Joe Venuti / Eddie Lang
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Around 1918, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang were probably hanging around a phonograph shop in Philadelphia when a new sound pricked their ears. The tune "Livery Stable Blues" from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had a new rhythm that the two teenage friends had never heard before. It was the first jazz recording ever released.

Background music: "Livery Stable Blues 2"

Mike Peters:

"This lit the fuse for them."

Already skilled classical musicians, Venuti and Lang didn't want to just listen to jazz – they wanted to play it, says Mike Peters, who co-produced a compilation of the musicians' work:

"They heard this and they were able to adapt their natural powers of improvisation and they heard this jazz thing and they said this is easy. Now they started improvising over pop songs of the day...Ain't She Sweet, If You Knew Susie, Babyface...and they took it from there."

Background music: "Ain't She Sweet"

Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang were born Guiseppe Venuti and Salvatore Massaro just after the turn of the 20th century. Though they wouldn't become friends until their teens...the two seemed destined to meet. They grew up on the narrow streets of row houses in one South Philadelphia's Italian enclaves, went to the same elementary school...even performed in the same school orchestra. Mike Peters says Venuti and Lang both played the violin, the guitar, and the mandolin and absorbed melodies off the street from neighboring immigrant communities:

"The Irish, the Polish, the Jews, the Germans and you kind of did stick to your area, but you did also as a kid you'd venture out, and they ventured out and there was a lot of spillover...and the cultures tended to bleed into each other."

Richard Sudhalter, author of Lost Chords, a book about early white jazz musicians, says you can also hear their Italian heritage if you listen to some of Venuti's recordings.

Background music: "Hey Young Fella"

Mike Peters:

"At the beginning of some records where Venuti would play long cadenzas on the violin, doing the "Uptown Lowdown with the Blue Six or "Hey Young Fella" with the Blue Five... the leap is not that far from a lot of forms of Italian ballads, folk music, Neapolitan street music and all kinds of things. He's drawing on what he knows and what he is."

By their mid-teens, Lang and Venuti began playing together...practicing for 8 or 10 hours a day. During the early 1920s, they'd perform in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City...finally moving to New York in 1926. There, Lang would settle on the guitar...and Venuti, the violin. The two were devoted to their music and to each other like brothers...though their personalities were as different as night and day.

Mike Peters says you can hear these personalities in their music:

"Joe is a very, very aggressive player and Lang on the other hand...though he can be aggressive, he's used to laying down the foundation. He's used to playing a support role. That's one of the great things he did as a guitar accompanist."

Lang...and to a lesser degree Venuti...were in demand in recording studios in New York City, says Richard Sudhalter:

"The people would hire Venuti and Lang, leave 16 bars open in the arrangement and say "go get it boys." And they could be counted on always to deliver something really good and a la mode."

Background music: "Cheese and Crackers"

Lang played with some of the most prominent figures of jazz and blues... like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Lonnie Johnson, appearing on more recording sessions with black artists than any other white musician at the time.

Lang accompanied singer Bing Crosby until 1933, when he died from a botched tonsillectomy. Joe Venuti continued to work as a musician until his death in 1978...enjoying a resurgence of popularity in the 1970s.
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