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“On nearly all his recordings, at his radio broadcasts, and in theaters, Bing was backed by Eddie Lang, sitting at his right elbow, sharing a microphone, steadying him with strummed chords, leading him with calculated arpeggios, pacing him with a lissome yet resolute accompaniment. He "just made you feel like you wanted to ride and go," Bing said. They looked out for each other on- and offstage. "Eddie had everything to do with the radio show," said Barry Ulanov, "but he also took a great deal of responsibility for Bing as a person, Bing as a singer, Bing as someone who could be a front man for the music that Lang loved."”
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years, 1903-1940 
“Part of the credit for the advent of the guitar solo in jazz must go to the electric microphone, but it was Lang who first put the microphone to work in a creative way. The guitarist did not merely play into the microphone, he used it to bring out his most subtle ideas. In this way, Lang's work presaged the arrival of the electric guitar, a development that followed his death by several years. With or without electrical amplification, however, Eddie's concept of hornlike single-string jazz solos was to remain the dominant mode of self-expression on the instrument, from the European Django Reinhardt to Tal Farlow.”
- Richard Hadlock, Jazz Masters of the 1920’s
“Lang was the first well-known solo jazz guitarist and, from the mid-1920s, was widely influential. His career coincided with the development of recording techniques suited to the acoustic guitar, which partly through his influence supplanted the banjo as a jazz instrument. He was highly regarded for his single-string solos and his accompaniments, which usually interspersed chords and single-string lines in the middle register.”
- James Dapogny in Barry Kernfeld, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz
“The most influential early guitarist - and the instrument’s first Jazz virtuoso - was Eddie Lang. His effortlessly balanced lustrous single-note lines with “rhythm playing” [percussive chording], and he also had a command of the blues that few other white musicians could match.”
- Neil Tesser, Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz.
“Richard Hadlock didn’t witness the birth of jazz in the early years of the 20th century. But he interviewed and befriended, studied and performed with some of the emerging idiom’s foundational artists, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he worked with pioneering New Orleans musicians who consorted with legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden.
The longtime Berkeley resident has contributed to the jazz scene over the decades as a saxophonist, publisher, historian, educator and disc jockey who brings uncommon depth and free-ranging curiosity to all his undertakings, especially his long-running Sunday night KCSM show Annals of Jazz. An essential presence on the Bay Area airwaves since 1959, Hadlock was named Monday [May 21, 2020] by the Jazz Journalists Association as recipient of the McPartland-Conover Award for Lifetime Achievement in Broadcasting.” [KCSM webpage]
Richard Hadlock has written jazz criticism for Downbeat, The Jazz Review, Jazz Quarterly, Metronome, as well as The New York Times and San Francisco Examiner. He hosts one of the longest running jazz radio shows, "The Annals of Jazz," on Station KCSM in San Mateo, California. He lives in Berkeley where he is an active musician.
First published in 1965, Jazz Masters of the 1920’s contains one of the few comprehensive essays about the work of guitarist Eddie Lang, who like Bing Crosby, was one of the earliest performing artist to recognize the importance of the then newly developed microphone as a source of amplifying music, something we take for granted today with the plethora of audio-enhancing systems and mechanisms at our disposal.
“THE ONE major jazz figure of the twenties about whom relatively little has been written is guitarist Eddie Lang. Perhaps because there is general agreement among critics and musicians as to this man's singular influence over other jazz guitarists, or possibly owing to a lack of colorful extra musical digressions in his life story, Lang has never been considered particularly good copy. Nonetheless, it was this mild young man from Philadelphia who, as modern jazzman Barney Kessel expressed it, "first elevated the guitar and made it artistic" in jazz. Eddie Lang, working without precedent or predecessor, virtually wrote the book on jazz guitar in the twenties.
Lang was born Salvatore Massaro in 1904 (some jazz historians say 1902), the son of a South Philadelphia banjo and guitar maker. Sidestepping the instruments of his father's trade for a time, Eddie (whose professional name was apparently lifted from a boyhood basketball hero) devoted several years of his childhood to studying the violin. He shared his problems and triumphs during this time with another young violinist, Joe Venuti, who attended grammar and high school with Eddie and remained his closest friend until the guitarist's death. Eddie studied with Professors Changura and Luccantino and was almost certainly trained in solfeggio (sight singing) as well. (Venuti commenced his reading exercises when he was just four.)
