As the children of immigrant parents, Giuseppe Venuti and Salvatoro Massaro grew up in large protective families living in a vibrant Italian community of America at the turn of the twentieth century. They went to the same grade school, studied music and the violin, while absorbing the cultural and music of their heritage and that of the surrounding German, Irish, Polish and Jewish communities. Along with a generation, they were captivated by the sound of a new music called Jazz. Embracing it, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang brought the four hundred year old tradition of playing the violin and guitar into the modern age.
Giuseppe, Joseph, Joe Venuti, loved to be quoted as having been born in Italy, or on a boat headed for America, or New Orleans. In the 1970’s, by his own calculations he was the oldest living jazz musician at 75, 80, 85, maybe 90 years of age. He took hyperbole to new heights with stories upon stories of wild escapades in the “dizzy decade,” some true, others exaggerated, and still others entirely made up, all of them now part of jazz lore.
He was born in the Italian section of south Philadelphia in his parents’ bedroom on September 16, 1903. The neighborhood he grew up in was home to southern Italians, his parents, Giacomo and Rosa (LaMacchia) Venuti having emigrated from Sicily. One of six children, Giuseppe entered grade school and soon took up the violin. It was the only thing classical about him. Had he continued to pursue his classical music studies, Joe Venuti could have been one of the great concert violinists of the 20th century. Instead, he embraced the current popular music of the day called Jazz. Joe took his command of classical music, opera, and the vernacular, blending it with syncopated pop music, ingeniously creating a unique style of expression on the violin, and a new and distinctive instrumental voice in music. He made a stack of records in his lifetime, and would be the first to point out that those with his boyhood friend, his best companion and musical partner, guitarist Eddie Lang, were his favorite and by far his greatest work. Among peers, friends and fans he was a respected artist, and radiated a colossal presence for a guy who just barely topped 5’10”. Devilish, he kept everyone on needles and pins with a ruthless sense of humor and a reputation for being a “hothead” and unpredictable. During an age already gone mad, he attained legendary status by granting himself free license to let a wild sense of humor and a wont for stretching the truth go haywire.
A prodigy in grade school, Giuseppe Venuti was drawn to intense study of music and the violin. While a youngster, he was in the James Campbell Public School Orchestra (along with Lang), may have received instruction at the Settlement Music School (the staff included members of the Philadelphia Orchestra), and remembered attending events at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the scene of performances by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York City, and recitals by great musical artists of Europe and America. Hearing the sounds of a phonograph machine in his neighborhood, the boy would frequently make his way unnoticed into the Italian social club or the barber shop; there he would stand for hours listening to repeated plays of Caruso, and the music of Verdi and Puccini. A few years later he could be found accompanying friends and family members on a piano, guitar, mandolin or violin as they sang traditional songs and light classics from Italy, now transported to the streets of south Philly.
Though Giuseppe Venuti and Salvatoro Massaro lived within blocks of each other, attended the same grade school, and were members of the school orchestra, they did not develop a friendship until well into their teens. Venuti began playing (semi) professionally in a trio when he was fifteen. When the little unit looked to expand, Sal joined on guitar. Joe and Sal quickly found they had many things in common; an appreciation of classical music, opera, traditional Italian melodies, and popular music of the day. Being skilled on the violin, guitar, and mandolin, they’d often trade instruments, each taking a turn being soloist and accompanist (something vaudeville audiences witnessed years later). They continued to hone their craft with eight to ten hour practice days. Together they took traditional music, pop songs, and classical selections and began embellishing them with new melodies, alternate harmonies, and syncopated rhythms. It was during this time period Venuti liked to recall, that he and Eddie created the music which were, and still are hailed as some of the greatest classic jazz instrumentals of all time, in particular Goin’ Places, Doin’ Things, and Wild Cat. At night and on weekends, they worked in and around Philadelphia and Camden performing as a duo or in little combo’s playing for weddings, social events, dances, and midnight serenades Within a few years they’d extend their travels to the Jersey shore and Atlantic City.
