Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Lang, Eddie (Salvatore Massaro)

Eddie Lang popularized the guitar as a lead and rhythm instrument in jazz. A versatile and lyrical player, his recordings with the twenties' leading ensembles, solos and duets set a high bar for future guitarists. He was also a valued accompanist for singers, including Bessie Smith, the Boswell Sisters and Bing Crosby.

Lang was born into an Italian-American family in Philadelphia on October 25, 1902, and named Salvatore Massaro. His father was a banjo and guitar maker. As a boy, Lang was immersed in the string-instrument repertoire of European classical and popular music. Later in life he transcribed for solo guitar and recorded Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C# minor.”

By 1920, Lang had renamed himself after a popular Philadelphia ballplayer, and was playing the violin professionally in Atlantic City. In a school orchestra, Lang also played alongside violinist Joe (Giuseppe) Venuti, who became a lifelong friend, and with whom he developed the first significant guitar-violin duo in jazz.

Lang played banjo with the Charles Kerr Orchestra and other bands in Philadelphia and Scranton, and in Atlantic City novelty bandleader Red McKenzie reportedly persuaded him to take up the guitar. Lang joined McKenzie's hybrid jazz-novelty group the Mound City Blue Blowers, whose musicians played a suitcase like a drum, as well as tissue in a comb and kazoos to make horn-like sounds, in the middle of 1924. Lang made six recordings with the Blue Blowers, which also included saxophonist Frank Trumbauer, in 1924 and 1925.

By 1925, thanks to his popular recordings with the Blue Blowers, Lang's guitar playing was in high demand. In late 1925 into 1926 he did some studio work, then joined the prominent Jean Goldkette Orchestra through much of 1927. Lang also made six recordings in 1927, such as "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," with small groups of players from the Goldkette Orchestra, including Bix Beiderbecke on cornet and Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone. He also recorded tracks such as "Buddy's Habits" with Red Nichols' Five Pennies, one of the era's most harmonically advanced ensembles.

Among the Goldkette tracks which are notable for Lang’s contributions are “Singin’ the Blues,” “I’m Coming, Virginia,” and “For No Reason at All in C.” “He was one of the rare two or three musicians with whom Beiderbecke recorded who was equal in musicianship," trumpeter Max Kaminsky said of Lang, emphasizing the guitarist's ability to play in counterpoint with Bix. Indeed, Lang’s creative, fingerpicked climbing and descending lines added a wonderful additional dimension to these notable recordings.

Starting in the fall of 1926, Lang began to record duets with his old pal from Philly, Joe Venuti. Their work was the direct inspiration for the famous Parisian duo of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Three of their better recordings are their first, “Stringin’ the Blues,” a variation on the worldwide hit “Tiger Rag,” “Sunshine,” and the aptly titled “Wild Cat.”

On these tracks, Venuti takes the lead, using the violin's expressive capacity to create smooth, lyrically flowing lines, punctuated with staccato accents, "blue" notes and occasional 2-string combinations. Lang provided a chugging rhythmic background with a rich harmonic foundation, and took an occasional lead-line break. On “Wild Cat,” the two take off at high speed, with an intensity which exemplifies the carefree exuberance of jazz in the twenties.

In 1927 and 1928, Lang also made a few solo recordings, as well as with piano accompaniment by Frank Signorelli and Arthur Schutt. Sessions like this gave Lang the chance to showcase his own melodic inventions, with rich guitar tone, and his usual excellent harmonic sense. While not always jazz, songs such as “Eddie’s Twister,” one of Lang's several compositions, has a catchy, memorable theme which the guitarist develops through a series of fine variations, and his interplay with Schutt’s piano is outstanding.

Lang’s recordings through 1928 – prolific for the era - proved to both fans and bandleaders that the guitar had a valuable role to play in jazz. Indeed, a number of his contemporaries – including Benny Goodman and fellow guitarist Eddie Condon – said Lang's sound was the reason jazz orchestras began to replace their banjos with guitars. But we must also remember that at the same time, from late 1925 through 1928, guitarist Lonnie Johnson was also recording with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington – so from a historical perspective, it is safer to say it was the pair's combined effect which brought the guitar to its preeminence in the modern era.

The two guitar titans met to record as a duet on November 17, 1928, and recorded a total of ten tracks together over the course of a year. OKeh records billed Lang on the recordings as “Blind Willie Dunn,” perhaps to circumvent allegiances to a different record company, and certainly as a result of the era's allergy to interracial collaborations.

Two remarkable examples of these duets are “Have to Change Keys to Play these Blues” and “Midnight Call Blues.” Another excellent track, taken at a faster tempo, is the appropriately titled “Hot Fingers.” These duets stand as the era's guitar masterpieces, and their level of musical sophistication, complicity and creatively contrasting exchanges still thrill listeners today.

