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Musings On The Evolution Of Jazz Violin Part Two: Scratch On Wood

April 2010 7 Comments

Anthony Barnett (photo © Toraiwa)

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

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  • Tim Woodbridge said:

    Enjoy your articles. I have a nodding acquaintance with jazz violin (Venuti, Smith, Nance and, since your tent seems to cover Western Swing, the major fiddlers of that genre). And I agree with what I take to be your point, that smoothness alone is not the whole story. So if we’re talking about “scratchiness” how about Pee Wee Russell and Henry “Red” Allen?

  • Graham Clark said:

    Anthony Barnett focuses on one thing that I think actually elevates Stuff to greatness, rather than detracting from him, and that is the business of “scratchiness”.
    First, let me quote Nathan Milstein on why he liked the fiddle, “Because you can scccrrraaaatcchh on it!”
    The scratch and noise that the violin makes is precisely what gives articulation and, combined with proper accentuation and timing, allows the fiddle to swing.
    None of the post Grapelli-ites have it at all.
    The scratch is a most important aspect of playing to master, but close miking exaggerates it. A pick up over-amplifies it, so electric players stop using the bow properly.
    Articulation and swing in singing come from the placing of the consonants. You don’t get the groove from the vowels. For a horn, it is the tonguing.
    For a violin, it is understanding the scratch. It is said that if you were next to Heifetz when he played, all you would hear would be scratch.
    From a distance, the scratch softens, and the “vowels” come out, but you still get the clarity of articulation.
    So, I liken the scratch to consonants in speech and I encourage students to explore how that scratch defines their phrasing.
    It certainly did for Stuff.

  • Matt Turner said:

    Long live the scratch! I wrote to Anthony shortly after this article debuted, and mentioned that Stuff Smith’s playing had and continues to have a huge impact on my jazz playing.

  • Anthony Barnett said:

    Thank you Tim and Graham – excellent points both – very best Anthony

  • Christine Smith said:

    Hi everyone,

    Thought y’all might be interested in a new recording coming out at the end of the month called “The Music of Eddie South.” Unable to break into the classical scene due to the rampant racism during his lifetime (1904-1962), Eddie was a star in the vaudeville and jazz scenes, playing with such legends as Django Reinhardt. Paul Nero even dedicated the classic tune “Hot Canary” to South. Jeremy Cohen and the rest of Violin Jazz pay tribute to “The Dark Angel of the Violin” on this new CD and give him the recognition he deserves!

    You can read more about the project here: http://ow.ly/1Lhzl


  • Anthony Barnett said:


    It is something of a myth that South wanted to be a strictly classical musician (whether or not he recorded and broadcast in the genre, which he did) though it is certainly true that had he wished to be he would have encountered what you describe.

    The truth is that South was at heart, for all his prodigious classical technique, an improvisor. There are hardly two performances by him of the same piece played the same way, even on adjacent studio takes. That is the heart of a true jazz musician. It is not typical of someone with classical music ambitions. Nero, by the way, was a brilliant technician who composed his seemingly improvisational phrases. There is recorded evidence that he was not capable of thinking improvisationally on his feet.

    Well, Christine, you have prompted me to jump ahead. I have already spoken about these things, with particular emphasis on Nero, in a future part of this interview.


  • Anthony Barnett said:

    Follow up about South:
    Please be aware that there are errors concerning South’s career in the
    online product description for Jeremy Cohen’s Dorian CD Music of Eddie
    South. This is a shame because the project had access to the South
    bio-discography Black Gypsy and related CDs from AB Fable, Jazz Oracle,
    Frog, Soundies. I have not seen the finished CD so I cannot comment on the
    state of the liner notes.

    Anthony http://www.abar.net