Joe Venuti

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Joe Venuti
Bubba Kolb and Joe Venuti.jpg
Venuti (right) with the Bubba Kolb Trio at the Village Jazz Lounge, Walt Disney World, in 1978
Background information
Birth name Giuseppe Venuti
Born (1903-09-16)September 16, 1903
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 14, 1978(1978-08-14)
Seattle, Washington
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments Violin
Labels Columbia, OKeh
Associated acts Eddie Lang Benny Goodman, Dorsey Brothers, Bing Crosby, Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Boswell Sisters, Zoot Sims,

Giuseppe "Joe" Venuti (September 16, 1903 – August 14, 1978) was an Italian-American jazz violinist.


Joe Venuti was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 16, 1903.[1] In the early 1920s, Venuti moved to New York City, where he played in dance bands and jazz orchestras with Jean Goldkette, Red Nichols, Bix Beiderbecke, Adrian Rollini, and Frankie Trumbauer. He also played in the Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra with Eddie Lang, his friend since childhood.[1]

Venuti and Lang performed and recorded often together. Their jazz violin and guitar duo provided an example for Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.[1] They became so well known that on many commercial dance recordings they were hired to do 12- or 24-bar duos towards the end of otherwise stock dance arrangements. In 1926, Venuti and Lang started recording for OKeh Records as a duet (after a solitary duet issued on Columbia), followed by "Blue Four" combinations. Venuti also recorded commercial dance records for OKeh under the name "New Yorkers".[citation needed]

Following Lang's death in 1933, Venuti's career began to wane, though he continued performing through the 1930s, recording a series of commercial dance records (usually containing a violin solo by Venuti) for the dime-store labels, OKeh and Columbia, and small group sessions. He influenced early western swing players like Cecil Brower.[citation needed]

After a period of relative obscurity in the 1940s and 1950s, Venuti played violin and other instruments with Jack Statham at the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas. Statham headed several musical groups that played at the Desert Inn from late 1961 until 1965, including a Dixieland combo. Venuti was with him during that time, and was active with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra during the 1960s. He was 'rediscovered' in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, he established a musical relationship with tenor saxophonist Zoot Sims that resulted in three recordings. In 1976, he recorded an album of duets with pianist Earl Hines entitled Hot Sonatas. He also recorded an entire album with country-jazz musicians including mandolinist Jethro Burns (of Homer & Jethro), pedal steel guitarist Curly Chalker and former Bob Wills sideman and guitarist Eldon Shamblin. Venuti died in Seattle, Washington.[citation needed]

Date of birth[edit]

Venuti was well known for giving out conflicting information regarding his early life, including his birthplace and birth date as well as his education and upbringing. Gary Giddins summarized the situation by saying that

"depending on which reference book you consult, (Venuti's age when he died in 1978) was eighty-four, eighty-two, eighty, seventy-five, seventy-four, or seventy-two. Venuti, who surely had one of the strangest senses of humor in music history, encouraged the confusion. (...) The deception has been variously traced to Venuti's father, who hoped to speed up the naturalization process, to Joe's fear that a foreign-born jazz musician would not be taken seriously by his peers, and to his general penchant for mayhem."[2]

Venuti claimed to have been born aboard a ship as his parents emigrated from Italy around 1904, though many believe he was born in Philadelphia. It has also been claimed that he was born on April 4, 1898 in Lecco, Italy, or on September 16, 1903 in Philadelphia. Later in life, he said he was born in Lecco, Italy in 1896 and that he came to the U.S. in 1906 and settled in Philadelphia.[3][4]


Venuti was classically trained in the violin from a young age, and studied solfeggio with his grandfather. He later said that while he studied music from him, he did not learn any one instrument but rather music theory in general. He began studying the violin in Philadelphia, and later claimed to have studied at a conservatory, though there is no documented evidence to support this theory. His style was characteristic of someone who had learned violin technique.[citation needed]

