By January 18, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Fiddle me this: violinists in jazz (part 2).

fiddlers1(left to right) Joe Venuti; a couple of fair fiddlers, Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin; Frankie and Johnnie: Frank Zappa and Jean-Luc Ponty

(continued from part 1) It wasn’t until the very late 1920’s that the first real jazz violinist showed up on records and—in a twist—he turned out to the very talented—but also very white—Joe Venuti. Like his contemporaries Jack Teagarden, Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Biederbecke, Venuti was part of a small group of gifted white players who rivaled the influence and ability of their black contemporaries in this second generation of jazz musicians. Venuti displays a fully-formed, mature approach to genuine jazz improvisation on even his earliest recordings, and he was among a handful of players to actually be “swinging” their solos before the end of the decade. He enjoyed a long, successful career as a fine jazz musician, although he never really made any attempt to move much beyond the musical ideas he’d helped to create in the 1920’s.

The same problems of volume that kept violins from participating much in early jazz also kept them from spreading much beyond Venuti’s hands until the arrival of Stephane Grappelli on records that began making their way here from France, sometime after 1930. Musical partner to the brilliant gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, Grappelli was in many ways the antithesis of his band mate. Django was illiterate—both musically and verbally—while non-gypsy Grappelli had conservatory training. Grappelli was gay in an era when perhaps only gypsies were looked upon with greater scorn, which may explain their ability to coexist. Grappelli also was the perfect musical foil for Reinhardt’s explorations. Not quite as daring melodically, Grappelli grasped the rhythmic nuances of swing even before Django did, and they seemed to feed off of each other. Django died relatively young, while Stephane enjoyed a long career after parting ways with Reinhardt in 1940, playing publicly almost until his death in 1997.

The late 1930’s and early ’40’s were the closest thing to a golden age that jazz fiddling ever had. Stuff Smith, the star of our video in Part One of this story, came to prominence as a riffing, swinging exponent of bluesy jump and humorous novelty numbers, and was the first to use the then-new electric violin. Joe Venuti was still around, but now he was leading a big dance band that played just enough jazz to showcase the leader. A couple of more academic violinists who made a name for themselves in jazz around this time were Eddie South and Ray Nance. South was something of a young classical prodigy but, as an African-American, the segregation of that era forced him into quasi-jazz and pop settings.

South recorded a series of duets with Stephane Grappelli—backed by Django Reinhardt’s guitar—that featured the two violinists on pop tunes as well as a couple of improvisations on classical pieces. Most memorable was a fiery, swinging version of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Listening to these sessions, it becomes apparent that South’s talents were indeed in the classics, as his improvisational skills were marginal, at best. Grappelli here becomes an interesting example of a white player out-swinging a black one, which didn’t happen often in that era.

Ray Nance was billed as something of a discovery when he joined Duke Ellington’s band in 1940, but in fact he’d been around for years, first with his own band and later with Earl Hines. Like Eddie South, Nance was also something of a prodigy, but one who had much better jazz chops. His uniqueness lay in his mastery of several skills: violin, vocals and his main instrument, the trumpet,. Ellington, while using Nance’s trumpet to good effect as a replacement for the departed Cootie Williams, also featured him on vocals and fiddle. His first, and possibly most famous appearance on violin with Duke’s band was on the original recording of “C-Jam Blues”.

Nance’s jazz feel might have been more developed than Eddie South’s, but in Ellington’s band, surrounded by jazz giants like Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Rex Stewart and Barney Bigard, his solos seemed calculated, at best. A more promising player emerged in Europe in the early 1960’s, Jean-Luc Ponty (continued in part 3).

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