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!


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