Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Take the "A" Train

Joe Venuti
Take the ‘A’ Train, one of the classics of jazz repertoire, was composed by the great African-American pianist, writer, and arranger, Billy Strayhorn. One evening in 1938, Duke Ellington invited Strayhorn to a party at his home in Sugar Hill, Harlem, instructing him to “take the A train” to get there. The phrase stuck with Strayhorn, and he wrote a tune to go with it not long afterward. In 1941, Duke himself recorded the song – which became a hit – and started performing it in all his live concerts. Nearly 80 years later, the A train is still the best way to get to Harlem!

The memorable trumpet solo from Duke’s first recording of Take the ‘A’ Train was performed by bandmate Ray Nance, a respected multi-instrumentalist and arranger who also happened to play the violin. Some years after the recording was released, Nance arranged a slow, somber duet version of the tune for violin and piano, which he performed with pianist Billy Taylor at the memorial services for both Strayhorn (1967) and Duke (1974).

Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli
One of my favorite violin interpretations of Take the ‘A’ Train is by Joe Venuti, arguably the first great jazz violinist in history. Venuti was born to Italian parents while on an immigrant ship in transit to the United States in 1903. As a child in Philadelphia, he learned theory and solfeggio from his grandfather and received formal classical training on violin as a member of the James Campbell School Orchestra. At a young age, he took an interest in jazz, blues, and improvisation, which he often played with a friend and fellow violinist in the orchestra.

While still in school, Venuti met the first significant musical partner of his career, jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. The pair started recording together frequently in the 1920s. Venuti became known for his fast, “hot” swing playing, and he was a major inspiration for many of the next generation’s most prominent jazz and swing violinists, including Bob Wills (who went on to form one of the most influential Western Swing bands in history, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys) and Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli and his friend, guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, heard Venuti-Lang recordings like Dinah and Tea for Two on the jukeboxes in Paris, which inspired them to start a similar duo in the 1930s.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Venuti went on to perform with Red Nichols and Jean Goldkette as well as on a number of Broadway shows, and his career took a major step forward in 1929 when he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, in which his jazz playing was featured. As part of this ensemble, he appeared on many noteworthy records by Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, The Boswell Sisters, Bing Crosby, and others. Eventually, he became a regular performer on the Bing Crosby Show.

From a young age, Venuti developed a reputation as a practical joker. Once, he poured flour into the bell of a tuba, and after the tubist played his first note, flour erupted from the bell and wreathed the entire band in a white cloud. On another occasion, he somehow convinced the great jazz cornetist Bix Biederbecke to climb into a tub full of Jell-O. For one particular recording session, he hired several different bassists, all of whom arrived at the studio around the same time only to find the front door locked. They remained out in the sidewalk in the rain, confused as to why so many other bassists were present. (This joke backfired, since Venuti was required to pay each of them a union scale fee for the “session.”)

Practical jokes aside, Venuti remains one of the greatest jazz violinists in history. Some of his classic riffs appear starting at Letter B in this version of Take the ‘A’ Train.

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