Jazz Violin

May 6, 2012

No middle ground …

Love it or hate it, in jazz history there seldom seems to be any middle ground for the violin. Almost from the start, the violin has often been derided or at best ignored. If the average jazz fan – always assuming that such creatures exist – were to be asked to list favorite instrumentalists what might be the result? (This is not the time to get into jazz singing; that needs, and will later receive, separate and special treatment.)

So, staying with favorite jazz instrumentalists, our (perhaps mythical) average jazz fan will list quite a few names of trumpeters and pianists, some alto saxophonists, and there will be tenor saxophonists by the bus load. Maybe there will be an occasional trombonist and a handful of guitarists (if the fan questioned is young, a whole lot more than a handful); older fans might well list a clarinetist or two, perhaps a bassist. But regardless of age, how many of the jazz fans asked this question will nominate a violinist?

I can’t prove it, because that involves surveys and voting and ballot boxes and heaven knows what other boring stuff, but my guess is that not only will very few fans list a violinist but that the majority of fans will list none at all. Which is, to put it mildly, very unfair.


Involved from the start …

The violin has been involved in jazz music history from the start. Back in the very earliest days, as the new music was being tried out in dance halls and juke joints, most bands had at least one violin and in many the violinist was leader. Not surprising, really.  Consider New Orleans; at the turn of the century there was music of all kinds everywhere, including three opera houses, and hundreds of musicians were needed. Given that almost all of the music being played was of European origin, or at least in that tradition, the instrumentation required to play it included many violins. Being able to play a violin well (and read music) was to be almost guaranteed work and violinists of the era did rather well.Unfortunately, as the new forms of dance music took on board the early strains of what would come to be known as jazz, the violin was nudged aside. This was not because of any failing on the part of the players; as suggested, they were highly skilled practitioners and could read and play anything put before them. But this was long before amplification was even thought of and the new music was loud. The violin was simply drowned out by the trumpet and trombone and quite soon the unwritten standard combo format took shape: trumpet, trombone, clarinet (which had to struggle against the brass), piano, banjo, tuba and drums. A few years on and the string bass had replaced the tuba and the guitar had elbowed out the banjo. Experiments with amplification then allowed guitarists to make themselves heard, eventually with startling results throughout pop music. Some violinists also experimented with amplification, but by this time the violin had been in the wilderness too long and for all practical purposes its numerous qualities as a front-line instrument were lost to jazz.

Some fine examples …

Of course, there were a few jazz violin artists who hung on through the years of the swing era, some in remote corners. For example there were Emilio Caceres (who brought a torrid touch of norteño to jazz); Eddie South (classically trained with an especially melodic approach to jazz); Joe Venuti (notably in his collaborations with guitarist Eddie Lang); Stuff Smith (especially as co-leader with trumpeter Jonah Jones of the Onyx Club band); John Frigo (who with Herb Ellis and Lou Carter formed Soft Winds). Meanwhile, at the other side of the ocean were Stéphane Grappelli and Svend Asmussen, both leading long and fruitful jazz lives. But many musicians used the violin only when they doubled with another more ‘acceptable’ instrument; among them Claude Williams, Ray Perry, Ray Nance.

In later, post-bop years, some of these names enjoyed a resurgence of interest (Venuti, Smith, Grappelli and Asmussen in particular). There was also a handful of newcomers for whom the violin was not only the first if not the only choice but who also defied convention and brought the violin into vivid contact with contemporary aspects of jazz: Jean-Luc Ponty, Leroy Jenkins, John Blake, Michel Urbaniak, Billy Bang. These violinists played on into the 21st century, a time that saw the emergence of the remarkable Regina Carter.Jazz violin lady And if not quite jazz, think about another remarkable young woman, Lucia Micarelli,  who acts in and plays up a post-Katrina storm in the TV series, Treme.



Love it or hate it …

What is (or should be) immediately apparent from all the violinists named here is that the recorded evidence clearly demonstrates that they were gifted musicians, in many instances displaying great improvisational skills that were at least on par with their better-known contemporaries who played trumpet or piano or tenor saxophone. Indeed, if they were to be analyzed fairly, violinists such as Venuti, Smith, Bang and Carter would tick more boxes than many poll-toppers whose playing of brass and woodwind instruments blinded some fans and writers to the fact that, if judged impartially as musicians, they were distinctly less gifted.

