Historical Markers
Joe Venuti Historical Marker
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Joe Venuti

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Northeast corner 8th & Fitzwater Streets, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
April 18, 1997

Behind the Marker

In addition to being the first great jazz violinist, Joe Venuti was something of a prankster. In perhaps his most famous prank, Venuti called twenty-six tuba players in Hollywood and told them he had a gig lined up. There was no gig. He just wanted to see what would happen when they all arrived at the same time. Unfortunately, for Venuti, the musician's union made him pay compensation to each musician who showed up for the event. Venuti was also famous for having pushed a piano out a window, and filling up Bix Biederbecke's bathtub with Jello. What may have started out as one of his pranks became one of his musical innovations. To play chords on the violin, Venuti tied his bow around his instrument to bring it into contact with all four strings, and thus enabled him to play rich chordal passages of music.

Born and raised in an Italian-American neighborhood in South Philadelphia, Guiseppe [Joe] Venuti (1903-1978) met guitarist marker Eddie Lang when he was ten years old. The two soon became fast friends and musical collaborators. After falling in love with jazz, Venuti and Lang started a band while in high school, and pioneered the use of the violin and guitar as jazz instruments while playing in the clubs and dance halls of Philadelphia.

In 1924, Venuti moved to Detroit to join Jean Goldkette's popular dance band, then rejoined Lang in New York the following year. Venuti and Lang joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the nation's most popular band, in 1929. The next year American film audiences were able to hear their incredible solo playing in The King of Jazz, an early talking picture that featured the Whiteman orchestra.
Joe Venuti, in a suit, playing a violin in front of a microphone.
Jazz violinist Joe Venuti, circa 1945.

After markerEddie Lang died from blood loss during what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy in 1933, Venuti started his own big band. By the mid-1930s, however, he had faded from the spotlight, in part because of his excessive fondness for, and dependence upon, alcohol. In the early 1950s he was a regular on Bing Crosby's national radio show.

After moving to Los Angeles he continued to play in local clubs. In 1967, Venuti played some brilliant solos at Dick Gibson's Colorado Jazz Party and enjoyed a new wave of recognition and popularity. Despite his poor health, Venuti released a series of superb records and continued to work as a musician until his death from cancer in 1978.

Today, Joe Venuti is remembered for his legendary sense of humor, brilliant technique, hot solos that were rhythmically exciting and brimming with innovative musical ideas, and for the jazz recordings he made in the late 1920s with his childhood friend and musical collaborator, Eddie Lang. Lang and Venuti periodically teamed up to release their joint recordings. And they brought in some of the best brass and reed players of the day to accompany them, including Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and Bud Freeman on reeds and Glenn Miller, Jack and Charlie Teagarden, and markerTommy Dorsey on horns.

Many critics consider Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang's Blue Four recording sessions of 1927-1928 to be white jazz at its best. "The Wild Dog," recorded in 1928, demonstrates Venuti's free swinging style that set the standard for jazz violin, and Lang's pioneering single-string solo technique that forever changed the way the guitar is played.

Jazz was born in New Orleans from an extraordinarily rich mix of peoples and musical cultures. Philadelphia, too, was a city rich with its own immigrants and musical traditions. As youths, Venuti and Lang were like musical sponges, soaking up as much music as they possibly could. Out of that mix they became the first of many renowned jazz pioneers to hail from the city of Philadelphia.
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