Joe Venuti

Sources may disagree on where and when Giuseppe (Joe) Venuti was born, but they all agree that he is the first improvised music violinist in the history of jazz. His Italian biographers believe he was born in 1894, in Lecco, a small town on beautiful Lake Como in Northern Italy, and that, at the age of ten, he moved with his parents to Philadelphia in the United States. Another source suggests that his family took him to New Orleans first at the age of six and then to Philadelphia. American sources report that Giuseppe Venuti was born on 16 September 1903, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or, more unlikely, that he was born aboard a ship as his parents emigrated from Italy. According to legend, Venuti took up the violin when he and a friend, Eddie Lang, tossed a coin to see who would play which of two instruments they had bought from a Philadelphia pawn shop. Lang got the guitar. Venuti spent his early life working in bands in and around Philadelphia, often in Lang's company, before joining Bert Estlow's band in Atlantic City.

In 1924 he became a leader of a Jean Goldkette's band. In the 20s, often still with Lang, he played in the bands of Roger Wolfe Kahn and Adrian Rollini and made many records, including the classic Venuti-Lang Blue Four sides. In 1929 he joined Paul Whiteman shortly before the making of the film The King Of Jazz (1930). During a rehearsal for the film he stealthily emptied a bag of flour into the bell of a tuba so that when the unfortunate musician eventually managed to puff out a note the entire band disappeared under a drifting white cloud. Joe got very friendly with the famous cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, whom he once tipped, drunk and unconscious, into a bath of purple Jell-O. The Italian film director Pupi Avati recently finished a movie entitled ?Bix'. In this film, the leading actor who portrays the character of Joe Venuti tries to unfold the mystery that Bix, a notorious alcoholic, left behind when he died in 1931.

During the early 30s Venuti appeared on numerous recording sessions with artists such as Red McKenzie, Jack Teagarden, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer, Bing Crosby, Lee Wiley and the Boswell Sisters. Depressed by the sudden death of his friend Lang in 1933, Venuti left for Europe and did some recordings in the UK. Back in the USA he formed a big band in 1935 ? the era of the big bands ? but never really liked the duties of bandleader.

During World War II he played in film and radio studios, becoming a regular on Crosby's show. Throughout the 50s and the 60s he still recorded a lot, but his popularity faded and his alcohol-problem worsened. In 1967 he was invited to attend a Dick Gibson Colorado Jazz Party; this sparked a revival of interest in his work. He began recording again as leader and in duo with jazzmen such as Earl 'Fatha' Hines; the following year he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and the year after that was in England for the Jazz Expo. In the last decade of his life, struggling with cancer, Joe Venuti made some superb recordings with George Barnes, Ross Tompkins, Dave McKenna, Zoot Sims, Marian McPartland, Scott Hamilton and others.

In the early 70s Joe went to Italy and recorded Joe Venuti in Milan, an enjoyable album done with an interesting group of Italian jazz musicians, and this recording, together with the 1974 Chiaroscuro, can be considered as the most significant produced in his last decade. Venuti's was a great talent, and although his private life was disastrous and his sense of humour exaggerated, he was an outstanding musician and entertainer. Some believe that, had he chosen to play a more popular instrument, he might have been judged a giant of jazz. But, without Joe Venuti and his violin, a whole chapter of jazz history would be missing. He died on August 14th, 1978, in Seattle, Washington.