"Solfeggio, of course," Venuti explained in Down Beat magazine years later, "that's the Italian system under which you don't bother much about any special instrument until you know all the fundamentals of music. It's the only way to learn music right."
Lang and Venuti worked a dance job with pianist Bert Estlow's quintet at Atlantic City's L'Aiglon restaurant in 1921 or 1922. Though Lang was still playing violin, he apparently picked up banjo (and probably guitar) at or shortly before this time, for the following season found him playing banjo with Charlie Kerr's orchestra. He experimented with the four-string banjo at first and later spent some time playing a six-string guitar-banjo, but the harsh sounds of these instruments obviously were not to his liking. Red Nichols remembers hearing Lang on guitar behind Venuti's violin in 1923, playing concert music at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Atlantic City. The two friends had been working up duets of one sort or another since childhood.
"We used to play a lot of mazurkas and polkas," Venuti recalled. "Just for fun, we started to play them in 4/4. I guess we just like the rhythm of the guitar. Then we started to slip in some improvised passages. I'd slip something in, Eddie would pick it up with a variation. Then I'd come back with a variation. We'd just sit there and knock each other out."
In addition to Nichols, a number of soon-to-be-influential musicians played Atlantic City in the early twenties. Young players like the Dorsey brothers and Russ Morgan (all working with the Scranton Sirens) admired and relaxed with Lang and Venuti. Later, these friends were helpful in lining up lucrative jobs in top bands for the Philadelphia boys.
Eddie, back in Atlantic City for the 1924 summer season after working winter jobs with the Scranton Sirens and others, met and sat in with a young novelty group from St. Louis, the Mound City Blue Blowers. This brash trio (Red McKenzie, comb; Dick Slevin, kazoo; Jack Bland, banjo) was riding high on its hit recording of Arkansas Blues, cut four or five months earlier that year. The Blue Blowers were booked into the Beaux Arts Cafe, a club owned by two Philadelphia entrepreneurs, Joe Moss and Nookie Johnson. In casual jam sessions, the uncommon sound of Lang's guitar added harmonic flesh and rhythmic bones to the rather rickety sound of the little group, and by August, Eddie was taken on as a regular member. He traveled to New York and a stint at the famed Palace Theater with the Blue Blowers; but for a while, Lang continued to play in Atlantic City, commuting to New York only when needed for theater or recording dates. From this time on, Eddie was never without plum jobs at the highest going rates—except when he wanted to be.
In the fall of 1924, the Blue Blowers played the Piccadilly Hotel in London and a short engagement in Limehouse at a place called Haggarty's Empire. England's reaction seems to have been rather mixed at best, for the quartet was back in New York before the end of the year. Mound City Blue Blowers recordings of late 1924 and early 1925 document the sound of Eddie Lang at this juncture.
A piece called Deep Second Street Blues reveals that Lang had already fixed several aspects of his personal style and was well on the way toward establishing the guitar as an important band instrument as well. For one thing, Eddie, like comb player McKenzie, knew how to get inside a blues and express himself convincingly in this essentially Southern idiom. Deep Second Street, for all its emphasis upon novelty effects, is performed with genuine blues feeling, a feeling Lang apparently acquired quite easily and was never to lose, even on very commercial assignments. Deep Second Street also has Lang playing rhythm in a manner that was highly personal and distinctly advanced for the time. His tendency was toward an even four-to-the-bar pulse, often with a new chord position, inversion, or alteration on every stroke of the strings. In contrast to the monotonous chopping of most banjoists of the day, Eddie's ensemble guitar sparkled with passing tones, chromatic sequences, and single-string fills. With all this went a firm, individual tone unlike the sound of any other instrument yet heard in jazz.
Another moody piece called Play Me Slow demonstrates many of these same qualities, as well as Lang's early mastery of varying vibratos (often adapted from violin techniques) and the startling sound of "artificial" harmonics — the technique, seldom used in jazz, of barely touching the string to achieve overtones an octave higher than normally sound in the given fret position.
For faster selections, such as Tiger Rag and Gettin’ Told, Lang often reverts to a straight 4/4 rhythm or to a "walking" line in 2/4 or 4/4 on his lowest string in the manner of a string-bass player.
