Tag Archives: Joe Venuti

78: “At the Jazz Band Ball” b/w “The Jazz Me Blues” by Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang. Okeh 40923. Recorded in New York City, October 5, 1927.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

 

Born in 1903 to a well-off German American couple in Davenport, Iowa, Leon Bismark Biederbecke was the youngest of three children. He was playing the piano by ear at the age of three; according to his sister, he would play it standing up with his arms up over his head to reach the keys. His ability to mimic almost any melody he heard was noted in the local paper when he was just seven years old, and he would often go to the cinema as a child not to enjoy the films, but rather to dash home afterwards to see if he could accurately play what he had just heard from the silent films’ piano accompaniment. His older brother had returned home from military service in 1918 with a Victrola in tow, thus giving Leon—now known by all by his nickname “Bix”—the opportunity to hear his first jazz records. Supposedly, he taught himself to play Cornet by copying The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s recordings of “Tiger Rag” and “Skeleton Jangle.”

Bix was not the best student, and his parents sent him off to the Lake Forest Academy in hopes that he would be taught discipline and direction. They didn’t account for the fact that the Academy was a short train ride away from Chicago, where Bix would escape to listen to bands like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. For reasons both academic and alcoholic, Bix was expelled from the academy. He returned to Davenport to work for his father in 1923, but soon enough jumped at the opportunity to join The Wolverine Orchestra. Here he is with his recording debut, playing cornet on a beautifully restored recording of “Fidgety Feet.”

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“Borneo” b/w “My Pet” by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra. Okeh 41039. Recorded in New York City, April 10, 1928.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Frankie Trumbauer was born in 1901 to a musically-inclined mother who directed theater orchestras. His St. Louis childhood saw Frankie learning a number of instruments, including the cornet, clarinet, and bassoon. But he is perhaps best known for popularizing the C-melody saxophone, which is somewhere between an alto and tenor saxophone in size. His twenties were spent playing with groups like the Mound City Blowers, who gave “Tram” his first recording experience with some songs for Brunswick Records.

Frankie was the musical director for Jean Goldkette’s Victor Recording Orchestra when he first recruited Bix Biederbecke to play cornet.

They had a solid rapport, and kept it going through collaborations with Paul Whiteman and, by 1927, Frankie’s own recordings for Okeh. The first single was a cover of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Singin’ The Blues.”

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78: “Bullfrog Moan” b/w “A Handful of Riffs” by Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie Dunn. Okeh 8695. Recorded in New York City, 5/15/29 & 5/08/29.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Blind Willie Dunn was actually Eddie Lang, who adopted the name because it sounded “bluesier,” or more “urban,” or, uh, “black.” Eddie was white and was making a good name for himself playing with old schoolmate Joe Venuti when this was recorded. Whether the name change was his idea or that of someone behind the scenes at Okeh Records is unclear, but what is clear is that the record-buying public, in the 1920’s, was unfamiliar—and would be uncomfortable— with black and white performers recording together. Indeed, the songs Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson recorded were arguably the very first.

Lang’s genius has been discussed here before, so let’s focus on Lonnie Johnson. Born into a musical family in 1899, Lonnie Johnson was adept at piano, violin, and mandolin, but early on decided to focus on the guitar. In 1919, Lonnie returned from touring England with Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra to find that his family—all but one brother—had been taken by the influenza epidemic of the previous year. Lonnie and his Brother James started over in St. Louis 1920. By 1925, Lonnie was married to blues singer Mary Johnson. Not only that, he also won a musical contest with a doozy of a prize: a recording contract with Okeh records

As these songs will attest, Lonnie was not a typical blues player. He didn’t think so either; Johnson entered the contest to have a chance to record, even though he thought of himself as more of a jazz player at the time. But the blues label stuck. Fortunately for all of us, Johnson apparently treated that categorical box like a playpen and did whatever he liked within it. On “Bullfrog Moan,” the structure and descending scale of the blues is sweetened with an adept use of the 12 string guitar, its low notes ably suggesting the titular amphibian.

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78: “The Wild Dog” b/w “Dinah” by Joe Venuti’s Blue Four. Okeh 41025. Recorded in New York City, March 28, 1928.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Image courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound.

Considered the father of jazz violin, Joe Venuti pioneered the use of string instruments in jazz, with considerable help from childhood friend, guitarist Eddie Lang. The two of them met in their school orchestra’s violin section and would reconnect in 1925 while they were both pursuing gigs in dance bands and broadway orchestra pits. Only now Lang, having changed his name from Salvatore Massaro, had also changed his primary instrument to that of guitar. None other than Django Reinhardt would later claim Lang as a big influence on his own playing, so changing things up clearly paid off.

Joe and Eddie would soon play with such luminaries as Red Nichols, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, and by 1927 they were leading their own bands, including Joe Venuti’s Blue Four, which created the little number featured here.

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