Beyond the music, there were qualities that endeared them to each other. Joe was loud, impulsive, opinionated, an incessant prankster, and rough. He armed his temper with a short fuse, and wasn’t afraid to push his way to the front of the line. When he spoke, his voice resonated. What he spoke was often sprinkled with profane and obscene language, which he used repeatedly. When it came to assessing Joe Venuti, there was little middle ground, you either held him with great affection, or couldn’t stand to have him around. One thing friend and foe agreed upon, Joe Venuti was a born leader. Sal, to the contrary, was quiet, prudent, objective, a man of few words, preferring to remain supportive, comfortable in the background. He possessed an innate ability of recall, and was gifted with a remarkable sense of dexterity. Humility and moderation were two of his greatest strengths. His nature never changed, he remained generous, and treated everyone with kindness; from the singer who needed extra rehearsal, fellow musicians in search of harmonic advice, opponents in a card or billiard game (by not plummeting them too badly), to sharing resources with his family, frequently sending money home to his brother Tom who helped care for his father.
Joe and Eddie had a passion for sports, in particular boxing matches and hockey games at Madison Square Garden, or baseball games to see the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Athletics’ play (both were American League fans). They loved good food and went out to their favorite Italian restaurants frequently. Joe could eat and drink anything, but Eddie was plagued all of his life by stomach problems. Lang continued to eat spicy Italian food but often paid the price with a bad case of indigestion or worse. In the summer the boys headed for Atlantic City to fish and swim during the day, then make music at night. Year round, they had an obsession with betting on card games (bridge, poker and pinochle), billiards, and the horses (thoroughbreds). In New York they had a favorite pool hall on Broadway which was frequented by “dese, dems and dose guys,” who appear to have never bothered either of them. “We knew them from the joints, and they knew I wasn’t afraid of ‘em” bellowed the violinist. It was there that they spent much of the down time between rehearsals and gigs, Eddie alternating games at the billiard table with quick dashes to the telephone booth to place bets with a bookie, or schedule broadcast or recording session. Joe too liked game playing but was a terrible loser and never knew when to call it quits. Many times it was Eddie who’d bail him out. Rolling up his sleeves, Lang would grab a cue stick or a deck of cards taking on all comers, naturally starting with those who’d already cleaned out Joe’s once bulging billfold. As Sal Massaro, he was the neighborhood pool champ in south Philly. When he hit New York as Eddie Lang, he was considered an expert player. Lang favored eight ball, and could hold his own in a game of 5-pin Billiards. A “dead shot” with a cue stick, it’s been said Eddie challenged billiard champ’s Willie Mosconi (another South Philadelphian) and Ralph Greenleaf (who gave Eddie an inscribed watch). By 1927, Lang was earning $400-$600 a week, a substantial amount of money at the time. (The average annual salary of a factory worker was $1,300, and a lawyer, $5,200). Eddie also took on the task of keeping track of other people’s money. By 1929 he was holding on to most of Venuti’s spare green backs and at the same time kept an eye on Bing Crosby’s cash, as the crooner was sewing his oats at a maddening rate, burning through his loot on booze, broads, and the pony’s.
Lang was never taken aback or embarrassed by Venuti’s outrageous behavior and brutish personality. In Joe, Eddie found his bad boy, and Joe was more than willing to act it out for the both of them. Joe on the other hand found Eddie’s gentle personality, level head and practicality the perfect elixir for his excesses. It left some family members and friends scratching their heads wondering why such a nice boy like Salvatoro needed the company of an imp like Giuseppe. For Joe and Eddie, there were no riddles, they understood each other and were like brothers.
When recordings by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band began to circulate in Philadelphia around 1918 and 1919, Joe and Eddie were bitten by the jazz bug. The catchy pop songs and jazz numbers offered them a new form of music with which to play, and play with. They were more than well equipped to take the challenge. Venuti already possessed the gifts of a concert violinist, and had begun experimenting with embellishment while playing ethnic music. Over the course of a few years, he adapted various violin studies and exercises which he had mastered as a child, along with harmonic passages and melodies by Verdi and Puccini, and the French impressionists, Debussy and Ravel. He melded these European classic forms with traditional music from Italy and central Europe, and the new syncopated rhythms of ragtime, dance music, and popular song. Venuti washed it all with his own creative juices and budding jazz sensibility, then peppered it with a devilish sense of humor. The result was a distinctively powerful instrumental voice that brought solo voce to the roaring twenties.
