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Venuti, Joe (Giuseppe)

Venuti, Joe (Giuseppe)

Venuti, Joe (Giuseppe), influential and highly talented jazz violinist; b. Philadelphia, Pa., Sept. 16,1903 (or Lecco, near Milan Italy, April 4, 1898); d. Seattle, Wash., Aug. 14, 1978. He was cagey about his date and place of birth. Raised in Philadelphia, he received a thorough classical training on the violin, but after meeting guitarist Eddie Lang, he turned to popular music. Together they began working in Bert Estlow’s Quintet in Atlantic City (1921); subsequently they played in the Hotel Knickerbocker Hotel Orch. Venuti played briefly with Red Nichols, then began directing the Book-Cadillac Hotel Orch. for Jean Goldkette (late 1924). Moved to N.Y. and took part in countless recording sessions with various leaders and waxed many sides in small groups with Eddie Lang, beginning in 1926. He toured with Jean Goldkette, with Roger Wolfe Kahn (October 1925 until June 1926); played for many Broadway shows; worked in the short-lived Adrian Rollini Big Band (September 1927). Throughout the 1920s regularly co-led band with Ed Lang in N.Y. and other East coast clubs. Joined Paul Whiteman in May 1929, made remarkable recovery from injuries sustained in car crash (summer 1929), returned to Whiteman from October 1929 until May 1930. Briefly with Smith Ballew in autumn of 1930, then freelance studio and session work in N.Y., again with Roger Wolfe Kahn in spring of 1932.

When Lang died suddenly in 1933, Venuti was at first inconsolable, but soon found his form again. He brought his own small group to Britain in the summer of 1934, and during this visit recorded in London on violin and guitar. From 1935 regularly led own band, continued touring and residencies until the early 1940s. However, with World War II breaking out, most of Venuti’s band members were drafted, and he had to end the band in 1943. He moved to Calif, and early in 1944 became an MGM studio musician. He led his own band on the West Coast during the late 1940s, then recommenced widespread touring, occasionally working as a soloist. In the 1950s and 1960s, Venuti continued to work around the country in small groups, often playing an amplified violin; however, he was less active in the early to mid-1960s due to problems with alcoholism. He made a triumphant appearance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival leading to a return to active recording and performing through the 1970s. Although he was seriously ill in April 1970, he soon recovered and toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe, recording with Marian McPartland, Zoot Sims, Earl Hines, and many others. He was honored by the Newport Hall of Fame at the 1975 Newport Jazz Festival. He continued to perform nearly up to his death, despite the fact that he was suffering from cancer through the second half of the 1970s.

Second only to Stephane Grappelli (whom Venuti inspired), Venuti was the greatest jazz violinist of his day. His recordings with Eddie Lang inspired Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli to form their quintet in the mid-1930s. Venuti had a bluesier tone than Grappelli and was more comfortable with high-speed pyrotechnics than with the kind of ballads the French player preferred. He also employed many vaudeville “tricks” in his performances, including loosening the bow and placing the violin between the hair and the stick, playing behind his head, etc. Venuti was also a notorious practical joker, his jokes having an element of nastiness to them: among his famous exploits were pushing a piano out of a hotel window, pouring jelly into Bix Beiderbecke’s bathwater, putting flour in the tub during the filming of Paul Whiteman’s King of Jazz,playing a horse’s member with his bow, and inviting dozens of bassists to meet on a street corner for a gig that didn’t exist.


Stringin’ the Blues (1927); Fiddlesticks (1931); Pretty Trix (1934); Mad Fiddler from Philly (1952); Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang (1955); With Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey (1955); Dutch Swing College Band Meets (1971); Joe Venuti in Milan (1971); Joe and Zoot (1973); Blue Four (1974); Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims (1975); ’S Wonderful: 4 Giants of Swing (1976); Venuti-Barnes Live (1976); Joe in Chicago (1978). Earl Hines: Hot Sonatas (1975).

—John Chilton, Who’s Who of Jazz/Music Master Jazz and Blues Catalogue/Nicolas Slonimsky

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