Eddie Lang, first of the virtuoso jazz guitarists /1

    Early last century Lang spread the message of the guitar to any banjo player intelligent enough to take it. Part one of a three-part survey of his achievements

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    Eddie Lang

    Maybe, like me, you managed to see most of the best jazz musicians in person when they visited this country, from Louis and Tea to Miles and Sonny Rollins. But, like me, you probably missed Eddie Lang. That’s because he was in England in 1924, before any living interested party was born or at any rate jazz conscious. He came here with the other three members of the Mound City Blue Blowers. Having been the first serious jazz musician to switch from the raucous banjo to the more sophisticated guitar, his tour was spreading the message to those banjo players intelligent enough to take it, and thus it was Lang who heralded the arrival of the guitar into jazz groups.

    His qualities, combining superbly eloquent improvisation with technical dexterity rightly made him the first star guitarist in jazz

    Eddie made his earliest recordings in New York in March, April, June and October 1923 with Charlie Kerr’s Orchestra. Since these had titles like Good Morning Dearie and Operatic Melodies they need not detain us.

    It was on 10 December 1924 that Eddie made his first recording with the Blue Blowers. It was around this time that the first electric mikes began to be used in recording studios, but because of the rarity of Tiger Rag and Deep Second Street Blues we can’t hear whether Eddie had the benefit of mains power. The Tiger Rag chord sequence was a particular favourite of Joe’s and Eddie’s over the years and several of their later compositions rattle the bars. On 8 November 1926, in their second session as a duo, they had three shots at Stringing The Blues, which used the Tiger Rag sequence. Two of the tracks, the first slow and the second much faster, are included on the beautifully remastered (John R T) Eddie Lang And Joe Venuti on JSP JSPCD3402, the definitive collection of the Venuti-Lang small groups, and the essential heart of any collection. The expert liner by guitarist Nevil Skrimshire makes the point that Lang usually struck the strings near to the bridge of the instrument, and that this gave a harder sound.

    There’s no doubt that the electric mike was to be a supercharger for Eddie. Already a guitar virtuoso by the standards of his day, he rapidly developed a technique to give him the best advantage of being heard clearly on record, becoming the first guitarist to sit close to the mike and allowing the mike to capture the full resonance and tone of the instrument. This resonance was specifically created by the strings of his guitar being raised higher than was usual above the fingerboard and by the fact that his instruments had violin-type holes rather than the conventional large round hole. From then on, with his refined feeling for time, outstanding technique and polished improvisation he raised the standards of any group in which he played, and became a highly paid and much sought after sideman. His qualities, combining superbly eloquent improvisation with technical dexterity rightly made him the first star guitarist in jazz.

    His delightful sound, with his mastery as a single-string soloist and as a rhythm player (he also frequently played chords on the other strings behind his single-string solos) was a manifestation of the pure sound of the instrument at its most percussive and beguiling. It was at the time at least as eminent as the sound of Bix’s cornet.

    Remarkably, as proved by the perfection of his duets with Lonnie Johnson, Eddie could also match the blues playing of any of the most gifted black guitarists in what was essentially a black idiom

    Eddie, like Joe, came to jazz when the first records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band became popular. Eddie, whose hero was the classical Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia, had a well-developed knowledge of the more “serious” music, and had learned much from listening to its composers, absorbing particularly the devices of Debussy and Ravel. He made 14 records featuring his solo guitar, some without accompaniment, and they are all to be found on the album Eddie Lang, Carl Kress And Dick McDonough (Retrieval RTR 79015). Remarkably, as proved by the perfection of his duets with Lonnie Johnson, Eddie could also match the blues playing of any of the most gifted black guitarists in what was essentially a black idiom.

    In his field Lonnie was more prolific than Eddie was in his, and the New Orleans man had a vast number of recordings under his own name during the period that Eddie was active in New York. He had also developed an even more individual technique and was a virtuoso in the blues field in the same manner that Eddie was in jazz. Lonnie had already made strides into jazz by the middle 20s, and among his honours was one of the greatest of all jazz discs, Savoy Blues, cut at a session in December 1927 by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five where Lonnie’s lengthy and impressive solo was able to stand alongside one of Louis’s very best ever. He shouldered Louis’s nouveau guitarist Johnny St Cyr out of the way with a notable display of solo and accompaniment to Louis’s vocal on I’m Not Rough and does a wonderful call and answer round Louis’s scat on Hotter Than That as he comes to the fore in the Hot Five front line.

    Lonnie also made seven sides with the Ellington band in October and November 1928, which displayed his great authority as a jazz instrumentalist. (Duke obviously liked the solo guitarists, for he made even more tracks with Teddy Bunn in September 1929 and after the war toured the States with Django Reinhardt).

    Lonnie’s 10 duets with Eddie in 1928 and 1929 (the latter appearing as Blind Willie Dunn) were highly developed jazz innovation on a major style. Lonnie played lead and nearly all of the solos, whilst Eddie backed him with chordal and rhythm playing.

    Lonnie reported: “We rehearsed the tunes in the morning, recorded in the evening. Eddie could lay down rhythm and bass parts just like a piano. He was the finest guitarist I had ever heard in 1928 and 1929.

