Hot jazz on a string 

Jazz fans, who are some of the most diverse and knowledgeable music lovers around, can carry about a lot of snobbery. By the same token, they are given to more thoughtfulness about the music they adore than the average listener, and this propensity leads to some astonishing discoveries.

A case in point: an old friend, a non-musician, asked me some months ago to recommend some noteworthy jazz -- a kind of disciplined listening program -- so that he could learn about the genre he felt he'd neglected. I was happy to oblige and suggested maybe a dozen essentials to get him started. Weeks later, having listened to Duke Ellington, he e-mailed me as follows: "Do you realize that there is a violin in 'Come Sunday'? What's with that?"

Naturally, he'd discovered the multi-talented Ray Nance, whom Duke relied upon for the better part of a quarter-century to supply trumpet, cornet, vocals and, yes, violin to the constantly creative arrangements that typified the Ellington unit.

Nance's versatility was simply the product of layering. His apparently was a soul disposed to love music and he kept following his muse until he'd compiled the chops and the sense of showmanship that brought him fame with the Duke. During his high school years beginning in the late 1920s, he was a drum major, a lode of experience that surfaced years later when he would add a little dance to his front-line performances with Ellington.

In addition, Nance taught himself trumpet and cornet, having played piano since the age of six and, he received instruction on the fiddle. And, strangely, I realized, despite Nance's indispensable contributions as a brass man, I always think of him as a violinist first.

"Strange magic," I thought, in evaluation of my own tastes, so I did what I always do in circumstances like those that arose from my exchange with my friend: I went over my music library and began to think about violins and their place in jazz.

First out of the box were the great recordings that featured Charlie Parker with strings. And, yes, I know that these dates are not universally beloved by Parker fans, but I cherish the bridge Bird built between hard bop and airport music, proving yet again that jazz can handle just about anything you throw at it.

But the Bird-and-strings recordings didn't quite get at what I was after in this case, so I looked further and came across some of Nance's catgut compatriots on the jazz bandstand whose work buttresses the foundation of my faith in jazz as the most inclusive of musical styles.

As a guitarist, I am in constant awe of Django Reinhardt, and so it was no great leap for me to glide from that great gypsy and into the arms of his founding partner in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, Stephane Grappelli. It bears noting that the quintet featured Reinhardt on solo guitar, backed by a bass, two rhythm guitars and Grappelli. It was a tall order for Grappelli, but the recordings of that group, which are criminally hard to find, bear witness to the violinist's swinging bones, his flawless approach, his computer-perfect intonation and his flair for the groove.

A member of the first wave of accomplished European jazz musicians, Grappelli and Reinhardt split up in 1939, when Grappelli made his home in the United Kingdom for the duration of World War II. They got together again briefly in the late 1940s, but by then Grappelli had found his own name in the jazz world, separate from the Hot Club quintet's fame and out from under the great shadow cast by Django, and the renewed partnership lasted only about a year.

But Grappelli's great talent brought him right up to the end of the century with a roster of recording and live-performance partners that included drummer Mel Lewis, bassist George Mraz, pianist Roland Hanna, trumpeter Bill Coleman, mandolin virtuoso David Grisman and fellow fiddler Joe Venuti, with whom he recorded an album titled "Venupelli Blues" [BYG, 1969].

Venuti, a contemporary of Grappelli, was one of the great humorous entertainers in the jazz world, and, like Grappelli, formed a partnership with a great guitarist, Eddie Lang. With Lang, Venuti in 1926 participated in the recording of some of the first chamber jazz recordings. Thereafter, the pair took a kind of rolling jazz comedy act to the wax and featured such offbeat instruments as comb, kazoo, bass saxophone, the archaic C-melody sax and, one program note informs me, a "hot fountain pen."

But it wasn't all Spike Jones mayhem for Venuti. He recorded with both Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, saxophonist Zoot Sims and another great guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli. From Dixieland to bop, Joe Venuti had his bases covered.

I can find no listings for any recordings featuring Venuti and the Danish violinist Svend Asmussen, but there is evidence that, in 1934, Asmussen formed his own jazz unit based on the model of Venuti's Blue Four.

He performed with the likes of the Mills Brothers and Fats Waller when those acts passed through his native country and, like Venuti, followed a comic muse, this time onto the stage, before returning to jazz and keeping the swing flame alive, including performances with Grappelli and another notable violinist, Stuff Smith.

Somewhere in my music library is a recording by Asmussen and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but the life of a bachelor in transit sometimes requires forgoing pleasurable listening in deference to the necessities of living. So I haven't gotten back to that one, but I will.