Born: September 16, 1903 | Died: August 14, 1978 Primary Instrument: Violin
Giuseppe Joe Venuti is widely regarded as the first great jazz violinist. Born to Italian parents who immigrated to the States; 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; and 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. 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 popularize 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.
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.
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.
Source: Chris Haigh