Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang – Goin’ Places

joe Venuti -and-eddie-1929

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.

ButtonUp04Lang

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.

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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.

Joe Venuti Paul_Whiteman_Orchestra_-_Motion_Picture,_June_1930

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.

Joe Venuti Goin Places 162069665546

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.

Joe Venuti Reinhardt Grappelli 216692A-1130

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”.

Joe Venuti Eddie Lang

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.

Music Sources:

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.

Photo Credits:

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.

18 thoughts on “Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang – Goin’ Places

  1. With a title like that, I was expecting the Liberty Bell March and a giant foot coming down and crushing the Firefox window from the top of my computer. I’m glad neither happened! This is much more interesting.

    The accent on the 2 and 4 is unique and gives Goin’ Places a contemporary push like you say, far different than the lame 1 and 3 emphasis that my dad normally referred to as the “Elkhart Blues Festival” mode.

    A Prairie Home Companion recently evolved into a show called “Live From Here,” with more of a musical emphasis and without Garrison Keillor’s involvement. It’s host is Chris Thile, a mandolinist. This sounds exactly like something I would hear there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And of course by title I mean intro, and by Elkhart Blues Festival I mean Elkhart Jazz Festival. I’m not quite right in the head until I’ve had my morning orange juice and French toast! Perfect pandemic breakfast.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Your Monty Python imagery had me laughing. I am glad to get some backup on this feeling more modern than it is. It is easy to get too used to a sound and lose track of how archaic it sounds to a casual audience.

      I have not listened to PHC for a long time and wondered what became of it, so thanks for that.

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    • Thank you. I love that there is an outlet for me to share this stuff and others out there who get a little something out of my eccentricities. 🙂

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  2. I like this a lot, as you know I’m not much a fan of the 1-3 bounce so this sounds good to my ear. They are playing seriously fast, and in Wild Cat you can see that Lang is playing the “boom” single note close to the neck and the “chuck” chord close to the bridge for more treble. Amazing.

    Thanks for this, I’m a Django fan but never heard of these guys. That reminds me, did you ever see the Woody Allen film Sweet and Lowdown?

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    • I thought you might like this one. Wild Cat in the video was played waaaay faster than on the 1927 record they made of it, probably because it was a really short segment given to “introduce” notable members of the band. I think they got longer than about anyone else, but then there were two of them.

      I did read that Venuti spent some time touring Europe early in the 30s and that Grappelli acknowledged seeing him and being influenced. I would also suspect that these records were pretty influential and were sold in Europe – I have seen some copies online with the English Parlophone label. I enjoy Django’s stuff too, though his single note solos have a touch more vibrato than I would normally like. Then again, Lang’s solos always seem a touch stiff, so I guess I just can’t be pleased. 🙂

      I have not seen Sweet and Lowdown – at least not the Woody Allen version. I had to look it up, but there is a 1944 film of the same name that featured the Benny Goodman band. I may have to check out the newer one.

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  3. I had heard of Eddie Lang but not the other guy…..probably from your previous blogs….see my jazz knowledge is improving! Interesting stuff…..especially as none of us are “going places” right now.

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    • I made a mental note when researching the Button Up Your Overcoat post (that you inspired) that I really needed to feature these two guys together. The kicker came on another record that bubbled up on a YouTube subscription I have, which was an obscure 1930 record that featured these guys in the middle of other band members. I decided that as fun as that one was (here, if you really must know: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6S1tPsRsMw ) these two deserved the stage all to themselves.

      I had not made the Goin’ Places reference (which we can’t do now), but noticed that they had a lot of inventive titles. They did another called Doin’ Things, as well as Beatin’ the Dog and Kickin’ the Cat (titles that will surely not be re-used today).

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      • That really was a “cheerful little earful”. The names are very inventive. The record label Okeh? must be Canadian as we are allegedly a nation that says eh? a lot at the end of our sentences, not that I notice it myself, although I do tend to notice details….

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      • All I know about it is that it was part of a small conglomeration of record companies by the early 30s, got tied in with Brunswick, then got sold to CBS/Columbia in the early 40s when it became their budget label for awhile. Fortunately their library of masters seems to have survived, unlike some others that didn’t make it through the depression.

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  4. Great post! I had never heard of either musician. The only connection I knew was Bix Beiderbecke, the great cornet player in the 1920s who was also a friend of Hoagy Carmichael. Sadly, rock ‘n roll probably eclipsed the guitar’s earlier connection to jazz.

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    • Not just that, but it seems that the swing era took over in the mid 30s and erased the pre-existing stuff from most of the public’s memory. There was a lot of crappy music that came out of the 20s, but some fabulous stuff too.

      These guys were in Bix and Hoagy’s orbit. If I remember correctly, these two played on Hoagy’s original version of Georgia On My Mind (though I would have to look to be sure.) It was through listening to some Bix stuff that I first became acquainted with Venuti and Lang. You may remember that Hoagy went to IU and started practicing law in Indianapolis before Bix convinced him to quit and go with music.

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  5. Western Swing was the phrase that immediately came to mind listening to this. It reminds me of something, but I can’t pin it down. My gut feeling is something country from the ’40s or maybe even ’50s so yes, “Goin Places” definitely seems much more modern than 1927.

    I was confused for a moment when I crossed up Eddie Lang with Jonny Lang the blues singer. He seems a little modern for your usual tastes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am going to have to look up Jonny Lang – you were right.

      Yes, in trying to choose one record to feature, there are many with other instruments involved, but those date the music a lot. When just the violin and guitar were featured there is something kind of timeless going on. But maybe this is just because there have been so few jazz violinists that its hard to pin down a style to an era.

      After this piece went live I discovered that something over 15 years ago there was an 8 CD set released that included much of what these two recorded, either together or separately. I would suspect that it is not exhaustive.

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  6. A delightful preprandial concert to start my day, expanding my limited education of this musical period in a substantive way. I am continually impressed by the breadth of your research and insights in these musical posts—and grateful that you take the time to assemble them for us.

    Sad that Venuti was part of the evidently large field of promising musicians who died far too young—though in this instance his death was evidently not due to his own excesses.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it. It was actually Lang who died so young. He had become a regular accompanist for Bing Crosby at the time and was quite successful at it. I guess these guys are one more bit of proof (as if it were needed) that everything in life is transitory. Just think, in another 90 years all the names we know so well could be the subject of some blogger who revels in the obscure.

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  7. Pingback: Technicolor: The Most Colorful Black & White Movies Ever | J. P.'s Blog

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