If you want to hear some examples of jazz violin playing at its best, then listen to some or all of the following recordings. Doing this with an open mind (and open ears, of course)  will surely not disappoint you.


Joe Venuti

Joe Venuti & George Barnes Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival (Concord Jazz)

Joe Venuti & George Barnes Gems (Concord Jazz)

Joe Venuti & Earl Hines Hot Sonatas (Chiaroscuro)

Joe Venuti & Dave McKenna Alone At The Palace (Chiaroscuro)

Joe Venuti & Scott Hamilton Live At Concord ’77 (Concord Jazz)


Whether playing solo or in duets with his co-leaders, Joe Venuti is in sparkling form, always inventive and swinging ferociously. If you think you have time for only one track, try “Sweet Georgia Brown”, which opens Live At The Concord Summer Jazz Festival. Chances are, you will be instantly hooked.






Stuff Smith

Stuff Smith & Dizzy Gillespie & Oscar Peterson (PolyGram)

Herb Ellis & Stuff Smith Together (Epic)

Stuff Smith Swinging’ Stuff (Metronome)

Stuff Smith & Stéphane Grappelli Stuff & Steff (Barclay)

Stuff Smith & Svend Asmussen Hot Violins (Storyville)


Always driving, Stuff Smith vividly displays his take-charge persona throughout these sets. On two occasions, his style is strikingly contrasted with two other veteran violinists, thus presenting an opportunity not only to hear them too, but also to experience why Smith was one of the most commanding instrumentalists in jazz, regardless of instrument.







Billy Bang

Billy Bang Vietnam: The Aftermath (Justin Time)

William Parker Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear)

Billy Bang Above & Beyond: An Evening In Grand Rapids (Justin Time)

FAB Trio Transforming The Space (CIMP)

FAB Trio History Of Jazz In Reverse (TUM)


Thoroughly contemporary, blending post-bop echoes with improv, Billy Bang always shines. His instrumental virtuosity is underpinned by his extensive imagination and a striking ability to find musical images from earlier eras that fit perfectly into latterday musical concepts.







Regina Carter

Regina Carter I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey (Verve)

Regina Carter Motor City Moments (PolyGram)

Regina Carter & Kenny Barron Freefall (Verve)

Regina Carter Reverse Thread (E1 Music)


Regina Carter is at ease playing popular songs and show tunes, as on the first of these sets, and taking a new look at jazz standards, as she does in the duo with Kenny Barron. On the fourth of these, she explores the rich tapestry of African folk music, creating eloquent contemporary jazz statements. Throughout, Regina Carter is never less than awesome.






This began with the words ‘love it or hate it’. If you already love jazz violin, then nothing more need be said. However, if you are currently in the other camp, then perhaps your curiosity has been aroused. I certainly hope so …

… been here and gone!

Jazz Family

May 3, 2012

I learned something about how jazz history is influenced by blood lines when, in the late 1990s, I was in San Antonio, Texas. One evening, looking for somewhere to eat, I found myself following the tourist trail along the city’s Riverwalk. Hearing the music of a promising-sounding band, I went into a restaurant where a quintet was playing post-bop jazz as a warm-up to the evening’s (non-jazz) headliner. All the instrumentalists in this band were good, but the alto saxophonist was exceptional. After listening to this remarkable player for an hour, I had to tell him how much I had enjoyed the evening. I asked his name; he was David Caceres. I asked if he was related to Ernie Caceres; he said that Ernie was his great-uncle. I knew then that he must be the grandson of Emilio Caceres. From his reaction, it was clear that David was pleased at this recognition of the family name; although this was not uncommon in San Antonio. But I think that he was happily surprised that someone with my accent, which clearly came from a few thousand miles away across an ocean, had spotted the family connection.


