Essential Historical Recordings: Great Jazz Violinists Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Eddie South & Stéphane Grappelli

Four great jazz violinists were born int he first decade of the 20th century. Together they put jazz violin on the map, leaving an incredible legacy of recordings along the way.

By Sasha Margolis

During the opening decade of the twentieth century, some of the greatest violinists to ever draw bow across string were born. Between 1901 and 1909, Jascha Heifetz, Zino Francescatti, Nathan Milstein, Alfredo Campoli, and David Oistrakh all came into the world. Four other fantastic fiddlers, excelling in an entirely different style, were also born during these years: Joe Venuti, Eddie South, Stéphane Grappelli, and Hezekiah “Stuff” Smith. Together, this quartet put jazz violin on the map, leaving an incredible legacy of essential recordings along the way.

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Joe Venuti (1903–78), a Philadelphia native, is widely considered the father of jazz fiddling. Thought to have invented the basics of syncopated swing bowing, Venuti was blessed with sharp rhythmic instincts, a knack for logical, compact phrasing, and a virtuosic left hand. His penetrating tone, mixture of fast and very slow slides, and quick, phrase-ending down-slides could combine to evoke a clarinet or saxophone. Mischievous by nature, Venuti often slipped classical quotes into jazz tunes, and was famous for his practical jokes, such as filling a tuba bell with flour during one rehearsal break.


Joe Venuti on “Black and Blue Bottom” with early jazz-guitar great Eddie Lang

Beginning in the mid-1920s, Venuti made myriad recordings with early jazz-guitar great Eddie Lang: “Black and Blue Bottom” doubles as an exemplar of their pioneering style and a wonderful evocation of the period. Later must-hears include a saxophone-ish “Rosetta”with pianist Earl Hines, an evocative Autumn Leaveswith guitarist Tony Romano that quotes Jenö Hubay’s “Hejre Kati,” a Summertimewith Romano that shows the fiddler at his most Italianate and imaginative, and late recordings with saxophonist Zoot Sims on which Venuti is great as ever.

Eddie South “Fiddle Blues”

Eddie South (1904–62), born in Missouri, turned to jazz for career opportunities denied him in the classical world as an African-American violinist. Even then, segregation presented challenges: When South replaced Venuti in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, he was forced to perform behind a screen to conceal his race.

South played with a gorgeous, Kreisler-influenced tone, shown off in his recording of the tango “La Rosita,” and liked to adapt classical pieces to a jazz setting: all string lovers should hear his swinging Kreisler “Praeludium and Allegro,” his 24th Caprice adaptation “Paganini in Rhythm,” and his joyous “Hejre Kati,” complete with singing and scatting. South’s swing chops are heard to full effect on “Fiddle Blues.”


Stéphane Grappelli with Django Reinhardt on “Sweet Georgia Brown”

Perhaps most beloved of jazz fiddlers was the Parisian Stéphane Grappelli (1908–97.) A largely self-taught player, Grappelli had as much facility as Venuti—or more—but an entirely different temperament. Possessed of an ineffable lightness of being, he filled musical space with quicksilver cascades of notes, coloring his sound with slides, harmonics, and a charming, fast vibrato all his own.

Grappelli’s 60-year recording career began alongside guitar legend Django Reinhardt. Iconic among their plentiful recorded gems are “Minor Swing,”“Nuages,”and “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Following Reinhardt’s untimely death, Grappelli teamed up with a who’s who of jazz greats. Standout piano collaborations include a cooking “How High the Moon” with McCoy Tyner, a steaming “Autumn Leaves” with Oscar Peterson, and a heartbreaking “These Foolish Things” with Michel Petrucciani. An album of melodies with piano-heavy orchestral arrangements by Michel Legrand provides a bordering-on-schlocky guilty pleasure, while Grappelli’s recordings with mandolinist David Grisman show Grappelli excelling in a simpler, stringier setting.


Stuff Smith on “Undecided” with Shirley Horn at the piano

The Ohioan Stuff Smith (1909–67), one of jazz’s great rhythmic forces, was initially inspired by Venuti, but his chief influence was Louis Armstrong. Smith had strong ideas on how to do jazz on the violin: “I’ve always visualized myself playing trumpet, tenor, or clarinet,” he said. To emulate these instruments, Smith played with a concentrated sound, using only six inches of bow near the tip, except when playing big accents “as if hitting a cymbal.” He avoided too much vibrato, because in jazz, “your thoughts and your notes come too fast…” To compete with horns, Smith used an electric violin, as detailed two years ago in Strings. Among his fans were Kreisler and Heifetz.

Stuff can be heard at smoking-hot intensity on “Undecided” with Shirley Horn at the piano, and at a slow burn on “Desert Sands” with Peterson. “Ja-da” with Peterson and “It’s Only A Paper Moon” with Dizzy Gillespie find Smith in a lighter mood, but still swinging hard. One last category of unmissable recordings from this quartet features Grappelli in duet with his fellow pioneers: he plays “Tea for Two” with Venuti, a swinging Bach Double with South, and, with a fiddling and singing Smith, “Blues in the Dungeon.”

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