Venuti and Lang


  Jazz Development in Britain

In the previous article I was moved to write in some detail about the great multi- instrumentalist, Adrian Rollini, from having listened to an LP upon which he, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang were the principal artists, and it would therefore seem natural to now reminisce a little about the greatest of jazz violinists (Venuti), still very much alive and active, and Lang, the pioneer of jazz guitar playing, whose terribly premature death at the age of 29 occurred in 1933 robbing the music profession of one of its greatest artists.

Venuti, like Lang, was born in 1904, and, also like his guitarist colleague, came from good Latin stock. Lang, real name Salvatore Massaro, was born in Philadelphia of a Sicilian immigrant family, whilst Venuti managed to be born in the ship that was transporting his family from Italy to the USA ! Another thing in common between the two was that they both played the violin and the guitar, and I recollect that a record was issued in the late 'twenties upon which Venuti played the guitar and Lang the violin, but details, I am afraid, escape my memory. It was, in any case, made more or less as a novelty, but both musicians were nevertheless able to demonstrate that they were equally competent on the other's principal instrument. The recordings included in the LP that started my trend of thought were all made, according to the record sleeve, in 1933, although I recall that two of the tracks were, in fact, recorded in London in 1934.

These two titles, "Hell's Bells And Hallelujah" and "Satan's Holiday", were made when Venuti was in London for a brief season at the Palladium, and on the tracks he was accompanied by the American guitarist Frank Victor (real name Viggiano), as Lang had then been dead for over a year, Arthur Young, one of our finest pianists in the years before World War 2, who, I believe, emigrated to Australia, Don Barrigo, the equally distinguished musician who played tenor saxophone with many of our finest bands, but who, I seem to recall, also left Britain some years ago. On bass was Doug Lees, who came down with one of the earlier "Scottish invasions" of London and is still to be found these days laying down an excellent foundation for the orchestras of many West End musical shows. Doug's solos on the tracks do not do him justice, not because they were not good- they were, in fact, very good- but because of the inability of the recording technicians of those days to capture the sound of the string bass as actually produced in the studio.

At that time I was personally doing quite a lot of recording in the same studios, along with a number of well- known bass players, who played some great solos, but what we heard in the studio never seemed to go on to the wax. The team of Venuti and Lang had, however, first come to the fore in Britain in 1927 when their earlier recordings had reached us, made either as a duo, such as "Wild Cat" and "Stringin' the Blues", as a trio with Arthur Schutt on piano, such as "Goin' Places" and "Doin' Things", or, when the three were joined by Adrian Rollini, as a quartet with "Four String Joe" and "Penn Beach Blues" as examples.

My earliest recollection of Eddie Lang, however, goes back to 1924, a couple of years before I entered the music profession, when he came to London with the original Mound City Blue Blowers, who appeared in cabaret at the Piccadilly Hotel, and also recorded a couple of titles for the old Brunsurick label. I heard a relay broadcast from the hotel via the old British Broadcasting Company, with the aid of my crystal set, and was knocked for six by hearing, for the first time, jazz performed on the guitar. I cannot now remember all the numbers the group played, but I do recall "Wigwam Blues" and "Tiger Rag". The performance of the latter gave me a completely new impression of the rag, which I had previously only heard performed by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band five years earlier in 1919. Being only eleven then, I had barely been able to grasp everything that was going on.

The Blowers were led by Red McKenzie, who indulged in scat-singing, and "blue blowing", which was the technique of imitating the sound, usually, of the muted trumpet. This was done by transmitting into the bottom of a jug suitable noises produced by the voice. His colleagues were a man called Dick Slevin who, horror of horrors, played the kazoo, Jack Bland, who produced a pleasant sound and excellent rhythm on a muted banjo, and Eddie Lang. The overall effect was to produce the sound of a small jazz band and, there being no amplification of public address systems in those days, the only microphones used were those of the BBC. The live hotel audience listened to an acoustic performance with the same rapt attention that one experiences at a concert of chamber music. The performance was great, even the kazoo being used with good taste, something very rare in my experience. The sophisticated hotel audience went wild with enthusiasm! As did I with my crystal set. McKenzie became a respected jazz performer and, in later years, recorded with both Venuti and Lang as well as with such other giants of jazz as Coleman Hawkins, Muggsy Spanier, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Tack Teagarden, to name but a few.

But, for me, the most lasting aspect of that performance of long ago at the Piccadilly Hotel was the contribution of Eddie Lang. His influence upon jazz guitar playing has been acknowledged by all the great guitarists of the idiom, both living and dead, who have followed in his footsteps. Space will not permit me to pen much here about Joe Venuti and the influence he has had upon violinists over many years. His disciples have confounded certain purist critics, by proving that jazz can be played on the instrument. Venuti was not an exception- only the daddy of them all ! When he appeared, along with Barney Kessel and Red Norvo, at the Hammersmith Gaumont and other places in Britain some two or three years ago, he proved himself to be as great a player as ever and literally lifted his audiences from their seats.