Venuti spent time in the early 1900s in the James Campbell School Orchestra. It was there that he first met and befriended Salvatore Massaro (Eddie Lang), who was also playing in the violin section of the orchestra. During this time they were experimenting with jazz and blues in addition to classical playing.[5]


In 1924 he moved to Detroit to join Jean Goldkette's band, and began playing with the Book Cadillac Hotel Orchestra, one of Goldkette's dance bands. It was here that he made his first recordings with Goldkette's big band. By the summer of 1925, he had moved to Atlantic City briefly to play with Bert Estlow's band before settling in New York. Here, he once again encountered Massaro, who had changed his name to Eddie Lang. Lang had also switched from violin to guitar. The two friends struck up a professional partnership which was to last until Lang's death in 1933. They began playing with Roger Wolfe Kahn's dance orchestras in addition to playing in Broadway pit orchestras to support themselves.[6]

From 1926–1928, the Venuti and Lang duo were recording with Red Nichols (1927–28), Bix Beiderbecke (1927), Adrian Rollini (1927) and Frankie Trumbauer (1927). Between 1927 and 1929 Lang and Venuti were leading bands and performing in Atlantic City. Venuti then moved back to New York in 1929 to play with Paul Whiteman's orchestra from 1929 to 1931. He also appeared in the film King of Jazz (1930) with the band. From the period of 1931–1933, Venuti recorded again with Eddie Lang, Bix Beiderbecke, and Frankie Trumbauer. The most famous recording of Venuti's career was also produced during this time: his October 22, 1931 recording with Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang and their All Star orchestra. This session also included Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden. Both Venuti and Lang rejoined Roger Wolfe Kahns' orchestra in 1932 and played and recorded with him until Lang's death in 1933.[7]

Venuti (with Eddie Lang) in Paul Whiteman's Orchestra from the 1930 film King of Jazz performing "Wild Cat" The other two selections in the video, played by a sextet of violinists, are Fritz Kreisler's "Caprice Viennoise" and "Tambourin Chinois".

Following Lang's death, Venuti conducted a tour of Europe and the UK. During this period he also alternated from violin to guitar, varying from his almost strictly violin approach. Upon returning to the US in 1935, he formed a big band and worked as its leader. During this time he also composed most of his original arrangements. Venuti was less successful as a big band leader than as a soloist, and the band folded in 1943.[8]

Venuti transitioned from being in a position of relative prominence to one of ignominy. He moved to California in 1944 to become a studio musician with MGM, in addition to playing with other film and radio studios. He also appeared regularly on Bing Crosby's radio show. Later, Venuti returned to a small group format and continued to play and record in and around Los Angeles, while touring frequently. In 1953 he conducted another tour of Europe, and in 1963 a tour of Seattle.[7]

Throughout much of the 1950s Venuti made records and played at clubs. This was the beginning of a fifteen-year lull in his career. In the early 1960s he was mostly inactive due to his alcoholism. The late 1960s marked a revival in his career. In 1967 he was invited to perform at Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Party and was such a success that he would be asked to repeat his performances annually until his death in 1978. In 1968 he was also invited to the Newport Jazz Festival, and in 1969 he performed at the London Jazz Expo.[8]

During the 1970s Venuti toured extensively in Europe with a small ensemble. He made his final recordings with Earl Hines, George Barnes, Ross Tompkins, Dave McKenna, Marian McPartland, Scott Hamilton, Leon Redbone, and most notably Zoot Sims. Venuti continued to tour and play until his death in 1978.[8]

Playing style[edit]

Venuti pioneered the violin as a solo instrument in the jazz world. He was famous for a "hot" playing style characteristic of jazz soloists in the 1920s and the swing era. His solos have been described as rhythmic, with patterns of duplets and running eighth and sixteenth notes. He favored a lively, fast tempo that showed off his technique. Venuti was a virtuosic player with a wide range of techniques, including left hand pizzicato and runs spanning the length of the fingerboard. He also frequently implemented slides common in blues and country music fiddle playing. Occasionally, he unscrewed the end of his bow and wrapped the bow hair around the strings of the violin, allowing him to play chords and creating a "wild" tone. He was particularly notable in small ensemble jazz, since the force of the horns in big band jazz was sufficient to drown out the violin before the invention of the amplifier.[9]


