Tag Archives: jazz violin

Django, on the shoulders of giants…

20 Feb

Django Reinhardt discovers jazz:

“During the years after the [1928] fire, Reinhardt was rehabilitating and experimenting on the guitar that his brother had given him. After having played a broad spectrum of music, he was introduced to American jazz by an acquaintance, Émile Savitry, whose record collection included such musical luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Django_Reinhardt#Discovery_of_jazz

The ups and downs of jazz violin

26 Nov

There is a long history to the jazz violin. Chris Haigh’s website does a great job of documenting this lineage. Moreover, there are excellent contemporary jazz violinists. More interesting than thinking about this history in terms of a continuing linear evolution is considering the breaks and ruptures, and the roads not taken. On this latter note, there was a noticeable shift after the 1920s in which it seems that the (sometimes prominently featured) string quartets and (frequently prominently featured) violinists of hot jazz bands all but disappeared. By the time of big bands and the swing era in the 1930s, strings were no longer commonplace in popular jazz.

I think there were perhaps multiple factors that played into this transformation, and there are no simple reasons for the change. For example, a pat explanation is that big bands were simply too loud for violins and cellos. While at first glance this makes sense, it overlooks the important story of Eddie Lang, often credited with being the first jazz electric guitarist. The story with Lang is that he experimented in the early 20s with some of the first valve-based amplifiers made by RCA, using pickups made from hacked phonograph cartridges and telephone receivers. Already as early as 1917, the Russian scientist and cellist Lev Theremin had designed an electric cello, built by the early 20s, and presumably jazz string players experimented with methods of amplification just like guitarists.

Here are some related pictures:

The violin has a long history in American folk music.

Buskers in the early 1930s

New Orleans band from early teens featuring acoustic guitar, violin, bass.

Jazz band from early 20s, violin left and rear

Early Creole jazz band from Ken Burns’ PBS jazz series

Popular Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition — 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago

14 Nov

The Library of Congress has a great description of the music scene at the World’s Fair. Dvorak was there conducting, Sousa was there leading his band. Will Marion Cook (later Duke Ellington’s mentor), and Joseph Douglass (grandson of Frederick Douglass) performed. Scott Joplin, then living and working in Chicago likely played ragtime in one or more of the numerous saloons and cafes along the outskirts of the fair.

25 million visitors from hundreds of countries soaked it all in, and carried the new popular musical styles home across the US and abroad.


Stuff Smith — Have Violin, Will Swing

9 Nov

I’ve been listening to this great album from the late 50s by pioneer jazz violinist Stuff Smith. Smith began his career in the 20s in Texas, so he’s pretty old school in the jazz violin genealogy — maybe second generation as far as I can tell… Smith’s playing style, at least on this record, is very different from Venuti’s and Grapelli’s. Instead of the arpeggios and lightning-fast runs of Venuti, Smith’s phrasing is short and punchy, trumpet-like.

More Ellington for cello

31 Oct

Here’s an arrangement for cello trio of Jungle Jamboree, a song on the Okeh Ellington 1927 – 1930 collection. It’s actually an Andy Razaf/ Fats Waller tune, but it is performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. I think this song stands out to me because it seems to combine elements of the collective improv style of traditional New Orleans jazz with improvised solos that are rich enough to stand on their own.

Black And Tan Fantasy for Cello Quartet

31 Oct

Here’s an arrangement for four cellos I did of the Duke Ellington / Bubber Miley composition Black And Tan Fantasy. I tried to faithfully transcribe all of the solos as played on the original 1927 first take, for Okeh Records. I think this tune is amazing because of the way it combines elements of classical, blues, and jazz.

Before Django/Grappelli there was Lang/Venuti

30 Jul

Somehow the French gypsy jazz guitar/violin duo of the thirties and forties has eclipsed its Italian-American forebear which dominated the jazz age in the twenties. Django and Grappelli were standing on the shoulders of giants, it turns out. Where Grappelli plays like fancy stitching around the top edge of the rhythmic pocket, Joe Venuti is deep inside it, driving forward with confidently virtuosic technique.

Django was obviously a remarkable musician, but Eddie Lang is the “father of jazz guitar”. These two blues guitar duets with Lonnie Johnson (incidentally Johnson was a Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist and signer, and is credited with being the first to play an electric violin) seem to be at the same time textbook examples of the blues and also feature some exploratory reharmonizations that point towards things to come.

One more: “Blue Blues” by the Mound City (St. Louis) Blue Blowers, recorded in 1924. It features Eddie Lang on guitar and kazoo and comb (played with tissue paper). So good!