The Mound City Blue Blowers' somewhat rustic library was hardly a challenge to Lang's advanced ear. Like most of the outstanding jazzmen of the twenties, the guitarist's most valuable asset was his ability to hear and grasp new material upon a single exposure to it. Lang had a photographic memory and a perfect sense of pitch. "He had the best ear of any musician I ever knew," wrote guitarist Jack Bland many years after working with Lang in the Blue Blowers. "He could go into another room and hit A and come back and play cards for fifteen minutes, and then tune his instrument perfectly. I've seen that happen."
In the summer of 1925, Lang and Venuti landed in Atlantic City again. The resort town was, as usual, full of live music. The Benson Orchestra was booked into the Million Dollar Pier, the Mason-Dixon Seven worked the Steel Pier, the California Nighthawks were at Evelyn Nesbitt's Silver Slipper, and the Danceland Seven, with whom Venuti played for a while, appeared in a show called The Wild Ways of 1925 at the Beaux Arts. The Mound City Blue Blowers, with Lang, also put in some time there that summer, and Venuti could often be found playing with them, with or without pay. Everyone sat in with everyone else from time to time.
Although the Mound City Blue Blowers continued to delight audiences in movie houses (". . . at a theater date in Minneapolis on a Friday night they had to take the picture off three times because the crowd was clapping so hard, especially for Lang," Bland has recalled), it was obvious that their peak of success had been passed and equally obvious that Lang could do much better elsewhere. From late 1925 on, the guitarist was more in demand than perhaps any other jazz musician in the country. He was especially valuable on recordings, where microphone balance could easily compensate for the guitar's lack of carrying power.
Singers in particular discovered that Lang's sensitive chording and striking single-string arpeggios added immeasurable class to their performances, many of which were at the outset rather grim affairs. A case in point is a recording by one Norman Clark, a pre-electric-microphone shouter of the lowest order. His painful versions of Sleepy Time Gal and Lonesomest Gal in Town are gilded with superlative guitar accompaniments, complete with ringing artificial harmonics and advanced single-string runs. Other highly forgettable singers to whom Lang gave his best were Charles Kaley, Harold Lem, Seger Ellis, Russell Douglas, Peggy English, Emmett Miller, Lee Morse, Ruth Etting, Sammy Fain, Cliff Edwards, and Vaughn de Leath.
By late 1925, Eddie was also recording with Ross Gorman's respected studio band (with members often drawn from Paul Whiteman's orchestra), along with other rising instrumental stars like Red Nichols, Miff Mole, and Jimmy Dorsey. On these dates, Lang's guitar was sometimes featured as a solo instrument only, while a conventional banjo played rhythm in the background.
Throughout this period, Eddie demonstrated constant improvement and deepening in his command of the guitar and in his concepts of the harmonic language of jazz. With Mole, Nichols, and Dorsey exploring new ideas alongside him, Lang began to hit his full stride. On one Gorman title, No More Worryin’, he tosses off a virile blues-touched solo, played partly with pick and partly with fingers. Other guitarists were amazed by Lang's ability to tuck the pick into his palm, play with his fingers, and suddenly bring the pick back again — all without disturbing the flow of his solo.
With Lang's arrival, arrangers began to recognize the potential of the guitar as a melody instrument. One of Gorman's scores, Sleepy Time Gal, called for the unheard-of duet combination of baritone saxophone and guitar in a surprisingly modern interlude. With electrical recording methods, Lang's solo guitar became a familiar sound to many record buyers. Often he was featured in "hot" passages along with Venuti's violin, for where one man went, the other usually followed.
Eddie was favored by demanding bandleaders, too, because he was, as jazzmen went, a reliable man to have on the job. He seldom drank and was by nature a rather retiring person. Only his passion for gambling games and an overwhelming urge to spend every summer fishing with Venuti in Atlantic City were allowed to intrude occasionally upon Lang's devotion to the guitar.
After a stint with the pit orchestra of Earl Carroll's Vanities (co-directed by Gorman and Don Voorhees), Eddie began in 1926 to be heard in arrangements by outstanding jazz-slanted bands such as Jean Goldkette's, Roger Wolfe Kahn's, and, eventually, Paul Whiteman's. Lang and Venuti were continually drafted into such organizations but frequently departed after short tenures. Sometimes it was the call of Atlantic City; often it was simply the lure of steady radio and recording work in New York.
