By January 17, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

Fiddle me this: jazz on the violin (part 1).

The video here features Stuff Smith’s extroverted violin with Kenny Drew’s trio, filmed at the Club Montmarte in Copenhagen in 1965. Hearing Smith in typically fine form here reminded us of the rarity of great jazz fiddlers. Not only have they worked the peripheries of jazz since its inception, they almost exist in spite of it.

The one place outside of classical music where the violin is seen as a virtuoso instrument would be in traditional country music, especially its “bluegrass” and “western” incarnations. Genuinely great players often toil in relative anonymity playing both traditional and more contemporary forms of these traditional American genres but a few—like Vassar Clements, Johnny Gimble, Kenny Baker and a handful of others—achieved at least a little notoriety outside of musical circles. Crossover artists like Charlie Daniels and others seem to play fiddle in spite of their careers in music, rather than because of it, but can be serviceable players, nonetheless. The worlds of Cajun, Zydeco, Tejano and even the blues have fiddle traditions as well. Jazz, conversely, seems like a weird place to find a violin, and there’s more than one reason for that.

Jazz, at least the elements that trace their roots to the European musical tradition, is historically a horn-based music. In the years around 1910, as proto-jazz was starting to take shape out of ragtime, the solo piano was the only rival to the small, marching band as a platform for the music’s development. Anywhere African-Americans had some level of prosperity—but especially in New Orleans—the brass band existed as a symbol of status, and also as a community organization where ideas—musical and otherwise—were exchanged and displayed. Well before even ragtime was developed, African-American brass bands had existed, and for a time their sound and style was not unlike that of their white counterparts.

Contemporary band tunes, especially Sousa’s, along with pop tunes and light classical material such as Victor Herbert were common fodder for all of these bands. Intonation and technique tended to be more rudimentary in these local, community-based bands, and trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets and tubas proved easier to mesh than the often trickier strings. More importantly, brass instruments were much louder, and able to be played while walking or marching, which were useful qualities before amplification. Violins, then, were essentially unknown in jazz during its genesis.

Even as technique improved among musicians developing jazz in its infancy in the years up to 1920, violins took a back seat. Only as African-American bandleaders like James Reese Europe, and especially their white counterparts like Paul Whiteman began to attempt a “sterilization” or “legitimization” of jazz did string instruments appear, and typically only as aural padding and sonic sweetener to the dominant brass instruments. A few anomalous violin soloists do show up on early African-American recordings, but none concentrated on jazz or left a lasting impression (continued in part 2).

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