On several of Charlie Kerr’s trips north to record for Edison, Eddie’s older brother Tom accompanied him to New York. As for brother Tom, he was called upon by his parents to stay close to Eddie’s side often helping with the many instrument’s Eddie started bringing to gigs (a guitar, 2 banjo’s, ukulele, mandolin, violin), but primarily it was Tom’s job to keep a watchful eye on the baby of the family. As Eddie and Tommy continued heading to New York with Charlie Kerr’s band, Joe occasionally joined them for the three hour train ride north. Once Eddie finished his recording session, the three of them would make a day of hitting pool halls along Broadway and taking in some of the cities more exotic offerings. Little did Venuti and Lang know that prior to either of them ever stepping foot in New York City, their reputation had already preceded them, as word, brought back from Atlantic City and Philadelphia started to spread amongst the Big Apple’s music community. It wasn’t long before Venuti and Lang fell in with Gotham’s current crop of jazz and dance band musicians, in particular, its Italian-American enclave; Phil Napoleon, Frank Signorelli, Tony Colucci, John Cali, Jimmy Lytell and Joe Tarto (to name a few). As some of the earliest pioneers of the new music, they had successfully carved a place for themselves recording jazz during the day with such groups as The Original Memphis Five, Original Indiana Five, and Bailey’s Lucky Seven. At night they made music until dawn in the numerous dance halls, nightclubs and speakeasies scattered throughout the big city. Not unlike other Italian-American musicians who were playing jazz in New Orleans and Chicago after the First World War, these New Yorkers were a tightly knit musical community who made it a point to look after fellow countrymen. With the Italians, there were other musicians who Joe and Eddie began to align themselves with; Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, Arthur Schutt and Adrian Rollini. Rollini, more than any other artist during the golden age of classic jazz spoke the same musical language as Venuti and Lang. When they both settled in New York for good (1926) Joe and Eddie immediately sought Rollini’s talents. The multi-instrumentalist Rollini played an integral role in the concept and sound of the Venuti-Lang small group recordings.
Source: (revised) notes by Mike Peters from The Classic Columbia And OKeh Joe Venuti And Eddie Lang Sessions, Mosaic MD8-213 (2002).www.mosaicrecords.com
I expect to be murdered for telling on Joe in this way, when he finds it out. He’s so touchy about such things - does not give a hang about publicity, doesn’t even keep a scrap book. He’s funny that way. But the editor of “America’s greatest orchestra magazine” - their own confession, knowing that he could never get Joe to talk about himself, told me to write the low-down and I, in a weak moment, consented - so, here goes. If the worst comes to the worst, my favorite flower is the gardenia.
I’ll have some fun anyway telling on Joe for there is really something to tell. If you wrote up his story as fiction they’d say when they read it - “Very nice, but it never could happen in real life.” Oh, couldn’t it! Well, this is where the facts are fancier than fiction. So gather around, you Venuti fans, and I’ll piece it out.
Here’s the first surprise. Now, if Joe’s story ran true to form, we would begin by saying his parents were dead set against him ever becoming a musician. We can imagine Joe’s dad snatching the fiddle away from his young hopeful and raising his voice to say, “My son, if I ever catch you playing that devilish fiddle again, I’ll break it over your head.
Don’t laugh, that’s the way most of our present ace men got their start - by invoking the wrath of the old gent and sneaking out of sight to do their practicing, if any. Parents in those days had the fixed idea that musicians were plain bums with long hair, halitosis, and heebeegeebees. In some instances, they were right, but parents were certainly set against having their sons disgrace the family by becoming pipers.
Well, that’s not Joe’s story at all. His family - eight of them, count ‘em - were all determined to make something out of Joe and a fiddler at that. Mom Venuti dreamed about it by day and prayed for it by night; Pop like-wise and the older brother made it the one object of his life. When Joe was old enough to hold a fiddle they used to lock him in a room for hours and listen outside to make sure that he practiced. Not that this was severe punishment to Joe anyway since he loved a fiddle from the day he spotted one and toddled up to take it in his hands. Sometimes when no sounds would come out of the room in which Joe was locked, someone would go in suspecting him to be stalling. They usually found him on his knees praying to become a great fiddle player when he might be praying to become Babe Ruth!