In the fall of 1926, Venuti and Lang released their first duet record, Stringin’ the Blues (a thinly camouflaged Tiger Rag) and Black and Blue Bottom. Venuti, displaying a good share of his bag of violin tricks, is clearly the featured performer, but Lang's clean four-to-the-bar pulse and pregnant chords are impressive. Most musicians had never heard a guitarist of this caliber before, except in classical and flamenco circles. Lang made many realize that for small jazz groups, the guitar could offer subtlety, dynamic response, and flexibility beyond what the banjo was capable of delivering. Some banjoists began studying the guitar in earnest.
An even wider audience of musicians and fans was reached with a series of 1926-1927 recordings by Red Nichols and the Five Pennies (also billed as the Redheads). Nichols' own work usually suffered from overconcern with precision ("King Oliver's records were full of mistakes," the cornetist once said. "So were ours, but we tried to correct them"), but his little recording group gleamed with new ideas and talent. He was given a relatively free hand to try unusual tunes, original arrangements, and daring instrumental effects. The gang Eddie worked with usually included Vic Berton, a trained and imaginative drummer who doubled on tympani; Jimmy Dorsey, already regarded as a virtuoso alto saxophonist and a very capable clarinetist; Arthur Schutt, a skilled pianist with a deep knowledge of harmony and arranging techniques; and Miff Mole, considered by New Yorkers in 1927 to be without equal on trombone.
Lang may have played his old six-string guitar-banjo on a few of these dates, but his important solo work was performed on the plectrum guitar. Using a precise, powerful attack derived from tight, high strings and a stout plectrum (pick), Eddie moved in close to the microphone to achieve on records a vibrant, personal sound as persuasive as the sounds of the horn players around him. Further, he seemed completely at ease in the frequently tense atmosphere of Nichols' more advanced sessions.
The attitude of the Five Pennies was, in a way, a reflection of the spirit of unrest and experimentation that marked much of the world's music in the twenties. Indeed, the Nichols-Mole-Schutt credo could be expressed by the comments of Heinrich Simon, an observer of European formal music in the twenties: "The triad is the symbol of bourgeois conformity in music ... a bore too tenacious to be done away with, an undesirable to be ignored. The same may be said of form . . . freedom of form is the slogan of the day."
Hoagy Carmichael's Washboard Blues was such a departure from conventional song forms. It includes, even in Nichols' simplified version, an unorthodox sixteen-bar melody (originally written as seventeen bars) leading to curiously altered blues sequences, all heavily syncopated. Tommy Dorsey and Bix Beiderbecke had attempted to play the composition several years earlier in the Gennett studios, but, as Dorsey expressed it in later years, "We must have fooled with that piece for hours, but we never could get to play it right."
Nichols featured Berton's tympani in a semi melodic role on Washboard Blues and left room for Lang to improvise a splendid, unusual countermelody. It was to remain one of the more creative melodic solos of Eddie's career.
Another strange composition from this period is That's No Bargain, which jazz writer Richard DuPage has described well: "That's No Bargain broke nearly all the Tin Pan Alley rules of the twenties. ... It has an even number of bars but it sounds uneven, yet with a good beat throughout. Hardly anyone could whistle it correctly, even after several hearings. . . ."
The eighteen-bar chorus allotted to Lang on That's No Bargain comes out as an intelligent, ordered, and understated solo played against the basic pulse, creating the same mood the tune itself had been designed to achieve.
These Nichols records range from noisy and contrived to prophetic and breathtakingly adventurous, but Lang seems forever unruffled, even complacent, on them all.
For at least one recording, Eddie apparently had his solo well formed in his mind before beginning to play. It is Get a Load of This, a Lang melody probably inspired in part by Bix Beiderbecke's ideas (the performance is full of flatted fifths, minor sevenths, parallel ninths, etc.) and played by a quartet made up of Eddie, Nichols, Schutt, and Berton. Lang later developed this piece into a guitar specialty called Eddie's Twister, without changing his solo very much.
