The Pioneer of Jazz Guitar

Joe and Eddie 1929

Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang in a rare color image from the 1929 Technicolor film, “The King of Jazz”

Salvatore Massaro, known professionally as Eddie Lang, was one of the great pioneers in jazz. Along with his childhood buddy Joe Venuti (violin), Adrian Rollini (bass sax), Red Norvo (xylophone) and Lionel Hampton (vibraphone), he brought an instrument not commonly associated with jazz into the forefront as a solo voice. This is important to remember, because jazz musicians had long used the guitar when playing in clubs and dance halls, but solely as a component of the rhythm section. The banjo, like the tuba, came into jazz as a result of their portability. When playing in parades, funerals and other social events outdoors, musicians switched from the guitar and string bass to banjo and tuba because they were louder and, especially in the case of the tuba, easier to carry, but a lot of early guitarists tended to favor the banjo because it could be heard within a loud jazz band without separate amplification (which didn’t exist anyway in the 1910s and early ‘20s).

Massaro felt he had a mission to bring the guitar into jazz for one simple reason. He absolutely hated the sound of a banjo and called it “a torture instrument.” Born in Philadelphia on October 29, 1902, he was a child prodigy—on the violin, which he played for 11 years. While in school he met fellow-Italian Joe Venuti, who had been born on a steamer while coming to America from Italy. Recognizing Venuti’s superiority on the violin, he switched to guitar.

Massaro took the professional name of Eddie Lang from a local semi-pro ballplayer in the Philadelphia area because he liked it. The Massaro family were extraordinarily nice, bright, gentle people by nature; I say this because I worked with Lang-Massaro’s nephew when I was a reporter at the Herald-News in Passaic, New Jersey in the early 1970s. Once I discovered that the Massaro I worked with was related to Lang, I asked him questions about Eddie. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to add that everyone didn’t already know. Like Venuti, Lang had a good sense of humor but was not the flamboyant practical joker his colleague was. He enjoyed shooting pool when he wasn’t working, he didn’t drink much and he didn’t partake in any drugs. In short, he was as good as he looked in all of his photos and film clips. And yes, he rarely smiled. Don’t ask me why, but he didn’t.

Because of his long association with Venuti, the two are often thought of as an inseparable duo, like Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. But Lang had his own musical identity separate from Venuti, just as Bix often played without Tram. He was a welcome guest on dozens of recording sessions where a guitar was wanted but not always the violin to go with it, and unlike Venuti who was always a bit uncomfortable around African-American musicians, Lang had no such hang-ups. As a result, he gladly made records with blues singer Bessie Smith and guitarist Lonnie Johnson, the latter under the pseudonym of “Blind Willie Dunn.” Lang also backed singers without Venuti’s help, but of course there was magic when they played together, and they did so often. In addition to working for the bands of Jean Goldkette, Roger Wolfe Kahn and Paul Whiteman, they also sat in for recording sessions by the Mound City Blue Blowers, Don Voorhees, Annette Hanshaw, Ruth Etting, Jack Teagarden, the Boswell Sisters and especially Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, for whom they made a load of sides. One of the more interesting of Lang’s records was his performance of Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor. He apparently wanted to make a point by playing this on the guitar, but by and large the performance is flawed because he didn’t have a fast enough technique to play the central section quickly enough and because playing it on the guitar required his using a much more limited range than the music calls for on the piano.

And this brings us to Lang’s technique, always a sore spot with me. He was exceptionally deft in playing quick chords as an accompanist, and he certainly swung, but his single-note playing was always somewhat slow. Time and again I would hear a Lang solo and be disappointed by the almost painfully deliberate way he played single-note solos. Considering his early experience as a violinist and his long years of professional playing on the guitar, you would think that he could have at least come up to the speed of a Dick McDonough or Bobby Sherwood. On the Eddie Lang-Joe Venuti All-Star Orchestra recording of Someday, Sweetheart, he plays some really nice triplets behind Venuti in the opening chorus, but this is about as close as he came to playing single notes quickly.

Despite this, there is no question that he was a fine guitarist and immensely important in jazz history. He paid the Gibson company to custom-design guitars for him with very large and resonant bodies so that he could be heard in an orchestra setting, like a banjo, without

Lang L-5

Eddie Lang’s Gibson L-5 guitar. Joe Venuti later gave this instrument to the outstanding guitarist Tony Romano.

always having to be separately miked. This led to the development of the Gibson L-4 and L-5 guitars, which he made famous. It should also be noted that he influenced three separate schools of jazz guitar playing: the American school (Carl Kress, McDonough, Nappy Lamare, Freddie Green, etc.), the Country Swing style (nearly every Country Swing guitarist adored Lang and worked hard to imitate him), and of course the European guitar school exemplified by Django Reinhardt. Django was a different type of guitarist than Lang in two very specific ways in that he grew out of the Gypsy-Flamenco school of guitar, and thus used more vibrato in his playing, and also that his single-note playing was absolutely phenomenal. Reinhardt was by far the fastest guitarist in the world until Les Paul came along; the two of them exerted a tremendous influence on such later guitarists as Alvin Lee and John McLaughlin. If Eddie Lang had not existed I doubt that the first and third of these schools of jazz guitar would have developed as quickly, and the second would undoubtedly have evolved along different lines.

Lang’s death on March 26, 1933 came at a time when he was working regularly as Bing Crosby’s accompanist. Lang had been complaining of hoarseness for some time and, when Crosby learned that he had never had his tonsils removed as a baby, encouraged him to have a tonsillectomy. It has been commonly believed that the operation was botched, but author James Sallis insists that Lang developed an embolism while still under anesthetic and never regained consciousness. He was only thirty years old. Crosby was devastated, not just because he had been the one to urge the operation but because he considered Lang a good friend. In a rare gesture of generosity that he never repeated, Crosby sent money to Lang’s widow until she died.

Under normal circumstances, one would think that the early death of a unique jazz musician would have propelled him to legend status, but for some reason this never happened. Bix was a legend. Bird was a legend. Coltrane was a legend. But Eddie Lang was just an outstanding jazz musician who died young. Why? I think his quiet demeanor and undramatic life worked against him. He just wasn’t colorful enough to be considered a legend! Nonetheless, Lang was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1986.

Despite my misgivings about his single-note work, there is still magic in Lang’s playing on his recordings. Particularly at fast tempos, the “bounce” and forward propulsion of his chord playing urged many a band and singer on…listen, for instance, to the Boswell Sisters’ recording of It’s the Girl. He may have been somewhat drab as a personality, but he was beloved by everyone who ever performed with him, and that is something that very few jazz musicians can claim.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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