When Joe was about six he was playing baseball with some of his school friends. He had just come to bat - the supreme moment for any youngster. All of a sudden he dropped his bat and ran all the way home to the great astonishment of his school mates. But there was a reason. A tune had popped into Joe’s head and he had wanted to play it on his fiddle before he forgot it.
Here’s another strange thing. If Joe inherited any musical talent, he must have inherited it out of thin air. Certainly not from the family none of whom knew one note from another. Strange things do happen in this world. All that we know was that Joe’s family en masse we‘re determined to make a musician out of him. And - well they did.
The family lived in Philadelphia at the time and Joe’s first and only teacher was a white haired old codger (note: poss. Michel Sciapiro - Philadelphia Orchestra) who showed him how to control the flying fingers of his left hand. They bounced all over the fingerboard. Joe made such fast progress it kept the old timers on the jump to keep up. And Joe had a funny way of playing his pieces from the very first, a way all his own.
Joe was the teacher’s pet in school because they all liked to hear him play. He got away with murder on this account. All he would need do to square himself of any mischief was to take out his fiddle, tuck it under his chin and look innocent. How could anybody act the devil and play like an angel? How could they?
In high school (note: Venuti only attended grammar school) he was leader of the band and one of his first jobs at real money was playing in a local picture palace. Then while still in high, he went to Hot Spring, Va., (note: unsubstantiated claim by Joe Venuti) with a sure enough concert band and that started things off. The following summer he was playing in a café in Atlantic City for fifty dollars a week. And that just about made things perfect. Every day found him on the beach getting as brown as a Malay Indian, nights found him on the job.
Then Paul Whiteman spotted him and offered him $185 a week - some jump for fifty - to join his outfit, then playing at the Palais Royal in New York (note: unsubstantiated claim by Joe Venuti). Joe, of course, took the offer, packed his few belongings and made for the great Deception. At the end of the two weeks Joe packed up again and said, “So long, Paul.” “Where are you going?” said the then rotund Paul, amazement spreading over his features. “Back to the beach,” replied the departing fiddler. “Now Joe,” said Paul confidently putting a hand on his shoulder, “if it’s a question of money, I can fix that,” Paul was always magnanimous. “No it’s not that. I like it better on the boardwalk.” “Why you unmitigated idiot,” stormed the maestro, but the hot fiddler was already on his way out.
Now that’s Joe all over. He missed his bathing and would rather be where he could have it and fifty a week than several hundred a week in New York. Money means very little to Joe. If he were out for coin he could have cleaned up more than once. But he’s just not money minded.
Once Roger Wolfe Kahn threw a party at his father’s gorgeous estate on Long Island. Joe was much impressed, but when he came back he said, “It’s nice, but it’s not for me.” Joe believes in spending his money and enjoying life while the enjoying is good.
From Atlantic City Joe jumped from one outfit to another. One of the first of them was the Blue Four (note: 1927) consisting of Jimmy Dorsey, Frankie Signorelli, Joe and Eddy (note: Eddie) Lang. That started his long association with Eddy Lang.
When Gene (note: Jean) Goldkette heard of Joe, he sent for him to come to Detroit (note: ca. March 1924) and direct a band. He stayed out there for a year and a half (note: until ca. September 1925), the longest he had been away from home. Then his family got worried, thinking he had gone long enough so his brother drove out to Detroit and brought him back to the fold.
Later in New York he made scads of records for OKeh, Brunswick and Victor, writing his own solos. Then he played with Roger Wolfe Kahn and was assistant to Don Voorhees in Rain Or Shine, and again with Paul Whiteman’s band for the filming of King of Jazz. Since then he has been in vaudeville free lancing and working on most of the big hours over NBC, and Columbia.
