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“We Are Jazz Musicians who Play Violin, Not Violinists who Play Jazz”

By Ben Sutin

As the great jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter once said, “Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’”

Using that argument, there are not many instruments better fit for jazz than the violin. Over the years, jazz has seen tremendous transformation, growth, and progress. The very roots of jazz come from the melding of African slave rhythms, soul, and melody with Western, European harmony in New Orleans. Since then, without fail, jazz has continued to change with the times, about once a decade, constantly adapting to and fusing with the new popular music and cultural nuances of the day. One of the many beautiful parts of jazz is its acceptance of constantly embracing new influences which further inform and develop the music into new horizons, while still being unmistakably jazz. More specifically, jazz has witnessed perhaps its most pivotal transformations and contributions from a handful of individual artists who went well beyond using the popular music of the day as inspiration. Instead, they infused their own personal backgrounds, stories, cultures and unique voices into this universal musical language of groove and improvisation we call jazz. The chorus of all these unique voices is what makes jazz so special and forever changing, like a never-ending choral.

On no instrument is this more possible to tap into than the violin. While the mass public has recognized the violin most primarily for its place in Western classical music for the last hundreds of years, the violin in fact has a rich and extensive history of prominence in a myriad of folk music traditions from around the world, including right here at home in the United States. Combined with an ever changing gig economy, the age of globalization and the Internet, it is highly likely that if you play violin you are inspired by, or even play, a multitude of genres already. The advantage violinists have over most other instruments in jazz is that their very experience as professional musicians gives them more opportunity to explore these different paths and traditions (from classical music to world music and beyond) in a much more streamlined and accessible way than a saxophonist or trumpeter would, for instance. This is, of course, all in addition to the often ignored and overlooked but nonetheless remarkably extensive history of violin in jazz itself.

Gypsy Jazz and the Early Years

It all started on September 16, 1903 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the alleged birthplace of Italian-American violinist, Joe Venuti. Classically trained from an early age with a steep knowledge of music theory (which he learned from his grandfather), Venuti would soon begin experimenting with jazz along with a friend whom he met in the violin section of his public school orchestra. This friend was Salvatore Massaro ,who later changed his name to Eddie Lang and switched instruments from violin to guitar. Little did Venuti know he would become the pioneer of jazz violin. By the mid ‘20s, Venuti was on the road, already making a name for himself, his distinct sense of humor, and for his instrument. Just a few short years later in 1928, French-Italian violinist Stephane Grappelli (b. 1908) would hear Venuti playing jazz in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. The rest, as they say, was history.

Grappelli’s upbringing wasn’t easy. His mother died at five. At 10 his father was drafted into the army at which point he lived in an orphanage until his father returned. He started studying violin at age twelve and moved to Paris to study at the Conservatoire de Paris. By fifteen he was busking on the streets to support himself, opting to live on his own out of dislike of his new stepmother. Although he was receiving formal training, Stephane much preferred watching and learning from the fellow street performers in Paris at the time; a clear homage to his roots of self-independence and driving curiosity. After a brief stint of switching gears to focus on piano where he sharpened his harmonic ears, Grappelli was convinced to pick the violin back-up. Shortly thereafter, in 1931, he met French gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt. However, it wasn’t until 1934 that the two would begin their dynamic career together in what we now know as the Quintet Du Hot Club De France.

This said, violin made its first appearances in jazz long before these legends Venuti and Grappelli put the instrument in the spotlight. As early as 1900, the violin was a frequently used lead instrument in ragtime and territory bands. In fact, it was in Alphonso Trent’s Territory Band in the 1920s that Stuff Smith first made his mark. He would later begin experimenting with playing violin amplified (the first to do so), hoisting the instrument to new possibilities. Through the 1930s and ‘40s we see Claude Williams playing violin in the Count Basie Orchestra, Edgar Sampson with the Fletcher Henderson Big Band, and Eddie South with Jimmy Wade. Even Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Earl Hines featured strings in their bands, and soon enough we would see Ray Nance doubling on violin in Duke Ellington’s orchestra as part of the ensemble, as well as a frequent soloist. Meanwhile, Ginger Smock out of L.A. (who was extremely influenced by Stuff Smith) was making an impressive name for herself locally. In fact, her career is quite impressive when thinking about the fight she endured as an African-American woman who played jazz violin.

And of course I’d be remiss not to mention the man who invented the long tradition of singing during his solos, and I’m not talking about Slam Stewart. Jazz violinist (and saxophonist) Ray Perry (who frequently performed with the likes of Lionel Hampton and Ethel Waters) was the first known jazz musician to do this, later inspiring Slam to carry the tradition forward; it is something still avidly practiced to this day.

