Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Eddie Lang - Jazz Guitar Great

I’d seen this monument in Holy Cross Cemetery (Yeadon, Pennsylvania) off and on for the fifteen years I’ve been making photographs in cemeteries (I live near Yeadon, which is just outside Philadelphia). I never paid much attention to it, which is odd, because I play guitar. I often see the likenesses of musical instruments engraved on the headstones of the musicians buried beneath, but since from a distance, the name “Massaro” did not jump out at me as being anyone famous, I paid little attention.

Where Dead Voices Gather
After recently reading the appropriately titled book, Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches, I learned that Salvatore Massaro was the real name of jazz guitar legend Eddie Lang. Now, I realize that Eddie Lang is not a familiar name to most people, but please bear with. Lang was predominantly a session musician and frequently played in orchestras back in the 1920s when the music recording industry was still in its infancy. He played on the records of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and other well-known artists. (Crosby, by the way, after having worked with Lang in 1931, insisted that Lang accompany him on all his recordings and performances. He would have no other guitarist.)

We think of guitar players as flamboyant front-and-center rock stars who typically share the stage with an even more flamboyant lead singer in a rock band. Wasn’t always that way, in fact the idea of a specific band of musicians writing and performing its own music in public didn’t exist until Buddy Holly created it in 1955. The protypical three-piece rock band with voice, guitar, bass, and drums was created by Holly. Prior to that, musicians were interchangeable, just part of the band, or the orchestra. The “stars” of the performance were the band leaders, for instance Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, etc. The majority of people who actually played the music were faceless, essentially anonymous to the music-listening public. Even the lead singers were just part of the band. Eddie Lang spent most of his short career as was one of these ‘background’ musicians.

Along with Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang was a true pioneer of the guitar, playing mostly studio jazz sessions for other people in the early days of recorded music (1920s onward). In fact, his recorded duets with Johnson are considered to be the first important interracial partnership in jazz. Possibly due to the expected adverse reaction by the public to a black man and a white man working as equals, Lang’s – or rather, Massaro’s name appeared as “Blind Willie Dunn” on the recordings with Lonnie Johnson! (Listen to one of their duet here, "Guitar Blues.")

Detail from Eddie Lang's memorial in Yeadon, PA's Holy Cross Cemetery
Eddie Lang, a South Philly native, played an acoustic archtop guitar, which you can see in the plaque on his grave marker (he’s holding a Gibson L-5 model). This type guitar had a bigger sound for live playing – a regular acoustic guitar could easily be drowned out by other instruments. Electrical amplification of the guitar was not to be invented until 1934, a year after Lang’s death. Charlie Christian was a later guitar pioneer from the jazz era, who played such an electrically-amplified guitar. However, neither Christian nor Lang achieved anywhere near the guitar god status as their disciple, Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt is much more widely known, having achieved worldwide fame a bit later, in the 1940s, as part of the Parisian musical jazz combo know as the Quintette du Hot Club de France. At least as famous as Django’s “hot” jazz guitar playing technique was his pairing with the gypsy violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli.  

Eddie Lang (RedHotJazz.com)
A lot goes on with musical recycling. Nowadays everything is derivative. One musician borrows another’s riff, while melodies and styles of playing are copied. True originals are rare. Lang was one of the rare people, the innovators. Not only was his style of playing original, but his guitar-based interpretations of popular songs helped pave the way for public acceptance of the guitar as a serious instrument. Segovia did the same for the classical guitar, in his interpretations of classical music written generations before him for other, more "serious," instruments. Segovia, coincidentally, was the only (then living) guitarist that Eddie Lang held in any esteem.

Lang altered the course of music in several ways. Remember I mentioned Django’s Quintette du Hot Club de France? The band’s main attraction was the dueling interplay between Django’s guitar and Grappelli’s wild gypsy violin (listen here). So here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Eddie Lang actually originated the idea of the jazz guitar and violin combo with his boyhood friend Joe Venuti. They recorded together as the Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang Blue Five. (Click here to listen to one of their compositions, "Four String Joe," recorded in 1927.) After Lang’s death in 1933, Venuti went on to become the first jazz master of the violin, and Django and Grappelli formed the Hot Club of France. Eddie Lang, i.e. Salvatore Massaro, died in 1933, due to bleeding complications following a routine tonsillectomy.

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If you’re wondering  what all the fuss was about – and especially if you play guitar – listen here to Eddie Lang's 1929 recording "April Kisses" - quite amazing. His talent and originality shine most in his original instrumental compositions.