Jazz in the blood …

Jazz is often said to be in the blood. Although usually not to be taken literally, there are numerous instances where blood links tie musicians together. When families adorn the pages of jazz history, it is possible that the most numerous are pairs of brothers. There are also larger families, the Jones, Heath, Brunies, Goodman and Teagarden brothers come readily to mind. Bridging a generation, there are several father-son pairs, and in some cases where the pair is mother and son. Then there are sisters, and occasions where the generation bridge goes from mother or father to daughter.

Ernie Caceres …

In the case of the Caceres family from Texas, the bridge is a little out of the ordinary. First in line, in jazz terms, came Ernie Caceres. He was born Ernesto Caceres in Rockport, Texas, on 22 November 1911. Although he started out as a professional guitarist before turning to reed instruments, he became highly skilled on several instruments. His first professional engagements were in Texas, often in company with his brothers, Emilio, violin, and Pinero, trumpet and piano. It was with Emilio’s band that he first toured, playing in various parts of the country, including Detroit and New York City.Ernie-CacerasFrom the late 1930s, he played in bands led by Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Bob Zurke, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Sidney Bechet, Eddie Condon and Billy Butterfield, making in all several hundred appearances on record. Although he played clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones with these bands, it was on baritone saxophone that he became best known. Although rooted in big band swing and Dixieland, he was comfortable in almost any company, something he demonstrated on a 1949 recording date with the Metronome All Stars, on which he backed Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, and Charlie Parker.

Emilio Caceres …

Older than Ernie, Emilio Caceres was also born in Texas, in his case in Corpus Christi on 24 September 1897, he played violin and led a swing band that played throughout the Southwest. It was his trio, however, that gained most popularity and considerable critical approval. In the trio with Emilio were his bother Ernie and their cousin, guitarist Johnny Gomez. Thanks to an appearance on Benny Goodman’s Camel Caravan radio show, the trio was very successful but although there was a lot of work for him in New York City, Emilio chose to return to Texas.Emilio-CaceresFrom a base in San Antonio, he toured with a big band, appeared regularly on radio and made popular records. Although he was a gifted jazz improviser, Emilio opted for a repertoire that mixed contemporary swing style with norteño music, a form highly popular in Mexico and the border states. Sadly, Emilio made only a handful of records but from these it is vividly apparent that he was a hugely gifted musician whose playing can still engender excitement and admiration today.

In the 1960s Ernie Caceres returned to Texas, also settling in San Antonio where he and Emilio recorded in 1969. Ernie was friendly with Jim Cullum Sr and he contributed arrangements for Jim Cullum Jr’s San Antonio-based band. He died there on 10 January 1971; Emilio also died in San Antonio, on 10 February 1980.



Blood ties …

Musical blood linked the Caceres brothers to a cousin, Henry Cuesta (1931-2003), who was for many years featured clarinetist with Lawrence Welk. The blood link continued on down to two grandsons of Emilio.

Of these Anthony Caceres played electric bass from age 17, then switched to acoustic bass. This was at the University of North Texas where in 2003 he earned a degree in Jazz Studies. He also studied with Jeff Bradetich, Lynn Seaton, Mark Egan and Michael Manring.

Anthony-CaceresMore recently, maintaining a family connection, he has toured the country and visited Japan with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Among the many leading names of jazz and pop with whom Anthony has worked are the Four Aces, Ed Soph, Marvin Stamm, Bill Mays, Greg Abate and Carl Fontana.


The other grandson is David Caceres, who plays alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, clarinet and flute. While at Berklee College of Music he also began singing, gradually deciding that this was an area of his musicality he wanted to pursue. From 1989, David worked in New York, quickly building his reputation before joining pianist Paul English’s quartet in Houston. More recently, David has fronted his own quartet, has played with fusion group Stratus, and the funk band TKOh! and has appeared on numerous recording dates.

David-CaceresSince 1995, David’s own name recordings have included Innermost, Trio and Reflections. His most recent release is David Caceres on which he effectively blends his straight-ahead post bop alto saxophone with his relaxed and romantically-inclined singing.



Through the decades and the generations, a deep love for jazz has flowed in the veins of the Caceres family, demonstrating that in the case of these internationally acclaimed jazz musicians, family matters.

… been here and gone!

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