While the African American impact on jazz is recognized and well established, the contribution of Italian immigrants on jazz is not. Italians arrived in America playing mandolin, violin, guitar and piano. They brought traditions of Southern-Italian marching bands, opera, and folk histories. Whether Neapolitan, Sicilian or Calabrese, they understood passion and romanticism in music. And the Italian propensity for humor and style contributed to the theater of early jazz. In addition to outstanding musicianship, Italian performers were also entertaining.
So why do these facts go unmentioned in many mainstream jazz documentaries and literature? Ken Burns, for example, neglects to mention the impact of Italians on jazz in his popular “Jazz” documentary. He makes one mention of Nick LaRocca suggesting that LaRocca was one of the white musicians who got on the jazz bandwagon only when jazz became popular. However, Burns doesn’t mention that LaRocca wrote “Tiger Rag” and that he was one of the many influential New Orleans Sicilian musicians who forged jazz history. Even Louis Prima doesn’t get a mention. Although Burns features Benny Goodman’s version of “Sing, Sing, Sing,” he never tells us that Prima wrote it. Burns disregards the great fount of Sicilian jazz musicians that came from New Orleans and never explores conditions that put them in the creative center of the development of jazz. Consequently, people like Wingy Manone, Sharkey Bonano, Leon Rappolo, John Signorelli, Ted Fiorito, Eddie Lang, Adrian Rollini, Sam Butera and countless other Italian American artists who shaped the soul and direction of jazz in America remain obscure.
My intention here is not to provide a comprehensive history about each artist or to enumerate a list of facts and dates. My objective is to offer my personal experience with their art and acknowledge the Italian contribution to American Jazz.
I have a special place for Ted Fiorito because of the namesake I share with him. I’m not going to lie and say that I searched him out because my dad talked about him when I was a kid. Surprisingly, the only time in my life people recognized the Fiorito name was when I worked on a retail floor in Berkeley, California just after college. WW2 retirees would look at my name tag and ask me if I was related to Ted Fiorito, the bandleader whose music piped out on the Army Broadcasts across the world. I went out to Berkeley to discover myself, to escape the world I grew up in, and there I was running smack into the old New York of my father’s childhood.
Only many years later, at about 40 years old, I found a collection of Ted Fiorito music, “Spotlight on Ted Fiorito,” on CD. I then later found another collection, “Never Been Blue.” Here and there I’ve picked up singles like “When The Lights Go On Again,” a song about soldiers returning from war, about life returning to normal after WW2.
From Ted Fiorito I became more interested in 20s music. I discovered other big bands of that era like Paul Whiteman, Ted Weems and Ben Pollack. I began to love the stylized pre-Sinatra falsetto voices of Russ Columbo and Nick Lucas. I became fascinated by the arrangements, bands playing without drums, using horseshoe clucks for percussion and tubas to hold down a bass line. I also fell in love with the vibraphone. You’ll hear the vibraphone sometimes coming in at the end of a musical stop, capping off the stop with a bell tone ring.
Fiorito played in numerous big bands and other configurations. He joined Nick Lucas in a group called The Kentucky Five in about 1915, a band consisting mainly of New Jersey Italian-Americans.
Although Al Jolson became synonymous with “Toot Tootsie,” it was written by Ted Fiorito. Some sources even show Jolson as having written it. But the fame Ted Fiorito gained from the success of “Tootsie” coincided with his co-leading a band with Dan Russo, who was already an established bandleader. From there he played in numerous incarnations with Dan Russo until he formed his own orchestra. He then recorded songs like “Simple and Sweet,” “I’ll Take an Option on You,” “Soothing,” “I’ll String Along with You,” and countless others.
In the 30s, Fiorito teamed with the “Debutantes” vocal trio and brought in guitarist Muzzy Marcellino and bassist Candy Candido, both of whom would become equally known for their vocals. Marcellino had an unusually clear and melodious whistle. His whistling was featured on Mickey Mouse and Lassie, and even The Good, The Bad and The Ugly soundtracks. Marcellino was also the uncle of Vincent Guarldi, the pianist and songwriter associated with the music of “Peanuts.” Candy Candido, born in New Orleans, provided unusual voices in films like Abbot and Costello in the Foreign Legion and others. Even Betty Grable briefly joined Fiorito’s band. Though she didn’t make any recordings with Fiorito, she appeared as a vocalist in the 1933 film “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi.”
