One of the legends of jazz, a violinist who pioneered improvisational play, Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Venuti had a career that lasted more than a half-century. In the 1920s and early 1930s he teamed up with his buddy, the equally talented guitarist Eddie Lang, to dazzle jazz fans of that era, and in the decade before his death in 1978 he once again found a lot of success. Unfortunately, in the many years between those two periods he was often adrift.
Always cagey about his age and place of birth, Venuti was most likely born around the turn of the century in Philadelphia. In any case, it was there that he first met fellow music student Salvatore Massaro (Eddie Lang). By the time the two buddies were reunited in New York in the mid-1920s, they were experienced pros and they wasted no time renewing their friendship and teaming up musically. For the rest of that decade and on into the next, they became well known for their work in clubs and recording studios, not only for playing together (see rare film clip below) but also as a part of other groups, including Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra.
But Lang died unexpectedly in 1933 of complications from what should have been a simple tonsillectomy, and it seemed to mark the beginning of a long downward spiral for Venuti. Over the next few years he spent some time working in Europe, and when he returned he formed and briefly led a band of his own, but even though it provided a start for young singer Kay Starr, the band soon dissolved.
Venuti spent some time in the service during World War II, but in the years after he continued struggling to regain career momentum. As the years passed he kept reasonably busy by working in studio groups, and he occasionally made appearances on radio or in clubs, but he kept a low profile. He also battled an alcohol problem during the period, but in the late 1960s he finally began to find his way out. Rededicating himself to his music, he again began showing up in choice spots and making records too. He enjoyed successful collaborations with jazz stars like Zoot Sims, Earl Hines, and others, all helping make his last decade of life much happier while also enriching his legacy.