The versatility of bows on strings is evident in how musicians over the past century have found ways to swing an instrument that can do bebop as well as Bach.
To understand the history of violins in jazz music, one should understand the history of jazz itself. Violins aren’t typically the first jazz instrument that comes to mind – saxophones, trumpets, percussion and the stringed bass might have that honor – but from the very beginning violins (and versions of violins) have played an important role in the development and expression of this uniquely American musical style.
To be clear, jazz derives African musical traditions. The city where jazz was born, New Orleans, was and remains a polyglot of cultures going back hundreds of years, a place where Spanish explorers, French traders, Cajun immigrants, African slaves and freemen, and Creole culture converged. Here the fusion of musical styles emerged in the late 19thcentury that evolved into French quadrilles, ragtime, blues, swing, Gypsy jazz, and bebop. Eventually cool jazz and free jazz emerged.
The sound produced by the violin was a bit soft for some of these styles, but instrumentalists and instrument makers found ways to make up for that. Among those were the Stroh violin, a combination of the familiar stringed instrument with an amplification horn tacked on, what looks like a violin and a trumpet got together and made a baby. The electric violin, seen in modern music, is perhaps the great grandchild of the Stroh (minus the horn bell). Both enable the violin to be a standout in the idiom.
Certain recording artists saw early value in the violin as a jazz instrument. They include A.J. Piron, Alphonso Trent, Andy Kirk, Stuff Smith, Claude Williams (of the Count Basie Orchestra), Eddie South, Juice Wilson (Freddie Keppard band), Edgar Sampson (Fletcher Henderson band), Angelina Rivera (accompanying Josephine Baker and Spencer Williams), Leon Abbey, Clarence Black, Carroll Dickerson, and Erskine Tate. A three-violin section in the W.C. Handy orchestra illustrated the love for strings by Handy, considered the Father of the Blues.
Perhaps the best-known jazz violinist was Papa John Creach (1917-1994), who played with Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Grateful Dead and the Charlie Daniels Band.
Particular gratitude for giving a star role to violins and other stringed instruments in jazz goes to the Romani (“gypsy,” by another name) groups. Called “gypsy swing,” “gypsy jazz” and sometimes, “hot club jazz,” its origins are in France during the interwar (1930s) period. The style originated with accordions and banjos, but with a strong dependency on string instruments, drawing from the cultural history of the Roma people, which rarely included brass instruments. Among the stars of this genre was Stephane Grappelli.
Contemporary jazz violinist Regina Carter, of the Regina Carter Quintet, teaches and performs the jazz violin to its breadth and depth. “Back in the 1920s and 30s violins were part of the Big Band era, but in the bebop era it was less part of the idiom,” she said in a 2003 Kennedy Center program for students on non-traditional repertoires for jazz ensembles. “I like to improvise and come up with my own voice. Playing jazz is less bow and less vibrato; you really have to swing it. It’s about learning the language of this instrument. There are a lot of things you can do with a violin.”