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Violinjazz’s Jeremy Cohen Talks About The Music of Eddie South

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Chances are you've heard Jeremy Cohen play violin and didn't know it. His recording credits name motion picture and television soundtracks including The Dukes of Hazzard and Jane Fonda's Dollmaker. He was concertmaster on recordings with Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, Aaron Neville, and Cleo Laine. His violin can be heard on Carlos Santana's GRAMMY-winning CD, Supernatural. He worked with John Williams on the original compilation CD of Star Wars.

Cohen is currently on the faculty of The Jazz School in Berkeley, California and is active with both Violinjazz and Quartet San Francisco (a GRAMMY-nominated group). We had a great conversation last week about classical music, folk music, jazz, gypsy jazz, numerous talented artists, and of course, Eddie South.

The third track on The Music of Eddie South, "Deep Purple," is a show-stopper. It showcases the rich full tones of your violin. What's the story behind the instrument?

Before it was owned my me, that violin was owned by the concert master at MGM. This is the very same violin that played the solos on The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain and everything else MGM between 1939 and 1969. Those were the years of what they called the "contract orchestras." Each of the big studios had their own full time symphony orchestra recording their soundtracks for their movies. This was the lead violinist, the concert master, of MGM. It was owned by him. His name was Lou Raderman. If you go to allmusic and look at his credits, you'll find him on records with Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, everything that the MGM Orchestra would have recorded. This violin may be one of the most recognized violins in recorded history.

How did you acquire it?

By the early '80s (his wife was also a violinist in the MGM Orchestra) the Radermans had retired and moved to Las Vegas. I think he died in 1980 or '81. She had her own violin and wanted to put this one up for sale. She didn't want to sell it in Los Angeles because she didn't want it to go to "the wolves"  — the wolves being all those people who wanted to get their hands on Lou's violin (successful violinists who had money in LA). So, she put it for sale with a dealer she knew here in San Francisco. That sort of coincided with my having grown up here and knowing that dealer since I was a kid. I had gone off to New York to study violin.

I came home for my first summer and, by sheer luck, I went into that violin shop. And I said, "You know, Nash (Nash Mondragon was the dealer's name), I need a violin to go to the next step." I was starting to study with Itzhak Perlman, and I had had my previous violin for ten or twelve years and I was ready for a step up. He had just received this violin. He looked at me and said, "I'll tell you what. I've got an instrument for you. I don't care what you have to do, but you go out and you find the money for this violin and you buy this thing." And I did. We proposed a deal to her [Raderman's wife] that was not very common. We didn't have very much money and that violin was kind of expensive as violins go. Because she was retired and didn't need the money right away, she gave us two whole years to pay for it. That was very unheard of in the violin world. Nowadays, a violin like this would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and you'd have to cough up a check on the spot. But she was kind enough because she was looking for someone young and talented to take this instrument and have a career with it. I've had it since 1981.

How did you assemble such talent for the Violinjazz?

Well you know, Violinjazz is actually a group I've been playing with for over 20 years. This is a group of musicians from here in the San Francisco Bay area. I was born and raised here but I lived in LA and New York for ten years and when I came back here, I assembled a band to do our Violinjazz projects and our recordings and concerts. These are musicians that I drew on by virtue of their level of talent and the fact that they were physically available.

Larry Dunlap was busy playing with Mark Murphy and Cleo Laine. Jim Kerwin, the bassist, was and still plays with David Grisman. The guitar player (Dix Bruce) was busy writing books and playing in a lot of jazz bands. I assembled them by being in the metropolitan area and having good resources to draw from. I also carefully considered the players and the styles and capabilities they have in order to work particularly in this genre in a very authentic way. With the Eddie South album, what we're doing is really recreating what's called a "Southside Swing." 

What other instruments do you play and how did you end up primarily on violin?

I started on the violin although, when I was a kid, my mom taught me some on the keyboard. Mainly, I was on the violin and I did get some private lessons so I was a little bit ahead of the kids in school. I noticed in middle school that the guys in the jazz band were pretty cool. The music teacher in high school knew that the guys in the stage band were behind the music building smoking and they wouldn't even get in trouble for it. They were jazzers. If I sat with my legs crossed in the orchestra, I got sent to the back of the section. So, as a classical violinist, I didn't like the treatment we were getting. It was so strict that it wasn't consistent with my personality. When I was in middle and high school, I took up the trombone and string bass so I could play with the jazz band. I never got really good at those instruments but early on, I was playing big band stuff and it got the jazz band stuff in my blood.

