String Players in Jazz

September 24, 2010

In the past, with the exception of the bass, there had been relatively few opportunities for string players to get a full education focused on jazz. Although there have been some stellar string players in jazz, they have been in relatively small numbers compared to those in the classical genre. According to the Web site nfo.net/usa/violin.html, “Rarely mentioned now, the violin (and viola) was an important part of jazz during its formative years! It was heard in the earliest New Orleans bands.” Additionally, violins, violas, and cellos have been used in background settings with many of the big bands, including Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and others. There have been some very successful jazz violinists, including Eddie South, Stuff Smith, Paul Nero, and, of course, Stefane Grappelli. Plus, there are some standout musicians in today’s scene, like: violinist Regina Carter; David Baker, who has brought the cello into the jazz world; and even Tanya Kalmanovitch, who has established a niche as a jazz violist. The eclectic Turtle Island Quartet has also made a name for themselves as a unique, pioneering group of jazz string players.

With the advent of electric pickups, which took place decades ago, however, it is a bit surprising that there have not been a greater numbers of string players. With the technical capabilities as well as the expressive nature of these instruments, along with more recent innovations in electric stringed instruments, there is certainly room for more young players to make their mark in this field of playing.

Apparently, the educational options for string players appear to be improving, as more young violinists, violists, and cellists look to jazz as an outlet for their creativity, and an alternative to the orchestral and small ensemble settings in the classical world. Music colleges, conservatories, and schools are taking notice of the increased level of interest and are adding more performance and educational options for students, although they are still far behind those opportunities available for the more traditional jazz instruments. Berklee College of Music, however, has been on the leading edge of this trend, and has featured a jazz string ensemble for many years, which offers improvisational opportunities for these musicians. Other schools are just beginning to establish programs both in the United States, Europe, and beyond.

Our cover story this month on Esperanza Spaulding provides an insightful look at one of the most astonishing young musician/teacher/composers on the scene today. Although she is known primarily as a bassist and singer, her start came as a classically trained violinist who also played some oboe and clarinet before migrating to the bass at the age of 15. Although she didn’t make the violin her primary instrument, she is certainly in a position to help encourage more high-string players to get onto the jazz bandwagon, regardless of their specific instrument of choice…

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