizzicato solos. His playing was always punchy, aggressive, inventive and playful. Perhaps his most famous technique, rarely copied because it's at the same time very difficult and completely wacky, was to unfasten the hairs of his bow, then wrap them round the top of his fiddle, with the bow underneath.
This enabled him to play all four strings simultaneously,
allowing lush four part harmonies.
His approach to playing was mirrored very much in his character; he was a notorious prankster, and there are countless stories (often spread, exagerrated and quite possibly invented by himself!) of madcap adventures and escapades. He is said to have pushed a piano out of a fifth floor window in order to see what key it would play when it hit the sidewalk; to have nailed a pianist's shoes to the floor because he wouldn't stop tapping his feet; to have given a fellow musician directions to a gig which involved a 200 mile journey, ending up round the block from where he started, and perhaps most famously calling up 26 (or was it 46?) tuba players (or was it double bass players?) to an imaginary gig in Hollywood (or was it Manhatten?)- just for the fun of seeing the confusion as they all arrived at the same place at once.
Many of Venuti and Lang's compositions bear
wacky titles such as "Black and Blue Bottom", "Kickin'
the Cat", "Beatin' the dog" "Add a little
Wiggle", "Have to change keys to play these blues"
and"Bullfrog Moan". Among the backing instruments which
appear on their recordings are bass saxophone, comb, hot fountain
pen, kazoo and a remarkable instrument called the goofus. A majority
of the numbers they recorded and performed were self-penned, frequently
integrating flashy "set piece" fiddle tricks into the
main melody. "Wild Dog" is a playful number with alternating
sections either slow, lazy and carefree, or completely frantic,
whilst "Wild Cat" is a showcase for the breathtaking
speed of which Venuti was capable, always performed with absolute
neatness and precision of bowing.
"Raggin' the Scale" , one of their best known tunes, has them apparently practicing scales within the melody.
At the time of the Great Depression this brilliant, irreverent, light hearted approach is just the kind of thing the American public wanted. Venuti and Lang achieved great success, fulfiling many recording sessions for a variety of labels, most frequently under the title "Joe Venuti's Blue Four". In addition they worked with many important artists of the day such as Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman,Paul Whiteman, the Dorsey Brothers and Jack Teagarden.
This productive period was brought to a tragic close by the sudden death of Eddie Lang in 1933; he died in hospital during an operation for tonsillitis. Venuti then formed his own big band, but this did not prove a big success, whether because he missed Lang's steadying influence and more astute business sense, because of Venuti's increasing drinking problem, or simply because musical tastes were changing. His career went into a rapid decline, and after the war he folded his band and moved to the West Coast to concentrate on anonymous Hollywood studio work. The only notable feature of this largely bleak part of his career was his numerous appearances during the '50's on Bing Crosby's radio show, where he was able to show off his quick wit, outrageous stories and gruff repartee to best advantage.
His fortunes changed once more in 1967; building
on an electrifying appearance at the annual Dick Gibson Colorado
Jazz Party, he resumed his recording career, working with artists
such as Earl Hines, Bucky Pizzarelli and most notably the swinging
tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims.
In 1969 he recorded a fine album (Venupelli Blues) with Stephane Grappelli, who acknowledged that it was seeing Venuti perform in Paris in 1935 that was one of his major inspirations.
He continued working, appearing at major jazz festivals round the world up until his death from cancer in 1978.
His dazzling technique, humour and inventiveness helped to put jazz violin on the musical map, and he has been a major inspiration to all who have followed in his footsteps.
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