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Joe Venuti ‘the wild fiddler from Philly’ was an Italian American

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Giusepppe Venuti was born Sept. 16, 1903, in Philadelphia. Joe was known throughout his life as being a jokester and using hyperbole to explain his early life. Did he study violin at a Milan Conservatory, learn from his grandfather or did he pick it up on his own?  Whatever his true beginnings, he became the first jazz violinist. 

Giusepppe Venuti

After World War I Joe was playing for a Philadelphia symphony. He observed that other violinists were better than him. Since jazz was all the rage, he decided to use the violin as a jazz instrument, which was unheard of in early jazz. Bandleader Jim Cullum said, “Venuti’s idea to play jazz on an instrument that was considered strictly a classical instrument was a part of his ticket to stardom. He brought the same freedom and abandon, the same harmonic feeling and syncopation to the violin that Bix Beiderbecke brought to the cornet.” He joined up with Eddie Lang, his neighborhood friend, who played guitar and formed their own duo.

Venuti-Lang moved to New York and became popular in lounges throughout the city with their string-oriented style of Dixieland Jazz. It was 1927, a seminal year in jazz. Louis Armstrong recorded “Potato Head Blues” and “Struttin with Some Barbecue” which crowned him as jazz’s greatest soloist. Duke Ellington earned a permanent gig at The Cotton Club in Harlem and Venuti-Lang recorded two groundbreaking tunes with their eclectic “Wild Cat” and “Cheese and Crackers.” Lang died at 30 years of age from an undisclosed illness. Despite this tragedy Joe pursued music but it never again achieved the notoriety he had with his best buddy. Many years he toured  Europe and was featured at  the Jazz Exposition in London  in 1969 and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968. This brought his versatility on the violin to a new generation of jazz fans. This renewal led him to teach violin at college clinics and he thrived on the energy emanating from the young musicians.

His true impact on the jazz world was described by the multi-talented Andy Stein, jazz and violin musician,  who has been featured at the Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. “He was a very fine violinist with a great sound and rhythm, and he could play anything that came into his head.” Stein also points out that Venuti often incorporated melodic fragments of classical pieces he knew – such as “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” – into his jazz tunes and improvisations.

Stein notes that Venuti also made extensive use of blues tonality not found in classical music. 

Venuti played with a hot, swinging, virtuosic style and sometimes adjusted his bow so that it wrapped around the strings, allowing him to play chords with a wild sound. “If you’re going to make a mistake,” he said, “make it loud so everybody else sounds wrong.”

Adesso lo sa.

Lou Thomas

Lou Thomas was born and raised in Philadelphia, in a family with origins in Abruzzo. He is a Temple graduate who has been teaching Italian for 20 years at all levels. He attained a master’s degree in teaching Italian from Rutgers University. The sounds of Vivaldi and Jovanotti fill his classroom. His favorite quote is Il vino e’ la poesia della terra.

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