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Musings on the Evolution of Jazz Violin: Part One

January 2010 No Comment
Anthony Barnett with Stuff Smith

Anthony Barnett with Stuff Smith

by Anthony Barnett

 SP: Comment on the evolving position of violin in the ragtime, early, swing, bebop and current eras of jazz.  

AB: First, let me say I am not the knowledgeable person about ragtime and, say, early string bands. Document CD’s (http://www.document-records.com/index.asp) are a good source of, if not always accurate information, at least the string band music itself. I would also mention the two very useful early blues violin compilation CD’s put out by Old Hat (Folks He Sure Do Pull Some Bow! and Violin, Sing The Blues For Me available at http://www.oldhatrecords.com/).

 I have written quite a bit about the evolving position of the violin in jazz in the 96 page booklet that accompanies the two 2-CD hidden history of early bebop violin I like Be I like Bop. Despite the title of this set, the booklet ranges far and wide, much earlier and much later than bop. I have said a little more about the early days in the notes to the anthology CD of swing strings Professor Visits Harlem. Then there are Howard Rye’s lengthy notes to the 2-CD set Blows ’n’ Rhythm. I would say, study at least these.

To say nothing of the journal Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies.  Although it has ceased publication it is available in specialist libraries, and from me when I can find the time and energy to deal with photocopying out of print issues, which costs. Truly, it would be helpful if those who are interested turned to some of these sources first, helpful, I believe, for them and certainly helpful to AB Fable. 

This brings me to a couple of asides. Not infrequently I receive requests for information, from collectors, musicians, researchers, student or otherwise. Much of the time the information sought is already out there, in the CDs, in the books and journal and their online updates. It’s not much fun repeating over and over what one has already written or policing ubiquitous errors long ago put right, what I like to call string-along-theories. I guess I should have a webpage devoted to some of those. That said, of course, I do not know everything, which is why I have, online update pages. The history and an understanding of that history is always evolving. The other aside is that the internet has widened the dissemination of both poor as well as good information and has increased expectations that one can, even must, get something for nothing, i.e. without personal energy and/or financial input.

SP: Are bowed instruments more generally accepted now and considered less of an oddity? It seems that, historically, there have been more improvising violinists in Europe than America.  If so, why do you think this is/was true?  Is the situation changing?

AB: More generally accepted: that seems to be so, but if you examine the history deeply you find that in, for example, the 1910s and 1920s there were many violinists in jazz, blues and proto-jazz contexts, many of whom were improvising to some extent or other, though many, on the cusp of jazz and dance musics, were not. True, very few rose to the ranks of international renown (preeminent were Eddie South, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Stephane Grappelli) while for others the violin ended up not being their primary instrument: Darnell Howard, Edgar Sampson, for example. The ubiquitous explanation for the apparent disappearance of violins is provided by Milt Hinton: the introduction of sound movies putting many violinists out of work, as silent movie accompanists.

So, I don’t think that historically there have been more improvising violinists in Europe than in America but there clearly is a perception that that must have been so. There may have been more in Europe who achieved some kind of recognition on disc, in particular in their locality. Actually, we are talking about jazz but, if we add western swing and country musics there were many, many improvising violinists in USA in the `30s and `40s, who often took their inspiration from Venuti, Smith, or Svend Asmussen. For years, among the Europeans, Grappelli and Asmussen were the most widely known, though there were many others.

Listen to all those other Scandinavian violinists who even produced on disc a body of valid early bebop violin at a time when it appeared that American violinists did not. I say appeared because what else was going on in America that did not find its way on to record or in such obscure contexts that until recently we did not know about them? For example, the excellent unidentified bop violinist on two tracks recorded in Cleveland in the early 1950s. If we now have a recovered glimpse of him or her, who else have we not glimpsed? I have again to point, for example, to the two AB Fable anthologies I Like Be I Like Bop and Blows ’n’ Rhythm, the in-depth annotations that accompany them, in the latter case by Howard Rye and the many recovered recordings therein. (See http://www.abar.net)

I do want to stress, however, that these are off the cuff remarks, open to different understandings and reconsiderations.

Today there are many post-Ornette Coleman, shall we say, improvisors, both in America and Europe. There often are different sensibilities involved, which need greater consideration.


about the author

Anthony Barnett has published bio-discographies of Stuff Smith, Desert Sands/Up Jumped the Devil; and Eddie South, Black Gypsy. He edits Fable Bulletin: Violin Improvisation Studies, an online update facility to printed volumes of the bulletin and books. He is a contributor to the latest editions of New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and Music and Musicians.

Since 2002 he has issued previously unreleased and other rare recordings by a wealth of historic jazz violinists on his AB Fable label.

His AB Fable website is   http://www.abar.net

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