There were more Nichols dates in 1927. Some, like Corn Fed, reveal that Lang, for all his brilliance as a soloist, accompanist, and innovator, had unfortunate lapses as a rhythm player. Here there is a tendency to allow his strings to ring too long, blurring and casting a cloud of doubt over the exact location of each pulse. As guitarist and Lang student Marty Grosz once summed it up, Eddie's rhythm sometimes sounds "a bit lumpy, like a guy running with a pie in his pants."
Grosz explained: "The Chicago guys felt that Lang didn't really swing, and I'm inclined to go along to an extent. At least, he had trouble swinging in the way that some of the Chicagoans did and in the way his successors did. But I think we can overlook that for the nonce. In his way he did so much, and it sounds so damn natural and easy. And he was first; he had to think the whole thing out for himself," Grosz added. "It is always more difficult to lead the way. Hence modern bass players can play rings around Jimmy Blanton — but Blanton was first and had the soul. Same with Lang."
During 1927, Eddie appeared on many recordings in the company of Bix Beiderbecke and a variety of supporting players, usually mutual friends selected from the Goldkette or Whiteman ranks. (Bix and Lang were both members of the short-lived 1927 Adrian Rollini band as well.) The most famous of these recordings are Singin the Blues and I’m Comin’ Virginia, on which Bix went far toward establishing a robust ballad style in jazz. Lang seemed to grasp the significance of the date, for his support of Beiderbecke is in the arpeggio single-note style he usually reserved for singers rather than "hot" instrumentalists. Moreover, the rich chords, inversions, and alterations Lang selected were valuable to Bix, whose quick ear promptly put such provocative material to excellent use. For I’m Comin’ Virginia, arranger Irving Riskin wrote an unorthodox guitar lead over a brace of supporting horns, emphasizing the string instrument's new independence, which came in with Lang and electric microphones.
In several instances, Lang took on the large task of providing nearly all the rhythmic thrust behind the horns as well as sharing the front-line spotlight with Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer. This occurs in Riverboat Shuffle, a band performance that succeeds in spite of drummer Chauncy Morehouse's halting contributions.
One of Eddie's finest recorded solos of this period appears in a trio version of I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, slightly altered and retitled For No Reason at All in C. Beiderbecke, playing piano, turns about and supports Lang's guitar with anticipatory modern chords, as Eddie had done for his cornet. The result is a highly creative guitar solo marked by an unusual degree of melodic continuity.
The influence of these outstanding Beiderbecke-Lang sessions can be heard in numerous bands, large and small, around 1927. Jean Goldkette, for whom Eddie worked only as an added attraction, used the guitar to advantage on his recordings. Lang can be heard playing breaks and filling spaces in Bix's remarkable solo on Goldkette's Clementine. Paul Whiteman also added Lang for special assignments. When Eddie was unavailable, Whiteman sometimes called upon guitarists Gilbert Torres or Carl Kress to perform similar duties.
It was shortly before this time that Roger Wolfe Kahn, a wealthy young man who decided to lead a band just for the fun of it, bought out Arthur Lange's orchestra and began restocking its ranks with the best New York talent available. Eventually, he was able to secure Lang, Venuti, Arthur Schutt, Miff Mole, and Vic Berton because the band spent much time in New York — more than two years at the Hotel Biltmore — and the pay was generous. Best of all for the musicians, Kahn's working hours were 11 P.M. to 1 A.M., which meant plenty of outside recording, radio, and theater work.
"Joe and Eddie were presented as a special attraction by themselves," pianist Schutt recalled. "Roger paid one price for the pair. We averaged five to ten recordings a week and made a lot of money—$400 or $500 a week was usual, and in one seven-day period I made $1,250. No one worked for scale — that was an insult. We got double scale for casuals and $175 for one radio show. We lived it up."
Eddie often supplemented his already large income with winnings from cards and billiards, at which he excelled. He also picked up some pin money working in a successful broadway show called Rain or Shine.
In addition to countless commercial recordings during 1927 and 1928, Eddie and Joe stepped up their record output with duet, trio, and quartet performances and, for Lang, an impressive set of guitar solos. All these records combined amounted to a virtual textbook on plectrum guitar playing that, in some respects, remains valid and useful to guitarists to this day.
