And now for something completely different. Many of us remember that line from the old Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the British television show of the early 1970’s. Although the English comedy troupe usually followed this opening with something not different at all from their normal fare, we will break pattern. Yes, this is an old jazz record. Yes, there is a good story to go along with it. But in a break from the usual, the featured musicians will not play a trumpet or a saxophone or any other “normal” jazz instrument of the era. This record is all about wood, strings and friendship, all coming together to make a little magic.
Salavatore Massaro and Giuseppe Venuti were born about a year apart to immigrant parents (10/25/02 and 9/16/03, respectively) and grew up in the same Italian neighborhood in south Philadelphia. Both were taught music, both played in the same section of the school orchestra, and both developed skill on guitar and violin. A little more than twenty five years later they would become some of the most unique, influential and successful jazz musicians of their era – with nothing but a violin and a guitar. They were better known by their Americanized names of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.
Venuti was once asked how they settled on their instruments. His version of the story was that they both stood outside of a pawnshop window which displayed one guitar and one violin. They flipped a coin to see who got which and that was that. Of course Venuti was a notorious prankster and teller of tales, so it may not have happened like that at all. But however it happened, we should be happy it did because that coin flip turned up a winner for all of us.
We have mentioned Lang and his groundbreaking work with the jazz guitar a couple of times before – once in connection with cornet legend Bix Beiderbecke and again for his part in one of the first recordings of a long-lived song. To recap, Lang was probably the first really influential jazz guitar player, the guy who proved that the instrument was good for featured solos and not just for rhythm in the background.
Before the electric microphone transformed music in the mid 1920’s the banjo had been the string instrument of choice among jazz players because of its ability to be heard. The amplification made possible by the microphone allowed the softer guitar to shine – particularly after Eddie Lang made it do so.
Lang favored the big, resonant sound of the Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitars, which he played almost exclusively. Lang was also accomplished at blues, much of it under the pseudonym of Blind Willie Jefferson. It was under that name that he recorded a number of sides with early blues guitar legend Lonnie Johnson.
Joe Venuti got his start playing classically but as was true of every young guy of his generation, fell in love with jazz. He decided that getting to the top of the jazz violin world would be a lot easier job than getting to the top of the classical violin world – particularly since there were not really any well-known jazz violin players. His classical training paid dividends of a solid technique which allowed him to play just about anything that came into his head at the moment it came there.
After each made his way to New York they encountered each other again and played in a couple of bands before being hired by the Jean Goldkette orchestra, one of the largest and most popular jazz/dance bands of the day and were later hired by the even bigger and more popular Paul Whiteman Orchestra about 1928 after the Goldkette group went bust.
Between their regular gigs they were in constant demand in and around New York backing other small groups or singers, appearing on a dizzying number of recordings starting in the second half of the 1920’s. Their most famous, though, may be the ones made by just the two of them or by their small group Joe Venuti and his Blue Four.
This particular record dates to May 4, 1927 and was a tune written by Lang. Although Eddie was a great soloist, this piece featured his skill at rhythm guitar as a backing for Venuti’s violin. Piano player Arthur Schutt was there for perhaps the shortest and least appreciated piano solo ever, but for the most part this thing is all Joe and Eddie.
For something recorded in the 1920’s, this has a very fresh, modern feel to it. This is something you could have expected to hear on broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companion from a number of years ago, or maybe by a little group doing some Texas swing at a local bar on a Saturday night. If you ever heard anything like that in those or similar places, it is likely due to the influence of these two guys.
Another couple of guys who were influenced were Stephane Grappelli (violin) and Django Reinhardt (guitar) whose European recordings of the 1930’s as The Hot Club Of France were the start of an enduring legacy. Grappelli and (especially) Reinhardt are much better known today among jazz fans. But we should understand that Joe and Eddie got there first to set the table for the later group’s success.
I’m not going to say much about the record itself – there is not really much to say or to do, other than to smile and tap your foot. In fact, I dare you to try to listen to this without doing those two things. Joe Venuti was a fun-loving personality and this comes through in his playing.
OK, I’ll say one thing – It is interesting to listen to Lang’s rhythm which often accents the 2 and 4 beats in a 4 beat time. Most jazz of that time accented the 1 and 3, which is what gave it the “bounce” so common before the swing era. This was more typical of the western players from around Kansas City who favored the 2-4. Whatever the reason, I love the way it drives things forward with an irresistible pulse, punctuated by some occasional “pickin”.
There have been a few pairings of musicians who develop as alter-egos of each other, sharing an almost subliminal connection when playing together. Venuti and Lang were two of those guys, undoubtedly owing to their lifelong friendship and shared musical upbringing.
I suppose we should add here that “lifelong” would refer to Lang’s life, as he died during a routine tonsillectomy at the age of 30 in 1933. It has been written that Venuti was never quite the same after Lang’s untimely death. He went on to lead his own band, though one that has not been widely remembered. His career went into a tailspin through the 1950’s and he was drinking heavily by the end of that decade.
However, unlike so many of these stories, this one has a happy ending. Venuti enjoyed a turnabout in his fortunes in the mid 1960’s as he was “rediscovered” by modern listeners and musicians. He made several albums with notable jazz players and was invited to the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968. He toured with a small group, breaking for occasional album projects, until his death in 1978 at the age of 75.
Consider this bit of a 72-year old Vanuti and some other seasoned players in 1975 as a bonus track. China Boy was an old song that dated from the early 1920’s but sounds much newer they way this group approached it. It was clear that the old guy could still bring it at the end of his long career.
Then there is this last little treat, which is something wildly uncommon for music of this era – a chance to watch a prehistoric music video – in color!
This roughly 30 second clip is a fast and abbreviated version of another Lang composition, Wild Cat. It is from the 1930 film The King Of Jazz and was actually filmed in an early two-color version of Technicolor (not the later three-color version which fans of classic movies know and love). The film was basically a budget-busting musical review featuring Paul Whiteman and the musicians in his orbit. In addition to Venuti and Lang, the project marked the film debut of a twenty-eight year old singer named Bing Crosby. The movie was not successful and is an acquired taste today, but this bit makes the whole thing worthwhile (if I get to be the judge).
I have gone on quite long enough (well, no I really have not, but I realize the patience of normal people is not infinite) and will close with the observation that I could listen to this pair all day long, even if I cannot explain exactly why. I am not normally a “string guy” but in this we can experience the roots of so much music – jazz, western swing and maybe even a little bluegrass. It is hard to believe that a record on the verge of its 93rd birthday can be this much fun. But it is.
Goin’ Places, recorded May 4, 1927 – from the YouTube page of Heinz Becker.
China Boy, 1975, featuring Joe Venuti (v), Marian McPartland (p), Major Holley (b), Cliff Leeman (d) – from the YouTube page of erwigfilms.
Wild Cat, clip from the 1930 Universal motion picture The King of Jazz – from the YouTube page of bessjazz.
Opening Photo – Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang, still from the 1930 Universal motion picture The King Of Jazz;
Promotional photo of Eddie Lang – c. 1929 promotional photograph without copyright markings, previously offered for sale on Worthpoint.com
Promotional photo of Joe Venuti – undated promotional photograph without copyright markings, found under the entry for Joe Venuti at alchetron.com
Magazine spread – pages from the June, 1930 issue of Motion Picture Magazine as found at Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired.
Record label from the 1927 recording of Goin’ Places on the Okeh label (don’t ask me why there was a black one and a red one.)
Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and The Hot Club Of France – cover art from a modern CD re-issue.
Venuti and Lang cover art from a modern CD reissue.