In the wake of his partnering with Johnson, Lang made around two dozen recordings with other Black blues and jazz artists, including Bessie Smith. In further evidence of Lang and Johnson's musical friendship, they recorded with blues singer “Texas” Alexander, and in April of 1929, they made two recordings as the wonderfully named “Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four,” with Joe 'King' Oliver on cornet and Hoagy Carmichael on percussion and scat vocal to round out the group. Lang reunited again with Carmichael and Bix in 1930 to record the memorable, if absurd, Barnacle Bill The Sailor.

In 1929, Lang rejoined Venuti in bandleader Paul Whiteman's 29-person group, which was billed at the time as a “symphonic jazz orchestra.” Lang and Venuti also appeared in a 1930 Hollywood film about Whiteman, “King of Jazz,” and recorded with a group they called “Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang and their All Star Orchestra.”

Whiteman himself later testified to Lang’s extraordinary adaptability and his unerring rhythmic sense. “I had less trouble with rhythm than at any other time," Whiteman said about the time Lang played in his band. "No matter how intricate the arrangement was, Eddie played it flawlessly the first time without ever having heard it before or looking at a sheet of music.”

Some of Lang’s best recordings were made with Venuti's Blue Four and Blue Five groups from 1927 until 1933. One fine example of this is "Beatin' the Dog," which features bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, and another is “Raggin’ the Scale.” As with their guitar-violin duets, Venuti’s violin takes the prime lead lines; but in these group recordings, especially the later Blue Fives, there is ample fine ensemble playing, with sax, clarinet and piano each getting a featured break. “Raggin’ the Scale” in particular has a delightful, sprightly, upbeat feel, and the band interacts very well.

Bing Crosby was the Whiteman Orchestra's star singer, and he became friendly with Lang. After he moved on from Whiteman's group in the spring of 1930, he asked Lang to serve as his prime accompanist and musical advisor. Lang appeared with Crosby in the 1932 movie “The Big Broadcast,” and on many of his pop-oriented recordings that year. In 1932, he also recorded what would turn out to be his last two guitar duets, this time with up-and-coming jazz guitarist Carl Kress.

Some of the better examples of the Crosby-Lang collaboration are “Paradise,” “You’re Still in My Heart,” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” with the Isham Jones Orchestra, and with Lang doing a strong introduction to the start of Crosby’s singing. Perhaps the best of these tracks is the stellar “Some of These Days,” which reunites Bix, Trumbauer and Lang.

Crosby and Lang's collaboration was cut short on March 26, 1933, when the guitarist died from a botched tonsillectomy.

Gary Giddins had said Eddie Lang was Crosby's "jazz conscience.” Since Crosby owed much of his commercial appeal to his ability to team with and learn from jazz musicians, it is fair to say that he owed part of this success to Lang. Their collaboration is a fine example of the broader “jazzification" of popular music at the time, as the powerful influence of jazz and blues rippled out through the broader culture.

Lang accomplished a great deal in his short career, and set a memorable example in American music and on his instrument.

Select Discography

Eddie Lang – Jazz Guitar Virtuoso (Yazoo CD)

This CD includes Lang's solo instrumentals, such as Rachmaninoff's “Prelude,” “A Little Love, A Little Kiss;” and 7 of the Lang-featured tracks with piano backing, including “Eddie’s Twister;” the two late Lang-Carl Kress guitar duets; and 3 of the Lang-Johnson Duets, “Blue Guitars,” “Blue Room” and “Midnight Call Blues.”

The Best of Joe Venuti & Eddie Lang (Chestnut CD)

This CD includes the pure violin-guitar duet “Stringing the Blues;” 4 tracks with Lang and piano, including “Add a Little Wiggle” and “I’ll Never Be The Same;” and Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang Blue 4 and Blue 5 plus Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang & their All Star Orchestra tracks, including “Beale Street Blues,” “Someday Sweetheart,” and “Raggin’ the Scales.”

Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson – Blue Guitars, Volumes I & II (BGO Records double CD)

This set covers the years 1927 through 1929 and has all 10 of the Lang-Johnson guitar duets; Lang’s 3 solo instrumentals and 7 of his recordings with piano backing, including “Eddie’s Twister” and “Add a Little Wiggle;” Lang and Johnson with Blind Willie Dunn’s Gin Bottle Four and accompanying Texas Alexander; Lang with Louis Armstrong and band on “Knockin’ a Jug.”

Bix Beiderbecke – Way Down Yonder in New Orleans (Past Perfect CD).

This CD has 8 of the recordings Lang made with groups featuring Bix Beiderbecke, including “Singin’ the Blues,” “Riverboat Shuffle,” “I’m Comin’ Virginia,” and “For No Reason at All in C.”

Bing Crosby – Jazz Singer (Retrieval Records CD)

Includes “Some of These Days” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Lang in accompaniment.

Suggested Reading

Chapter by Sallis on Eddie Lang, plus chapter on “The Jazz Guitar Duet” by Richard Lieberson, in James Sallis, ed., The Guitar in Jazz (University of Nebraska Press, 1996)

Contributor: Dean Alger