Wither went the jazz violin?

26 Nov

There have of course been many jazz violinists, and there continue to be in the present. Chris Haigh’s website does a great job of documenting this lineage. This continuing thread of jazz string players notwithstanding, there was a noticeable shift after the 1920s in which it seems that the (sometimes prominently featured) string quartets and (frequently prominently featured) violinists of hot jazz bands all but disappeared. By the time of big bands and the swing era in the 1930s, strings were no longer commonplace in popular jazz.

I think there were perhaps multiple factors that played into this transformation, and there are no simple reasons for the change. For example, a pat explanation is that big bands were simply too loud for violins and cellos. While at first glance this makes sense, it overlooks the important story of Eddie Lang, often credited with being the first jazz electric guitarist. The story with Lang is that he experimented in the early 20s with some of the first valve-based amplifiers made by RCA, using pickups made from hacked phonograph cartridges and telephone receivers. Already as early as 1917, the Russian scientist and cellist Lev Theremin had designed an electric cello, built by the early 20s, and presumably jazz string players experimented with methods of amplification just like guitarists.

Here are some related pictures:

The violin has a long history in American folk music.

Buskers in the early 1930s

New Orleans band from early teens featuring acoustic guitar, violin, bass.

Jazz band from early 20s, violin left and rear

Early Creole jazz band from Ken Burns’ PBS jazz series

Proto Jazz

21 Nov

Library of Congress has a nice article on Ragtime that raises the fascinating topic of of polyrhythm as both African inspired but also found in the jigs and reels played by immigrants from the British Isles in the Appalachian regions of the US South. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200035811

The wiki entry on Contradanze/Habanera is also a very interesting read, on the Afro-Cuban origins of proto-jazz styles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contradanza

Another interesting musical form of proto jazz is the “Cakewalk”. Need to read more about this!

Popular Music at the World’s Columbian Exposition — 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago

14 Nov

The Library of Congress has a great description of the music scene at the World’s Fair. Dvorak was there conducting, Sousa was there leading his band. Will Marion Cook (later Duke Ellington’s mentor), and Joseph Douglass (grandson of Frederick Douglass) performed. Scott Joplin, then living and working in Chicago likely played ragtime in one or more of the numerous saloons and cafes along the outskirts of the fair.

25 million visitors from hundreds of countries soaked it all in, and carried the new popular musical styles home across the US and abroad.


Frederick Douglass…violinist?

10 Nov

According to the National Park Service at the Washington DC Frederick Douglass Historical Site:

Douglass played the violin for his grandchildren and guests when they visited Cedar Hill. He frequently performed for his grandchildren after supper and before their bedtime….Douglass would appear in the door leading from the hall or West Parlor into the dining room with his violin in hand. He taught his grandchildren slave songs he learned as a young slave. The grandchildren sang and clapped their hands while Douglass tapped his feet….

https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/douglass/exb/homeinWashington/FRDO2505_violin.html

In the words of Dr. Douglass himself:

“I sometimes (at long intervals) try my old violin; but after all, the music of the past and of imagination is sweeter than any my unpracticed and unskilled bow can produce. So I lay my dear, old fiddle aside, and listen to the soft, silent, distant music of other days, which, in the hush of my spirit, I still find lingering somewhere in the mysterious depths of my soul.”


Holland, Frederic May. Frederick Douglass: The Colored Orator (1895 edition), p. 335.

Frederick Douglass listens to his grandson Joseph Douglass, also a violinist:

(Library of Congress)

Stuff Smith — Have Violin, Will Swing

9 Nov

I’ve been listening to this great album from the late 50s by pioneer jazz violinist Stuff Smith. Smith began his career in the 20s in Texas, so he’s pretty old school in the jazz violin genealogy — maybe second generation as far as I can tell… Smith’s playing style, at least on this record, is very different from Venuti’s and Grapelli’s. Instead of the arpeggios and lightning-fast runs of Venuti, Smith’s phrasing is short and punchy, trumpet-like.

More Ellington for cello

31 Oct

Here’s an arrangement for cello trio of Jungle Jamboree, a song on the Okeh Ellington 1927 – 1930 collection. It’s actually an Andy Razaf/ Fats Waller tune, but it is performed by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. I think this song stands out to me because it seems to combine elements of the collective improv style of traditional New Orleans jazz with improvised solos that are rich enough to stand on their own.

Black And Tan Fantasy for Cello Quartet

31 Oct

Here’s an arrangement for four cellos I did of the Duke Ellington / Bubber Miley composition Black And Tan Fantasy. I tried to faithfully transcribe all of the solos as played on the original 1927 first take, for Okeh Records. I think this tune is amazing because of the way it combines elements of classical, blues, and jazz.

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