If all the world’s a stage, South Philadelphia’s Italian community has provided it with an estimable list of players. Vocalists like Buddy Greco and Al Martino. Rock ‘n roll pioneers Charlie Gracie and Danny Cedrone, lead guitarist for Bill Haley and The Comets. Teen heart-throbs Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and James Darren from the Bandstand era. Country, blues, rock singer-songwriter Jim Croce who moved along the highway too soon. And, of course, operatic tenor Mario Lanza who portrayed his idol in “The Great Caruso.”
Not as well known, but equally important in the history of American music are Salvatore Massaro and Giuseppe Venuti, regarded by musicologists and jazz historians as the godfathers of, respectively, the guitar and violin as jazz instruments. Boyhood friends, they grew up near the Italian Market in the early years of the last century and met as members of their school orchestra. Massaro’s immigrant father had made violins and guitars in Italy. Venuti was classically trained in music theory by his grandfather. Both were influenced by the lyrical simplicity of Italian folk music.
Eddie Lang, Massaro’s adopted stage name, and Joe Venuti would hang out and practice jazzed-up arrangements of popular songs and their own spur of the moment compositions. Around 1920 they began playing together in local dance orchestras, working Lang’s driving style and Venuti’s technical virtuosity into their repertoire. When they crossed paths in Manhattan a few years later, they teamed up as much sought-after studio musicians who could adapt to playingas a duo, in a quartet, or as backup to vocalists.
By 1927, the “hot” new music of the Jazz Age had taken the country by storm. Louis Armstrong became recognized as the music’s greatest soloist. Duke Ellington got his first gig at the Cotton Club. And Venuti and Lang paved the way for future guitarists and violinists with their recordings of “Wild Cat” and “Cheese and Crackers.” They also sat in on a session with up-and-coming trumpeter Bix Biederbecke and saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer.
Their next collaboration came when they joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Whiteman had commissioned and debuted George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” a jazz-classical crossover that put a respectable tuxedo on the earthy, bluesy music that had traveled north from New Orleans. For the boys from South Philly, it put them in contact with a singer Whiteman had brought into the band – a guy by the name of Bing Crosby. They would appear with him in the movie “King of Jazz.” Crosby was so taken by Lang’s mastery he took him on tours as his regular guitarist.
Lang also worked with Hoagy Carmichael, Red Nichols and The Five Pennies, and blues legend Bessie Smith. At a time when most aspects of American life were segregated, the evolving melting pot of jazz wasn’t spared. In order to record with African American blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson Lang had to bill himself as Blind Willie Dunn.
The most prolific and influential part of Lang and Venuti’s partnership was as leaders of The Blue Four. The ensemble had a rotating roster that included, among others, pianist Frank Signorelli, Adrian Rollini on bass sax, and Jimmy Dorsey on tenor. The group develop a swinging, energetic style later popularized by violinist Stephane Grappelli and three-fingered guitarist Django Reinhardt’s “gypsy jazz” of the Hot Club of France. Reinhardt had become a Lang disciple after hearing some of his records.
Tragically, Eddie Lang died at 31 in 1933 after undergoing a tonsillectomy. The cause of death was never established. The loss of his musical soulmate weighed heavily on Joe Venuti. Though he added his talent to the Benny Goodman and Dorsey brothers’ bands, his career waned, especially during the post-war period as America’s jazz tastes were being transformed. During the next decade his up-tempo, spirited bowing was on display with the house band at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.
Of these figures from the early days of jazz, it can be fairly said that Eddie Lang’s legacy was as important to generations of guitarists as Louis Armstrong’s was to trumpeters who came after. It was rumored that he had a “natural ear for music” because he could not read it. If true, his short career was even more remarkable. He is credited as the inventor of single-string playing, a method that demonstrated the guitar could be adapted to pop, blues, jazz and even classical. His complex, dizzyingly fast rhythms and chord progressions created a one-of-a-kind sound for later musicians to learn from. Joe Venuti’s innovative range of techniques showcased the violin as a viable solo instrument for jazz.
Salvatore and Giuseppe have been honored by their native city with historical markers on the streets they walked as boys and with a mural dedicated to them by Philadelphia Mural Arts. Nearby, tiny St. Alban’s Street has been renamed Eddie Lang Way. Every Oct. 25 in Philadelphia is celebrated as Eddie Lang Day.