Is it difficult to hit and hold high notes? You seem to do it so often — it's impressive.

Thank you, you're very kind. The clarity that one plays in the high range is pretty telling in terms of the level of accomplishment of the player. As you get higher on the violin, as the notes get higher, the potential for screech is that much more, as you go up. It separates the pros from the non-pros. The amount of ease and grace that they can navigate around, particularly in the high part of the instrument.

Talk about how jazz and classical music are related and how it connects with Eddie South.

What's happened in music today is that things have become very compartmentalized. People have a tendency to think they like one style or another. Back in Eddie South's day, I refer to him as a crossover musician, but that's because of the description in contemporary terms. Back in his day, jazz was really developing and almost all violinists were either folk violinists or classical violinists. Folk, as in, "wherever you live, whatever the music is." You know, local. What ever the vernacular kind of music of your region. Or if you were studying the instrument, the only kind of organized study for string instruments was in classical music.

That was the European tradition that came over to the United States. It's clear from his biography that he received a fair amount of classical training and it's also clear from hearing him play that he had a very high level of ability in classical music. He even went over and studied classical music in Europe at a conservatory. That migration of an American black violinist over to Europe in order to get classical training pretty much falls in line with the fact that the America conservatories in Chicago were not teaching black pupils at that time.

Did you get the chance to speak to any of South's descendants?

Not a direct descendant. I did spend a long time working with and talking with Dr. Billy Taylor who was South's pianist for maybe his most famous album, called The Dark Angel of the Violin.

Other than South, what was your first encounter with "gypsy jazz"?

Certainly the most famous gypsy jazz would be Django Reinhardt and [violinist] Stéphane Grappelli, The Hot Club of France. I played a lot here in San Francisco with The Hot Club of San Francisco and that's a gypsy jazz style band. A few years ago, I went to the Django Reinhardt festival in France. I actually met and interfaced and played with a bunch of gypsies! It was fantastic and a very formative experience and really kept my nose to the grindstone about doing this stuff and really making a contribution to it.

Part of it is to bring Eddie South back. Grappelli has had all the attention for gypsy jazz and I think Eddie South is one that a lot of gypsy jazz players are familiar with but haven't really covered his stuff. He was such a virtuoso, there aren't that many people that cover his stuff very well. I'm happy to be able to do it — to bring Eddie South's name, and my own, frankly, with Violinjazz back into the gypsy jazz picture.

If the label promotes this project and it makes a chart, where might we see it?

There's a capability for it to happen and I'll support it in every way I can. There is a Billboard chart for "Classical Crossover" and that's where it would probably be.

Have you played any bluegrass?

Oh yes! I was the fiddle player on Dukes of Hazzard for four years. When I was in college at Sonoma State College in California, I played up and down the Russian River in cafes and restaurants playing folk and bluegrass music for years.

Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina we have a popular bluegrass artist named Raymond Fairchild. Are you familiar with him?

I've heard the name but I'm not familiar with his stuff, I'll look him up.

Tell us about the process of reproducing South's music. What did you do in addition to the arrangements?

One of the things I really like to focus on is what we call the "affectations" that make the sound so unique. It's a no-brainer with Eddie South. Here's a completely swinging violin player who has combined his swing style so organically with his classical style that there's a seamless way that he sort of "shifts" from romantic and melodic "classical" style playing into hard swing. These are the kinds of things I really like to pay attention to to give the music it's full authenticity.

My thing, the thing that I focus on as an artist mostly, is being really genre-specific, because I play a lot of different styles. I play Eddie South music because I'm moved by him — I love his music. I think he's a great player and I connected with him immediately the first time I heard him. The next questions for me as an artist is "How does it sound that way? Why does it sound that way?" That's where the musician goes after the meat and potatoes of not just playing his tunes, but sort of getting into his style and playing authentically. That means really understanding the swing, the way it swings, his violin playing, his slides, and the speed.