If Joe had never touched a violin he would no doubt have been a great comedian. He just has a natural flare for the ridiculous. One of his chief d’oeuvres in this respect is to burlesque the singing of the Prologue from Pagliacci. A vaudevillian booker heard him do this once and offered to book him as a comedian. But his crazy antics are mostly ad lib. One of his pets is breaking fiddles. He will break up his own instrument on any bet of five dollars or over. Once he broke a fiddle over Lennie Hayton’s head, and at another time he kicked one over a cliff in California. That’s why he seldom plays a really valuable instrument. He has one but his mother keeps it under lock and key.
Venuti's Pagliacci No. 2 | mp3 | 664KB
Being infested with film folk, Hollywood is used to queer antics. But to Paul Whiteman’s outfit went the prize for the craziest bunch of actors to visit the film colony. Some of the boys rented a house where they would throw vases at each other and break up furniture to put in the fireplace. Their bill for damages one month was $289. Joe liked especially to walk his horse into the house.
I imagine it was Joe’s flare for fun that turned him into a hot fiddler, otherwise, he would probably have been another Kreisler or Elman. But from the first he liked to jazz ‘em up on the fiddle. When only 12 he was playing with a hot band in Philadelphia. Then later when playing with his first real dance band in at Atlantic City he naturally began playing hot. The leader called him, told him he was “crazy’ - he was - and refused to let him play that way with his band. He didn’t know what a good bet he was missing, although Joe can play as straight as any and could hold down a berth in the Philharmonic, his forte is undoubtedly hot stuff. It crops out in the names he gives his pieces, Kicking the Cat, Doing Things, Going Places, etc. Joe gets many letters from violinists wanting to know how to play hot. He can’t give them much help on this subject as he does it naturally.
Joe is like a child in many respects and has to be humored. Can’t remember where he put anything. One minute everything is rosy, another minute he is down in the dumps.
He practices hours a day and his favorite place is the bathroom - claims the acoustics are better there. He begins to warm up by playing scales very fast. Then he might take up a Paganini variation. Another reason he likes the bathroom for practice is that he can look in the mirror. Not that he’s vain. On the contrary, just the reverse. But he likes to observe his finger movements.
Then again some well meaning friends have been telling him he ought to smile more, that all the maestros flash a row of ivories that reach back to the molars and even the adenoids. Joe tried to emulate this dentine display before his mirror but it was no use. “I can’t smile,” he said, “when there is nothing to smile at.” Music is serious business to him and so he stays serious. He is incidentally one of the few leaders who stands before the men and actually plays his fiddle, directing with the bow.
Joe is 29 years old and his pet ambition is to tour the world with his own band. He would be well received no doubt in Europe where his records have caught the popular fancy.
I met Joe out in California while engaged in picture work. He disapproved of this activity from the first having the old fashioned idea that woman’s place is in the three rooms and bath. I found out anyway after I married him that it was a real job just to look after him. And for fun and excitement it beats any other job I ever had.
Source: Mrs. Joe Venuti Spills The Lowdown on Joe, She Ought to Know - She Married Him, The Metronome, April, 1933.
. Note: article written by wife, Sally Venuti (Sarah Israel?) presumably prior to Eddie Lang’s death.
You may remember that from time to time I have muttered incoherently into my beard about Jazz and its relation to Hungarian music. (All right, you needn’t leave the room - I’ll be finished in a moment.) But why I brought the subject up again is because Venuti so frequently reminds me of the dark-eyed girl who used to play to me in the Bela-utca in Budapest in the good old days. The resemblance is entirely superficial. Most Hungarian dance music starts with a rhapsodic introduction; and so does Venuti, frequently. And so, if you ever read this column of mine, do I.
Having therefore opened with a couple of ad lib arpeggios (one arpeggio equals forty-five 5-guinea words) and ended on an impressive harmonic, I can start with the serious business of reviewing gramophone records. At least, I consider it a serious business. You folks can just pass this page by: I have to write it every week - sometimes twice a week, if I happen to change my mind or a reader tells me he thinks (Coleman) Hawkins “wonderful.” Readers must be catered for. (Which reminds me that one day I will sit down and write what I really think of Ellington and Armstrong and the rest, I’m no angel …)
Doin’ The Uptown Lowdown starts with a familiar Venutian rhapsody, not so long nor so impressive as some. Then the swinging starts. Ever since Eddie Lang died, these Venuti recordings have a swing of their own. You can go back as far as you like in the history of Jazz and you’ll always find exactly the same timbre coming from any of Venuti’s quartets, quintets, or sextets. There is an extraordinary clarity in the rhythm of this Jazz Chamber music. And I can well understand that Jazz of this sort, like most Chamber music, is more fun to play than to listen to. It all depends how you like your music, of course.
