Joe Venuti, 82, started playing violin when he was 4. He still practices two hours a day - even when he plays nightly engagements at places like Blues Alley, where he's in residence through Saturday.
"I like to keep my reflexes up," he said. "I want to be sure of what I can do."
Venuti, the first jazz violinist, was initially taught by his grandfather at Lake Como, the northern Italian resort area where he was born.
"My family wanted me to be a virtuoso," recalled Venuti. And as a teenager, after six years of study in Milan, he was good enough to qualify for the second violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra (the family had moved to the U.S., first to Louisiana and then Philadelphia).
"I could play all that stuff, but I just didn't fit in," said Venuti, flashing a smile on a leathery face that looks like it once belonged to a prize fighter. "I wanted to improvise. So I ran away to Detroit. I was walking down the street and heard the Jean Goldkette Orchestra rehearsing. That was it for me. I went in and they hired me."
The violinist became a key member of a significant early dance band that included such musicians as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Jimmy McPartland and the Dorsey brothers.
"I had been giving my mother $10 a week in Philadelphia, but now I was sending her $80 a week," Venuti remembered. "My old man thought I must've been robbing some place to get so much money. He took the Broadway Limited out to Detroit, and when he found out what I was doing, he beat the (bleep) out of me. He didn't think I should be playing such music. He called it trash."
But Venuti continued. And in 1923 he joined the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, at that time one of the most heralded American musical ensembles with a combined repertoire of European classical music, popular songs and jazz.
"I made $600 a week," he recalled. "That changed my father. When I went home, I got the best part of the chicken at dinner - the breast, leg. When I was a kid, I used to have to eat the neck, the feet. You know how Italian families are. The youngest kids ate last - and I was the youngest."
Throughout his career, Venuti's playing has been characterized by a ringing tone, melodic suppleness and casual humor. He put all those qualities on display the other night at Blues Alley for an enthusiastic audience.
He began his set with a sweet, legato offering of "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life," at one point giving the melody a staccato brilliance by plucking it.
Venuti's program was filled with standards - "Stardust," a Gershwin medley that included "Summertime," "Embraceable You," "But Not For Me" and "I Got Rhythm." Ably backing him was the Steve Novosel Trio (bassist Novosel, pianist Larry Eanet and drummer Bill Reichenbach).
His active pace and young associates belic his age. Venuti likes to teach and perform with musicians half his age. It's nothing for him to conduct a series of clinics at colleges and towns throughout the U.S.
"I just did one for Western fiddlers out in Oklahoma City and Tulsa," he said. "Those Western fiddlers only play two or three chords, but they catch on pretty quickly."
Sometimes he's on a constant round of festivals, mostly in Europe. Venuti recently did 20 concerts in 14 days, and in one of them he and 94-year-old ragtime pianist Eubie Blake played a duet.
Venuti has lived in Seattle for the last 25 years, and says he likes the area because he can fish and play golf there.
When this grand old man is asked if he's ever going to quit, he smiles and says, "How the hell am I going to quit. I like to play too much. That's how I keep going. I like it."