At the peak of his popularity, Fiorito managed to succeed as a composer and bandleader and performed his songs in film.
Towards the end of his career, Fiorito moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he opened the Black Sheep Club. He continued to play in California and Nevada in different band incarnations until his death in 1971.
Ask the first ten people you know who consider themselves music experts if they’ve ever heard of Adrian Rollini.
Rollini was a hub for music in the 20s and 30s, playing with Annette Hanshaw, Cliff Edwards (Ukelele Ike), Frank Signorelli, Joe Venuti and his Blue Four, Miff Mole, Red Nichols, Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and many others. Read the personnel listings on recordings from the 20s and 30s; you’ll see Rollini’s name often appearing. In fact, Rollini, Lang, Signorelli, Venuti, Trumbauer, and Bix played in many of the same configurations.
Born in Larchmont, New York in 1903, Rollini was considered a child prodigy. He was dubbed Professor Adrian Rollini at age 4, playing Chopin‘s Minute Waltz at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He played piano, bass saxophone, chimes and vibraphone, all extremely well. I don’t see him credited for playing piano on recordings. He was credited for bass saxophone and vibraphone. The bass saxophone is an unusual instrument; I’m not exactly sure why anyone would want to learn it, except for the fact that it’s so novel. It’s difficult to even hold, much less play. The bass saxophone was more commonly used in orchestral music giving richness and depth to brass harmony arrangements.
Rollini also became an early master of the vibraphone, where he played behind many prominent jazz musicians, some already mentioned. Initially recognized for its novelty effects, vibraphone was then added to the arsenal of percussion sounds used by vaudeville orchestras. The vibraphone soon became a jazz instrument standardly employed for its dreamy percussive ring. Unlike its cousin the xylophone, the vibraphone is not a solo instrument. As only he could, Rollini wrote “Vibrolinni,” a completely untypical composition for the instrument. The vibraphone provides atmosphere and color but doesn’t stand out as a featured jazz instrument. Despite this, Rollini pushed his playing of the vibraphone into exciting new directions.
In addition to playing as a sideman on notable artists’ records, I have a collection of Rollini 1934-1938 recordings that has songs like “Davenport Blues,” “Bouncin’ In Rhythm,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and others. It’s a good collection but doesn’t give you the depth and breadth of the man’s great career. Rollini is the gem hidden in the songs of the 20s and 30s.
When I play Nick Lucas for people, often their first reaction is a chuckle. His choice of songs, though once standards, now sound corny and old fashioned. Also, he sings in a stylized falsetto like many pre-Sinatra popular vocalists of his time. The Nick Lucas collection I have is mainly solo works on guitar and vocals with songs like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Accompanying himself on guitar he can stand in front of the audience, making the guitar more intimate than the piano. His chord progressions are innovative and dynamic, giving the guitar the power to front an orchestra. Using the jump rhythms of jazz guitar, he also picks out the melodies to compliment his vocals. A guitar player can tell that he learned banjo before the guitar by the way he alternates his index and forefinger while using his thumb to maintain tempo. This ragtime style would be one of the branches of guitar evolution which would further develop in the hands of guitarists like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.
Born Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese in 1897 in New Jersey, he later changed his name legally to Nick Lucas. Nick’s older brother Frank taught him music without any instrument using the solfeggio system. The idea behind solfeggio is that you first learn to sing a song before you play it on an instrument. This very Italian form of musical education has had a tremendous impact on Italians in music, particularly Italian-Americans. By never forgetting the melody, a musician can express the story of a song in instrumentation. A violin can weep, a guitar can gurgle like a brook, and a banjo can dance. Once Lucas mastered the solfeggio system, he then learned how to play the guitar, mandolin, and banjo all while still very young.
According to Lucas, his brother Frank dragged him along to play at Italian christenings and weddings. “We even played on street corners and in saloons and I’d pass the hat around. I was getting a lot of experience because the Italian people, when they get to feeling good, like to dance all night long, especially the tarantella. We played for hours and hours, and my wrists got very tired, but I was getting great practical experience that paid off years later.”
Lucas switched from tenor banjo to guitar after playing with his brother. He even played in The Kentucky Five and in the Russo-Fiorito Orchestra in the early 20s. He became known as “The Crooning Troubadour.”