Venuti's compositions include "Satan's Holiday", "Goin' Home", "Put and Take", "Pretty Trix", "Doin' Things" with Eddie Lang, "Apple Blossoms", with Lennie Hayton, Frankie Trumbauer, and Eddie Lang, "Beatin' the Dog", "Black and Blue Bottom", "Black Satin", "Blues for Nobody", "Blues in G", "Blues Inc.", "Dandy Cat", "Cheese and Crackers", "Clown Cat", "Dinner at Nine", "Flip", and "Betcha I Getcha", which Venuti claimed to have co-written with Bix Beiderbecke.

Practical jokes[edit]

Venuti was known for his practical jokes. He played cheap violins because, according to his bandmates, he liked to crack them over the heads of other players. Once, during a break in rehearsal, he filled a tuba player's horn with flour. He sent the one-armed Wingy Manone a single cufflink for Christmas. He called every bass player in the New York phonebook and asked them to meet him on a street corner. When over 50 bass players arrived with their instruments, they created a roadblock. He then had to pay the players for their time, as mandated by the union, the American Federation of Musicians.[9]

Personal life[edit]

Little is known about Venuti's personal life. Some biographers claim that he married at least once, some others report that he was married three times, although there does not seem to be any documented evidence about his marriages.[3]

Venuti suffered from alcoholism in middle age, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. He was able to recover, and to regain his former acclaim for his playing. In 1970 Venuti was diagnosed with cancer. He died on August 14, 1978 in Seattle, Washington, of either cancer[8] or a heart attack.[2]



  1. ^ a b c Kernfeld, Barry (2002). Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. 3 (2nd ed.). New York: Grove's Dictionaries Inc. p. 838. ISBN 1-56159-284-6. 
  2. ^ a b "A Penchant for Mayhem", by Gary Giddins, originally published in The Village Voice, August 1978; reprinted in Riding on a Blue Note: Jazz & American Pop, Oxford University Press, 1981
  3. ^ a b Lees, Gene (2000). Waiting for Dizzy: Fourteen Jazz Portraits. New York NY: Cooper Square Press. pp. 22–33. ISBN 0-8154-1037-9. 
  4. ^ In the 1940 United States Census while he was in Omaha, Nebraska he wrote that he was born in 1903 in Pennsylvania.
  5. ^ Lees, Gene (2000). Waiting For Dizzy:Fourteen Jazz Portraits. New York NY: Cooper Square Press. pp. 22–33. ISBN 0-8154-1037-9. 
  6. ^ Kernfield, Barry. "Venuti, Joe". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz,2nd Edition. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved April 21, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b Kernfeld, Barry. "Venuti, Joe". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd Ed. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved April 21, 2012. 
  8. ^ a b c d Larkin, Colin. "Venuti, Joe". Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved April 21, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Dietrich, Johannes (1996). The Violin in Pre-Bebop Era Jazz. Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati. pp. 35–42. 


  • Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945. Oxford, 1999. ISBN 0-19-514838-X
  • Baxter, James. The Blue Violin – privately published 1953 biography of Joe Venuti (acquired by AB Fable Archive in March 2001).
  • "Violin Rhythm, a School of Modern Rhythmic Violin Playing" by Joe Venuti, edited by the Dutch composer Eddy Noordijk, published by Robbins Music Corp, 1937.
  • "The Violin in Jazz". The Cambridge Companion to the Violin. Ed. Stowell, Robin. Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge:New York, NY. 1992. ISBN 0-521-39033-8
  • Dexter, D. "Venuti Stops Clowning, September 15, 1940". Downbeat, Vol. 66 Iss 7 p 87. July 1, 1999
  • Mcdonough, John. "Joe Venuti/Zoot Sims: Joe Zoot and more". Downbeat, Vol. 70 Iss 1 p 64. January 1, 2003