Be-Bop and a Decline, Followed by Resurgence in the 1960s and Beyond

The be-bop years saw a slight decline in jazz violin prominence because of a lack of proper violin amplification and recording techniques to effectively compete with the horn players leading the bands of the time. Record labels controlled everything by now and as a result, jazz violin would slowly peak off. What was heard on the radio had a direct impact on what was booked at the clubs and if violin couldn’t be recorded then it would be unlikely to hear it in the clubs. There were of course a few exceptions. As mentioned earlier, Stuff Smith learned to amplify his violin early on and was able to stay relevant, performing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Oscar Peterson. But unfortunately, few others ever got the real opportunity to break their way into the be-bop scene.

Now come the ‘60s and ‘70s and a whole new generation of jazz violinists begin to make their mark with the advent of the electric violin and new emerging eras of jazz, including jazz fusion and avant-garde jazz. A few of these noteworthy pioneers within the jazz fusion idiom include Jean Luc Ponty (who began playing straight ahead jazz on the local Paris scene in the ‘60s), Didier Lockwood, Zbigniew Seifert, and Michael Urbaniak, among countless others. Then we see violinists such as Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang (who played with Sun Ra) in the late ‘70s – both highly influenced by the blues, the church and the civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, John Blake Jr. was getting his career under way, performing with the likes of Grover Washington Jr, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, Dr. Billy Taylor, and others. Classically trained and steeped in bebop vocabulary, John was also highly influenced by the church, gospel music and negro spirituals and would go on to study Carnatic Indian fiddling as well. All of these sensibilities gave him not only his distinctive and effortless control and mastery of the instrument, but also a deep understanding of the jazz vocabulary at large, combined with a voice of soul on his instrument, creating a sound completely uncharted before on the violin. Most importantly, John is solely responsible for where jazz violin is today thanks to his incredible career as an educator. Some of his many students include Christian Howes (today’s most sought after jazz violin educator, spreading jazz violin to thousands of people all over the world), Regina Carter, Sara Caswell, Jeremy Kittle, and myself, among others. Other prominent jazz violinists of today include Zach Brock (of Snarky Puppy), Jenny Scheinman (who beautifully blends American folk music with jazz, frequently performing with the likes of Bill Frisell), and Mark Feldman (John Abercrombie, John Zorn). There are too many others to mention here.

A Continuing Contribution to Jazz Music and Culture

Each one of these jazz violinists mentioned above contributed (and continue to contribute) a great deal to not only violin as an instrument, but also to jazz as a whole. They all transformed how we conceived violin and were groundbreaking in showing the world what was possible on the instrument, challenging the notion of it being “a classical instrument,” paving the path forward for more to follow in their footsteps. Beyond that, however, each of them contributed something beautiful to the world of jazz. Not one of these jazz violinists sounds like another. They are all true jazz musicians in that they are each their own, expressing a chorus of unique musical voices, all crafted from their own individual experiences, cultural backgrounds and musical tendencies and desires, most of which are a direct result of the abundance of possibilities only available to the violin, and many of which would have never otherwise made its way into the already enormous vocabulary of jazz.

Living by example of my many heroes above is why I chose to dedicate my career as a band leader and composer to implementing the music of my heritage into my life as a jazz musician. It is unabashedly genuine to who I am as an artist and a jazz musician. It is my unique voice and allows me to express my deepest of emotions through my music, just as Leroy Jenkins and John Blake were inspired by the church. Absorbing the traditions of klezmer fiddling, Latin jazz, rock, Middle Eastern music, and classical music has all been unbelievably fruitful to changing the way I approach my instrument, improvising, writing, and playing jazz as a whole. It’s opened up a brand new doors for me that I would never have otherwise experienced, at the same time offering something novel, fresh, and exciting to the world of jazz and jazz violin as we know it.

If you’re a student of jazz violin, I encourage you to begin the journey of finding your own voice on an instrument that provides us with so much. Do some serious soul searching and the reward in the end will be tremendous for you, for violin and for jazz at large. Jazz violin is so much more than what most people tend to know and recognize – Gypsy jazz was not the end, but merely the beginning. Jazz has no end, nor does the violin. Therefore, neither does jazz violin. Wayne Shorter says that jazz means “I dare you,” but I’ll go one step further: jazz violin means, “I dare you.” Just remember, we are jazz musicians who play violin, not violinists who play jazz.

Benjamin Sutin is an eclectic, diverse and sought-after NYC-based jazz violinist, violist, pianist, composer, and educator. He began his career in Philadelphia where he studied with legendary jazz violinist John Blake Jr. Sutin has since performed in such venues as Carnegie Hall, NJPAC, Lincoln Center, The Apollo Theater, Birdland Jazz Club, and The Kennedy Center. He has worked with the likes of David Amram, The Big Apple Circus, Banda Magda, Vince Giordano, Larry Harlow, Elio Villafranca, and Bobby Sanabria. Sutin appears on Sanabria’s 2018 Grammy-nominated album, West Side Story Reimagined. On November 18, 2020 Sutin released his third album as leader, Hard Bop Hanukkah (MEII Enterprises), recorded live at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City. Grammy-award winning jazz violinist Regina Carter calls Sutin’s arrangements and performance “Exceptional!” World-renown klezmer and classical clarinetist David Krakauer lauds the album as “. . . a great listening experience!”

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