Sunday, March 24, 2013

Joe Venuti

Joe Venuti (Giuseppe Venuti) was an American jazz violinist, band leader, teacher, and arranger born (in Philadelphia) on September 16, 1903.  Next to Stephane Grappelli, he is probably the world’s best known jazz violinist, though there have been many others.  Their recordings accorded each a worldwide audience, but Grappelli worked mostly in Europe as Venuti worked mostly in America.  He began his violin studies at age 4 and attended public schools in Philadelphia.  As far as anyone knows, although it is said he claimed to, he never attended a music conservatory.  He may also not have graduated from High School.  According to several sources, he did study the violin intensely as a boy and was a member of the James Campbell School Orchestra.  Venuti may have also received instruction at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, at which several members of the Philadelphia Orchestra taught.  In any case, Venuti achieved a magnificent technique.  He also learned to play guitar, mandolin, and piano.  His knowledge of classical music was expanded through attendance at concerts in Philadelphia and New York.  He began playing in public at age 15, in a trio.  At about this time, he formed a friendship with Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro), the famous jazz guitarist.  They had attended the same grammar school and played in the school orchestra together but had never become professional associates until their early teens.  Their recordings are now classics in the jazz world.  Venuti started his career in Detroit in March of 1924 with Jean Goldkette’s (Graystone Ballroom) band.  Venuti also did some of his earliest recording work with this band.  He was 21 years old.  He returned to Philadelphia in September of 1925 but soon thereafter moved to New York.  In 1927, he joined Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Signorelli, and Eddie Lang to form a band called the Blue Four in Atlantic City.  However, Venuti was practically always a freelance violinist, playing where it suited him.  One of the bands he also played with during this time was the Scranton Sirens.  He then joined Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra in 1929, playing in the 1930 film The King of Jazz.  For the next few years he did a lot of recording with various artists and bands.  In his career, he got to work with, among many others, Tommy Dorsey, Dave McKenna, Manny Klein, Benny Goodman, Barrett Deems, Bix Beiderbecke, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bud Freeman, Frank Signorelli, George Barnes, Glenn Miller, Harold Arlen, Jack Teagarden, Joe Haymes, Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Prophet, Kay Starr, Earl Hines, Eddie Lang, Russ Morgan, Red Norvo, Ruth Robin, Louis Prima, Lennie Hayton, Marian McPartland, Zoot Sims, Smith Ballew, and Bing Crosby.  His main recording labels were Okeh, RCA Victor, Decca, and Bluebird.  In 1935, after returning from Europe, Venuti launched his own band and led a series of big and small bands after that.  After serving briefly during the war, he moved to California in 1945.  In 1952 and 1953, he played for the Kraft Music Hall on radio - Bing Crosby had served as announcer, master of ceremonies, or host on that show between January, 1936 and May, 1946.  In 1963, Venuti settled in Seattle, Washington, and continued working throughout the country, though more and more sporadically.  It has been said that Venuti drifted into obscurity between 1936 and 1966 but that may be an exaggeration.  In 1967, he had a big comeback with live shows and recordings, both here and in Europe.  A performance at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival played a big role in that comeback.  YouTube has many of his video and audio files.  Here is one and here is another.  In them, you will see that Venuti is playing what appears to be a cheap violin.  It appears that way because that’s what it is – he was known to play on very cheap instruments.  This YouTube audio file has Venuti and Grappelli playing a duo – it is very easy to tell them apart.  Venuti died (in Seattle) on August 14, 1978, at age 74.  


  1. Joe Venuti and Paul (Pops) Whiteman, also a violinist, were notorious pranksters and practical jokers. Joe Venuti was married three times and had trouble handling alcohol for many years.

  2. This is violinist profile number 333.

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