    “He was the nicest man I ever worked with. He never argued. He didn’t tell me what to do. He would ask me. Then, if everything was okay, we’d sit down and get to jiving.”

    Jet Black Blues and Blue Blood Blues, now almost a century old, would present an insurmountable challenge for virtuoso guitarists today to copy

    The duo also recorded with the blues singer Texas Alexander and achieved a fine blues feeling with trombonist Tommy Dorsey, who changed to trumpet for the 30 April 1929 session that produced Jet Black Blues and Blue Blood Blues. The two guitarists played with maturity, logic and above all inspiration, and earned the old cliché that their work hasn’t dated at all. Those records, now almost a century old, would present an insurmountable challenge for virtuoso guitarists today to copy. If you can find it, Blue Guitars (Beat Goes On 3270) includes all of Eddie’s duets with Lonnie Johnson, a lot of Eddie’s solos, some accompanied. Lonnie had the highest opinion of Lang as a man and as a musician, and later said “I valued those records more than anything else in the world.”

    When Eddie and Joe Venuti made their first feature for Okeh, Black And Blue Bottom, on 29 September 1926, it seems that all their devices and mutual techniques were already in place. Their conversion of their classical techniques to jazz, their dazzling improvising skills and the humour in their music was to burst upon the world as an already mature form of classical jazz that would remain respected as such to this day. As time went by their recordings became more sophisticated, retaining the vital core of improvisation whilst drawing in more harmonisation and advance preparation. Although nominally an equal partnership, Venuti remained the major soloist and his dazzling ideas became ever more adventurous.

    Eddie had suggested to Joe that, if they used a pianist, he would be able to take a single-string solo and play more obbligati to the violin. Because of his sensitive playing, they chose Bix Beiderbecke to play piano and, as Joe Venuti later recalled, Bix recorded the first version of Stringing The Blues with the duo that day. The recording company decided that the music on that version was too modern for the listeners, and the recording was eventually destroyed without being issued. It does seem possible however, that the whole account was one of Venuti’s renowned tall stories.

    In the same year Lang and Venuti were added to the hugely popular Jean Goldkette band as a feature, and this broadened their reputations. Venuti’s playing was so impressive that he was offered a place in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

    Paul Whiteman managed to tempt Eddie and Joe into his orchestra in 1927, but the two left after only a few weeks. Paul had to wait until May 1929, when once again the two came into the band, staying this time for a full year, during which Eddie backed Whiteman’s vocalists, Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey. The two left again in 1930 when Whiteman had to cut down his personnel due to the Depression.

    Joe and Eddie recorded under Joe’s name with his Blue Four and Blue Five but the recipe was usually the same. Joe favoured the heavyweight contrast of Adrian Rollini’s bass sax as a counterweight in his small groups and the agile horn proved a mighty attraction on the records. Joe must have been bereft when Adrian decided to go to England for a period, but solved the drought of players of the bass horn by using Don Murray, better known as a clarinettist on the Beiderbecke records, on baritone sax. The baritone made an admirable substitute. But, as was the way throughout Joe’s recordings, most of the solo space was devoted to him, whilst Eddie concentrated upon his comprehensive and varied backings for the violin.

    While Joe’s instrumentations might have been against the run of play, they were always fresh and functional. Two of the Blue Four’s most interesting tracks, the 1929 Running Ragged and Apple Blossom, made extraordinary and vivid use of Frank Trumbauer’s bassoon. Venuti’s small-group recordings, although never so described at the time, were the first chamber jazz records. Pre-eminent amongst the catalogues is JSP Records’ JSPCD3402, with 42 titles including violin/guitar duets, the Blue Four, the Blue Five, Joe Venuti’s Rhythm Boys (with Jimmy Dorsey) and four by the duo with pianist Frank Signorelli from 10 September 1931.

    Joe and Eddie at once achieved a dominance and an eminence that was to last throughout the 20s, and they were very often hired together rather than as individuals. In 1930 the two appeared, along with Bing Crosby in King Of Jazz, a film featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. Mr Whiteman had the decency to be embarrassed about having been given the title. (Lang had already appeared in a film, in 1929, with Seger Ellis And His Embassy Club Orchestra).

    Its later amplification brought a coarseness to the guitar, to which listeners adjusted in the late 30s. It was only the eloquence, dexterity and swing of Charlie Christian that legitimised the electric technique

    “Venuti-Lang” first became a catchphrase in 1927 when the two made the first of their multitude of recordings with Red Nichols. It was used throughout their lives and remains their designation to this day.

    Its later amplification brought a coarseness to the guitar, to which listeners adjusted in the late 30s. It was only the eloquence, dexterity and swing of Charlie Christian that legitimised the electric technique and eventually pushed the acoustic sound to the background.

    But in his day, so obscure and far behind us now, Lang’s delightful sound was justifiably dominant. His jazz improvising dovetailed with Venuti’s on the violin, and, apart from being the first of what might be described as the jazz chamber musicians, the two were dominant and unassailable because of their outstanding facility and imagination. It’s arguable that Joe was a better jazz violinist than Grappelli, although Stephane had a more accomplished technique. But that’s a matter for another examination.

    Read part two of this article; read part three