Lang's solo recordings range from a sensitive, rather formal rendering of Prelude in C-sharp Minor to strong blues like statements, as in a piece called Melody Man's Dream (which begins with a series of chromatic thirteenths). For blues numbers, he frequently employed the "smear," a sliding across the fret that added to the tone something resembling a human cry. This device was probably picked up from folk blues guitarists. And by using downstrokes almost exclusively, Lang also approached the kind of ringing authority and positive cadences usually associated with horns rather than strings.
In passages such as his introductory cadenza to April Kisses, Lang tosses off sixteenth-note and thirty-second-note single-string runs with precision and ease. Sometimes he changed the angle of the pick or the position of the stroke in relation to the fingerboard to achieve special sounds.
Eddie's Twister, Lang's first recorded solo piece (and, as has been mentioned, previously titled Get a Load of This), offers a nearly complete kit of Eddie's ideas. Here can be found "dead string" chords (achieved by dampening certain strings to obtain desired chords without losing the impact of a full stroke), the changing of fingers on the same fret to get a fresh attack, interval jumps of a tenth to simulate the effect of a jazz pianist, parallel ninth chords, whole-tone scalar figures, "smears," unusual glissandi, artificial harmonics, harplike effects, consecutive augmented chords, and relaxed, hornlike phrasing.
So it goes through selections like Perfect, Rainbow Dreams, I’ll Never Be the Same, Church Street Bobbin Blues, and There'll Be Some Changes Made (the last two issued under the name Blind Willie Dunn).
Of Changes Made, Marty Grosz has written:
... it is a journey from Naples to Lonnie Johnsonville (New Orleans, Natchez, South Side Chicago) in two and a half minutes. After a cadenza right out of the bagnios of old Italy and a few F. Scott Fitzgerald chords from pianist Signorelli, Lang proceeds to play a slower than expected Changes in the simplest and yet most eloquent manner . . . blue and melancholy as hell. It is a very difficult matter to play a lead as simply and directly as that and to make it come to life, especially on guitar. Here is the real genius of Sal Massaro. This is the honest bread stick. How Eddie Lang found out I don't know.
In addition to his roles as rhythm player, guitar soloist, "hot" man, and accompanist, Lang recorded as a blues specialist, usually under the Dunn pseudonym. Sometimes he worked with singers such as Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, or Texas Alexander, and Lang was always careful to play elemental blues phrases rather than delicate arpeggios behind these artists. Occasionally, he appeared in sessions with instrumental groups that included older men like Joe Oliver and Clarence Williams. He recorded fine straight-faced blues solos with a couple of hokum clarinetists named Wilton Crawley and Boyd Senter. Best of all, he turned out a dozen duets with New Orleans jazzman Lonnie Johnson, one of the very few original guitar stylists (other than straight folk blues players) in the late twenties and, like Lang, an ex-violinist. "Eddie could lay down rhythm and bass parts just like a piano," Johnson recalls. "He was the finest guitarist I had ever heard in 1928 and 1929. I think he could play anything he felt like."
If Lang suffered from problems with rhythm, they are not conspicuous on his duets with Johnson. Together the two men charge through original blues and stomp pieces with titles such as Two Tone Stomp, Bullfrog Moan, and Handful of Riffs. One of the most stunning of these performances is a bustling number called Hot Fingers, where the two guitars sound like four.
By 1928, some of Lang's New York colleagues were turning toward more earthy blues-touched styles on certain record dates, and Eddie obliged by shifting to a matching mood. A pair of outstanding examples of this development are Jimmy Dorsey's Praying the Blues and Tommy Dorsey's trumpet recording of It's Right Here for You. Lang himself conducted one 1929 session in a similar humor, on which the Dorseys, Arthur Schutt et al. display obvious delight with their loose digressions from the old Red Nichols discipline. Two reasons for these bluesy performances (the Lang titles are Bugle Call Rag, Walkin’ the Dog, Freeze and Melt, and Hot Heels) were the arrivals in New York of Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong, whose Southern blues deliverances soon replaced the more ordered messages of Miff Mole and Bix Beiderbecke in the affections of Eastern musicians. In short, the gang had new heroes. For Eddie, it was easy; he already knew it all.
