There’s no denying that the violin remains largely overlooked in jazz instrumentation. That despite the fact violin jazz was among the music’s most popular genres early on and produced such stars as Eddie South, Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli. Veteran Bay Area violinist Jeremy Cohen knows that scenario only too well.
''People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I never thought of the violin as a jazz instrument,'" he told me in an interview a few years back. "It's my pleasure to hip people to the fact that violin jazz is a viable, living form.''
That process continues this week when Cohen and his group Violinjazz headline the free Friday Nights at the de Young with a tribute to South. The group also features Larry Dunlap (piano), Jim Kerwin (bass) and Dix Bruce (guitar). Here is what AllMusic.com has to say about South.
One of the top violinists of the pre-bop era, South was a brilliant technician who, were it not for the universal racism of the time, would probably have been a top classical violinist. A child prodigy, South graduated from the Chicago Music College. Since classical positions were not open to black violinists in the 1920s, South learned to play jazz (helped out by Darnell Howard). In the early to mid-'20s, he worked in Chicago with Jimmy Wade's Syncopators, Charles Elgar, and Erskine Tate. South's 1928 visit to Europe (where he studied at the Paris Conservatoire) made a deep impression on the violinist, particularly his visit to Budapest; later on, he would often utilize gypsy melodies as a basis for jazz improvising.
In 1931, South returned to Chicago, where his regular band included the young bassist Milt Hinton. In 1937, he visited Paris and had the opportunity to record with Django Reinhardtand Stephane Grappelli. However, South never really had a major breakthrough commercially in his career. He did work on radio and television, but spent most of his life in relative obscurity, gigging in New York, Los Angeles, and especially Chicago. Eddie South's early recordings (covering 1927-1941) have been reissued on a pair of Classics CDs. In later years he recorded for Chess and Mercury, and also made a final set released by Trip.
''I started very early as a classical violinist,'' Cohen told me in that interview. ''But I grew up in the Bay Area and I was listening to a lot of rock bands. It's A Beautiful Day was a popular band with a fiddle player in it. Hot Tuna had Papa John Creach. I listened to the Marshall Tucker Band.''
Cohen's classical teachers discouraged his outside interests. Their emphasis was on technique; their discipline was strict. It was only after he enrolled at Sonoma State in 1974 that Cohen encountered instructors who encouraged his musical exploration. He began playing bluegrass, jazz and even progressive rock while continuing his classical studies.
In 1977, Cohen left California for New York to study with Itzhak Perlman at Brooklyn College. Before long, they were teaching each other.
''Oddly enough, Perlman was interested in the fact that I played jazz and bluegrass,'' Cohen said. ''He was terribly interested in that. So in order to get extra lessons from him, I traded. I brought in fiddle tunes and taught him how I played them.''
That was a rare transaction in the late 1970s, but today classical artists like Yo-Yo Ma readily collaborate with artists outside the genre. There's much a classical violinist can learn from a jazz player, Cohen said.
''The good classical players are popular because of the level of expressiveness in their playing,'' he said. ''But you have a lot of people who have conservatory and music school training that sometimes is not consistent with (that). So a lot of people want to gain the skills necessary to improvise. It takes a loosening up some of the concepts of right vs. wrong.''
''My instincts lead toward jazz,'' Cohen added. ''But what I bring is kind of a larger picture of violin music and violin playing into the jazz idiom.''
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