After cutting a string of hits on the Brunswick Label, he was then signed by Warner Brothers to sing “Gold Diggers of Broadway.” In this film he sang, “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” and “Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me.” During “Tiptoe” the dancers actually weaved through red and yellow tulips as Nick sang. “Tiptoe Through the Tulips with Me” sold three million copies in its initial pressing as a record and has since sold five million copies.
Lucas has had a lasting impact on the guitar. Listening to it today, his guitar playing still sounds inventive. Lucas developed a whole new vocabulary for guitar accompaniment; his ideas are still being assimilated by guitarists.
Among those listening to Nick Lucas was Eddie Lang. Born Salvatore Massaro in 1902 in Philadelphia, PA, he is considered the Father of Jazz Guitar, though he may not be well known today except among specialists. You can see a performance of Eddie Lang and Ruth Etting on YouTube from their 1932 film “A Regular Trouper.” His guitar playing is subtle and dancelike; he never gets in the way of a vocalist. He could offer a light touch, or dazzle with a thumping rhythm, moving with the changing dynamics of a vocalist. As such, vocalists often worked with Lang. In addition to Etting, Lang played with Bing Crosby, Bessie Smith and countless others. He was a vocalist’s guitar player.
I have a collection of Eddie Lang’s solo guitar works called “Jazz Guitar Virtuoso.” As it comes through on my shuffle, hearing individual songs out of context, it can be hard to identify a song I haven’t memorized. There are elements of jazz, Delta blues and even bluegrass in Lang’s playing. In the mix of all of these American styles, Lang added perhaps a bit of Neapolitan romanticism. Lang could play anything.
You might say that Lang killed the banjo. After Lang demonstrated that the guitar could be sophisticated, the banjo slowly disappeared from jazz orchestras. The advent of the electric recording for the guitar allowed it to develop a wide range of guitar sounds, from honking brass tones to rounder, softer accompaniment. Lang set the direction for what jazz guitar could be. Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, and Charlie Christianson all benefited from Lang’s trailblazing chording techniques.
Unsurprisingly, Lang initially played the violin, taking lessons for 11 years. In school, he became friends with Joe Venuti, who was a lifelong collaborator. By 1918, he was playing violin, banjo, and guitar professionally. He worked with various bands in the US, briefly played in London, then settled in New York City.
On February 4, 1927, Lang was featured in the recording of “Singin’ the Blues” by Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet. He was in the center of the storm.
In 1929, while with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Lang was introduced to Bing Crosby who was then an up-and-coming vocalist. They developed a close personal relationship which would propel Lang’s career.
When Crosby signed a five-picture deal with Paramount Studios, he insisted Lang share the experience with him. Lang, playing guitar accompaniment, appeared with Crosby in their 1932 Hollywood feature film “The Big Broadcast.”
Like Rollini, Lang played with numerous artists through his brief career. He is the quintessential jazz guitar player of the 20s and 30s.
I remember as a kid dancing to “Buona Sera,” “Please Don’t Squeeze the Banana,” and “Just A Gigolo.” My mom had a Prima Greatest Hits record that we would go crazy listening to when all of the company left after Christmas.
For most of my life, Prima was a clowning musician who made some funny music. I didn’t know how good a trumpet player he was or anything about his history.
Then I started to dig and learn more and more about his history and his music. I read a book called “Louis Prima” by Gary Boulard and learned Prima’s dirty little secret. Because Sicilians weren’t considered to be white, the white establishment wasn’t concerned if Sicilians lived and played among blacks in New Orleans. So, Prima and many other New Orleans Sicilians played in the homes, streets and bars of Storyville, learning the jazz idiom. The Italians in Storyville also brought their language and humor to the music. Prima combined his Sicilian dialect with rhythms and harmonies of jazz to make songs like “Please Don’t Squeeze the Banana,” “Angelina,” “Buona Sera,” and others. His music allowed for a private joke among the growing Italian American population in America. They knew the lyrics were slightly off-color. They understood that when Prima sang “Zooma, Zooma Baccala” he wasn’t referring to fishing. But most of all, the songs were entertaining. Prima had to change with the times, performing in smaller ensembles before the war, then playing in big bands, then playing in smaller ensembles again. The musicians and arrangements were tight, combining the dizzying rhythms and time signatures of New Orleans with comedy and theater.