We're not trying to shift his music into another era, we're trying to keep it fresh and new, but also trying to keep it inside of the era in which he was performing it. We're doing the same thing 50 years later, so we are living in a more contemporary time. We've got all this great tech. We've got clean microphones and fantastic sound. We've got Skywalker Studio with the best microphones, rooms, and engineers in the business. How do we capture what it was really like in 1940 using all new arrangements and gear? How do we stay true to what Eddie South was doing and make it contemporary?

So there is a lot of stuff to study there and learn and assimilate so that we are standing in their shoes or standing on their shoulders, bringing it forward but keeping it true to what it is. I could have done an Eddie South record that had hip-hop on it, but I chose to keep it in the same suit that Eddie South was wearing. I wanted to express myself as an artist at the same time while recreating the music of another artist. It's a balancing act between doing exactly what Eddie South did or being an individualist as an artist with full respect to Eddie South's music and his career.

Was it easy for the other members of Violinjazz to do as you did and put on the same suit as South?

We have over 20 years of playing this stuff and talking about it and everybody plays in other styles of jazz. They know this sound. Our guitar player (Bruce) has played a lot in '20s and '30s style jazz bands. He's familiar with those rhythms. I really like authenticity and there's nothing like 25 to 30 years of working together. In our other recordings, when we play funky, it's funky. When we play swing, it's gotta swing. It's got to sound like Chicago. We have to learn those accents and talk about those details and make the music speak to that.

By the way, it didn't hurt to have Harold Jones on the record. You know, Harold is now touring with Tony Bennett and he was Count Basie's drummer on about 25 records. Here's a guy who knows musicians that came from that era and played in that style. When we brought Harold Jones in with a small swing set, he was speaking the language. He brought more authenticity in one person than the rest of us combined because Harold is the real thing.

Are the individual solos on The Music of Eddie South scripted or improvised?

Where you have a song that we've stated the melody and then there's solos, in that song, all those solos are improvised. With the exception of the places in the songs where I actually play some transcriptions of what Eddie South played. There are some songs where I am the improvising jazz violinist. Then, for example on "Eddie's Blues", to point out one tune, I am actually recreating stuff that Eddie South played. I'm stylizing it a little bit because, as much as I want to play exactly like Eddie South, that's plagiarism — if you know what I mean. But, in doing an historical recreation, and playing exactly what Eddie South played, I'm not exactly plagiarizing, because the album is The Music of Eddie South. I'm not claiming it to be the music of anybody else.

So, all the tunes that are your typical jazz tunes where you hear what we call the head (this is the first melody), the violin plays, the piano plays, then the guitar plays, and at the end, you hear the melody again in the end of the song — all of those are improvised — with very little exception. "Black Gypsy," the first tune on the album, is an actual composition of Eddie South's. I do improvise in the middle of it, and you can kind of tell, where it's the jazzy part in the middle of the song, but everything else in that song is composed by Eddie South.

That first time you heard Eddie South (on the recording) was there a particular selection that appealed to you?

I think everybody goes to "Black Gypsy," I like "Dr. Groove." There's an old Eddie South track called "Preludium and Allegro" that I really liked. I like perky things, real character pieces.

Have you worked with Dave Grusin?

I know Dave and his brother, Don, also. I know them from being in Los Angeles. I think I worked with Don some, but on a recording session. I never worked as a soloist with either of them that I can remember. I did seven years in LA playing string sessions, industrial stuff. I crossed trails with a lot of people. But to answer your question, I've not worked with Dave Grusin and I'd love to.

Are you familiar with the Kronos Quartet?

Absolutely! They are iconic. They're important for having brought string quartet in such a definitive way into contemporary music. Quite different from the stuff I've been doing, but I have a ton of respect for what they've managed to accomplish and the amount of people they have exposed to string quartet. Their collaborations are absolutely phenomenal and forward thinking and really brilliant.

Final thoughts on this project and Eddie South.

This project is a great luxury for me to be able to dig into the history of my instrument and share with people — people that I consider really important figures in the development of jazz violin — to be able to bring Eddie South's music to life. For me to be able to get excited about somebody's music and then turn around and turn it into a project and put it out in a record, it's the greatest luxury a musician can have. I would support all musicians in chasing their musical dream.

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