Joe Venuti, who went from a classical music background to a career in swing to become the grand old man of the jazz violin, died Monday in Seattle. He had been hospitalized a month ago.
His age varied from 74 to 82, depending on his mood when he spoke about it. His place of birth was just as varied, ranging from the Lake Como area of Italy to a ship brining his family to this country from Italy.
Mr. Venuti was known as a screwball who was given to tall tales, wild escapades and practical jokes. It was never questioned, however, that he was a master of the violin, with a superb technique and remarkable imagination.
No matter what his place of birth, it was agreed that Mr. Venuti and his family eventually ended up in Philadelphia. He said in one interview that this was after he had studied violin for six years in Milan, Italy.
At any rate, he was good enough to get into the second violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra but he wasn't happy there.
"I could play all that stuff, but I just didn't fit in," he once explained. "I wanted to improvise. So I ran away to Detroit. I was walking down the street and heard the Jean Goldkette Orchestra rehearsing. I went in and they hired me."
The Goldkette Orchestra, an early dance band, included such later music greats as Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Traumbauer, Jimmy McPartland and Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.
"I had been giving my mother $10 a week in Philadelphia, but now I was sending her $80 a week," he remembered. "My old man thought I must've robbed 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 . . . out of me. He didn't think I should be playing such music. He called it trash."
But Mr. Venuti went on to play with the famous Paul Whiteman band. He also teamed up in 1925 with guitarist Eddie Lang and they made hundreds of major jazz records before Lang died in 1933.
Mr. Venuti liked to teach and pernovations on the violin. He played all four strings at once for chord passages by tying the bow around the instrument. One critic described his playing as characterized by "a ringing tone, melodic suppleness and casual humor."
He played with success in England in the 1930s, and then toured, usually with his own band, throughout this country. His repertoire consisted of well known standards, "Stardust," "Embraceable You," Summertime," "I Got Rhythm" and others.
Mr. Venuti liked to teach and perform with young musicians and he conducted a series of clinics at colleges and towns across the country. He often performed at festivals in Europe as well as in the United States.
He took part in a memorial tribute to Tommy Dorsey on television in 1956. But as years passed, and popular musical tastes changed, he began to perform mainly at lounges in Seattle, where he had made his home since 1963, and in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
He gained new popularity in 1960s, when he played at the Dick Gibbons' Colorado Jazz Party at Vail in 1967, the Newport Jazz Festival in 1968 and the Jazz Exposition in London in 1969. He was honored in 1975 at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York by the Newport Hall of Fame.
He appeared at Blues Alley here in 1975, again in 1977 and for a third time last February.
It could not be determined if Mr. Venuti had any immediate survivors. At sometime in his career, he had spoken of having children, but he was alone when he died.