Personally, I am not much of “a one” for small combinations (I like large B.V.Ds), but with that broadmindedness for which I am so famous I am always ready to appreciate something which is good of its kind. Which is why, now I come to think of it, I bother to consider Jazz at all. But although most of the fun in Venuti’s records must be had by the players, there is still some to be had by the listener. (This week’s flatitude)
Doin' The Uptown Lowdown | mp3 | 780KB
Giuseppe Venuti himself, of course, remains what he has always been: a unique artist who is about as much good to the local gut-scraper as a thirst on a London Sunday afternoon. He is one of those you tolerate, but which you can’t do anything about. His playing sticks out in Jazz like a crumb in the bedclothes. It has never changed (his playing, not the bedclothes) since he began; it is never anything but the playing of an artist who stands alone, and, above all, who thinks in terms of his instrument. Every time I hear any would-be Jazz fiddler play, I think how much that player must wish he were a clarinetist or a trumpeter. Venuti is just one of these things: one who has unexpectedly used a classical instrument for jazz without destroying the essential characteristics of that instrument.
Eddie Lang was like that, too. Venuti and Lang did something with a couple of “straight” instruments which nobody has done before or since. Hawkins and Armstrong have been an inspiration to tenor and trumpet players, and there have, in spite of them, been Choos and Bud Freemans, Henry Allens and Cootys; and there are likely to be other players able to express themselves in an original way on these two instruments. Venuti and Lang have no posterity, no followers (see note). And that, I hope you will understand is the reason why Signore Venuti e Massaro will always be hors de concours in these pages. There is nothing to be done about either of them: there is no standard of comparison in jazz by which to judge them. However, though I hope I have, once and for all, eliminated critical discussion of Venuti from these pages, there are several other people in these records.
There is Bennie (note: Benny) Goodman, for instance. After the little Venutian rhapsody he starts things going by some swell clarinet playing. He is interrupted by Bud Freeman. But as this is a Blue Six record these players turn up again in the course of the piece. So do a number of other people. Joe Sullivan has less to do that usual, which is a pity. But if you don’t like this state of affairs, you can refer to your record of In De Ruff, and drink your fill. Or, alternatively, you can turn to Sweet Lorraine, and get a little more of your favorite pianist. But still not enough.
Sweet Lorraine | mp3 | 768KB
Sweet Lorraine is perhaps the pleasanter of the two sides. It opens slowly with a peculiarly Venuti-Lang tone colouring-guitar playing the tune with violin and clarinet playing the other parts, rather like the immortal Apple Blossoms. Karl (note: Carl) Kress was pretty active with his guitar on the other side, by the way (note: guitarist is Dick McDonough). But in this age of speed and rushing, the tempo changes with a shocking drum-beat of four bars by Neil Marshall. Rhymeless and most unreasonable. And thereafter there is the familiar Venuti sextet swing. Giuseppe himself plays beautifully. Bud Freeman will knock you cold. So will Bennie Goodman. And I can already hear screams of delight coming from Archer Street over Andy (Adrian) Rollini’s four-bar modulation. “Cheeze, boy!” Sweet Lorraine is a pretty tune. And I like the way Bennie Goodman plays in the middle of the first chorus, so that you hear the tune the whole time, although it is never played verbatim. Beethoven did things like that in his variations in the Kreutzer Sonata. Makes a change, as the girl said ….
Source: Hot Records, The Playing Of An Artist Who Stands Alone, A Discourse in which “MIKE” (Spike Hughes) Pays a Deserved Tribute to Venuti; The Melody Maker, February 17, 1934.
Note: Within ten months of writing this article two such players; Django Reinhardt & Stephane Grappelly, a channel crossing away, were to bring the jazz violin/guitar combination into the swing era.