Musings On The Evolution Of Jazz Violin Part Two: Scratch On Wood
by Anthony Barnett
SP: More generally, speak to misunderstandings of jazz violin exhibited by the jazz community and/or violinists.
AB: That is a big question. I am tempted to answer that things are much better but I am often given cause to wonder.
For example, 2009 saw, to my knowledge, three centenary celebrations of Stuff Smith: one in The Strad by classical violin guru Tully Potter (in-depth and in many ways excellent), one in Strings (largely sounding out other violinists), and an hour on the BBC in which the host, a well-known jazz author and broadcaster—shall I name him: Alyn Shipton—discussed Smith with a British jazz and session violinist, one whose sympathies lie, almost inevitably, more with Grappelli—shall I name him: Christian Garrick (he’s in the soundtrack orchestra of the movie Chicago, by the way). All three celebrations repeated the ubiquitous adage that Smith is (often) scratchy. I repeat, what I have long ago said elsewhere, that if Smith is scratchy then so are Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and numerous other Smith peers.
This scratchy critique just does not pass. What is it with the violin? OK. We have a smooth player Eddie South, rather like, say Benny Carter. That’s one side of things and we have Stuff Smith, rather like Eldridge, Hawkins, Webster. South the Tolstoy, Smith the Dostoyevski. What is the problem? In fact, while working on the interviews with other violinists for his article in Strings, Eric Fine had even put the scratchy point to me over the telephone. I explained the above but to no avail, which may indicate that he is his own man, or not. Far worse, reprehensible, in fact, was the underlying premise of the BBC program: even when they were speaking about a Smith record they liked, it was as if they were embarrassed and apologetic about liking it, with woeful comments about his technique. And, deliberately, I would say, of all the wonderful material that exists, they chose “It Don’t Mean a Thing” from Violin Summit to close the program—a track that, without contextual explanation, for the uninitiated, shows Smith in a very poor light in relation to Asmussen, Grappelli, Ponty, with whom he is playing on it. What a wasted opportunity. But I do believe they wanted that. Nigel Kennedy, whose so-called jazz recordings are a musical disgrace—Blue Note should be ashamed of themselves—used that track to get at Smith in his premature autobiography some years ago, too. Yes, that was it, apologizing not only for themselves but for Smith. Smith needs no apology. Grappelli himself is in print, with patent sincerity, more than once about Smith’s greatness. Oh, well, the BBC, contrary to what many may think, has always been iffy.
Of course, it is OK to prefer something to something else. It is OK to prefer Tolstoy to Dostoyevski. I just wonder how many people in the jazz community are willing to say that they do not like Eldridge, Hawkins or Webster. Nor is there any point pointing out below par recordings by Smith as some kind of evidence (“It Don’t Mean a Thing”, for example). Who does that to Eldridge, Hawkins or Webster? At least not in order to dismiss. There are below par recordings by most everyone, including South and Benny Carter, for a variety of reasons. That is not the substance of the matter.
Well, this is a fairly specific answer to one point about one violinist but it begins to touch on broader matters.
Let me continue a moment more about Stuff Smith. Notwithstanding these remarks, he has always been appreciated where it mattered, as much by violinists as by other instrumentalists and listeners. Both Jean-Luc Ponty and Michal Urbaniak have been at pains to point out in print that, among violinists, it was Smith and no one else who was their prime mover. Western Swing violinists, mainly tend to favor either Venuti or Smith, I believe, although Svend Asmussen figures for some. Recent years have seen quite a few new violinistic jazz tributes to Smith, whether somewhat imitative or explorative. For example, Billy Bang, Sam Bardfeld, Tomoko Omura, Mike Piggott, Michael Fraser, Regina Carter, Billy Taylor with Turtle Island (combined tribute to others including Eddie South and Art Tatum) and many others. I am not making quality judgements with these names. If I were, some might not be there. And there have been non-violinistic tributes too: notably Oliver Lake’s pairing of Smith with Rashaan Roland Kirk in a tribute to these two Ohio sons. Excellent. And contemporary non-jazz tributes: notably, one of Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations is inspired by Smith’s 1936 version of “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music”.
Some jazz and impro (a contraction I prefer to improv) violinists, and this goes for Smith himself, have looked to other instruments, horns, percussion, the orchestra itself, to expand their understanding of what can be done tonally and in phrasing with the instrument.
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