This shift of interest within the New York clique toward the blues — and Louis Armstrong's blues, in particular — is succinctly expressed in a single recording of a casual jam session involving Armstrong, Teagarden, Lang, and pianist Joe Sullivan, among others. Here these men play a simple and moving blues in a manner that almost seems to say, "If you can't play a real blues, don't bother to play jazz." The blues piece is called Knockin a Jug. Eddie sets the mood of it and prudently stays out of Armstrong's path while the trumpeter brings the affair to its climax.
Some of Lang's best work of the 1927-1930 period can be heard on more than a score of records released under Joe Venuti's name. The earliest of these frequently reveal the influence of Beiderbecke, through choice of material and manner of improvisation. (Bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, a convincing out-of-Bix soloist, appears on many Venuti records.) In a tune called Sunshine, made before Bix's classic Singin’ the Blues, there are even intimations of the new style soon to come from Beiderbecke. Again, the famed cornetist's ideas seem to flow in and out of a selection called Cheese and Crackers, on which Venuti plays a pizzicato solo that sounds remarkably like Lang at the guitar.
One of the group's many "original" compositions is Doin’ Things, which pianist Arthur Schutt developed from Debussy's Maid with the Flaxen Hair. Another is A Mug of Ale (actually Limehouse Blues), a good jazz vehicle that allows Lang to build a sixteen-bar spiral of ideas utilizing two-string chords and arpeggios dissolving into single-string melodic units. Some of the tunes borrow heavily from the perennial Tiger Rag. An unusual composition is Pretty Trix, a charming concert piece on which Lang achieves a Spanish-Latin American feeling while using his fingers instead of the customary plectrum.
The Venuti-Lang quartet performances represent a pioneer effort to present chamber jazz with a minimum of unmusical effects or superfluous vocals and without any pretense of its being anything but music for listening.
That Lang was still at odds with the ardent Chicago gang in matters of rhythm is dramatically demonstrated by a 1928 recording with Red McKenzie and banjoist Eddie Condon called My Baby Came Home. Condon, in the zealous Chicago manner, pushes to the top of the beat, while Lang remains coolly an eye-wink or so behind him. Both are acceptable ways of setting out the rhythm, but not at the same time. Lang, however, was, unlike Condon, an important soloist, and his solo style derived much of its charm and impact from this penchant for "laying back." And, as it turned out, it was Lang's way (or, more directly, the ways of his successors) that triumphed in the thirties: the concept of an even, relaxed, flowing rhythm against which the soloist was free to build his own tension-and-release patterns rather than falling under the whip of a highly aggressive rhythm guitarist.
Paul Whiteman, who had been unable to hold on to Lang and Venuti for more than a few weeks in 1927, hired the team once again in May, 1929. This time they stayed for a year. Lang is featured on many Whiteman recordings of this period, as well as in concerts, broadcasts, and the unsuccessful movie The King of Jazz. He appeared with Venuti in duets and frequently could be heard behind Whiteman's best vocalists, Mildred Bailey and Bing Crosby. Whiteman himself wrote about this period in Down Beat magazine a decade later:
Eddie played with our band over a long period of time during which I had less trouble with rhythm than at any other time. ... I don't even know whether he could read or not. It made no difference. . . . 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. It was as if his musically intuitive spirit had read the arranger's mind and knew in advance everything that was going to happen.
Frank Trumbauer remembered Lang carrying the entire Whiteman library in the form of cues written on the back of a small business card. Whatever the details, it seems safe to assume that Eddie played out his time with Whiteman almost entirely by ear.
Lang and Bing Crosby became fast friends during their stay with the orchestra. The guitarist married a close friend of Dixie Lee, Crosby's wife. Kitty Lang, a Ziegfeld Follies graduate, was Eddie's second wife, and their marriage remained lastingly successful.
About a month after Crosby's departure from Whiteman in the spring of 1930, Venuti and Lang also dropped out. The orchestra had been having trouble meeting its enormous payroll under Depression conditions, and with the coming of warm weather, Joe and Eddie doubtless turned their thoughts to Atlantic City.
In 1931, Lang became full-time accompanist to Crosby, who was beginning to build his fortune as a single performer. As Crosby's weekly income leaped toward five figures, Eddie dropped many of his independent activities to concentrate on four theater shows a day, Cremo Cigar broadcasts at night, and Crosby record dates in between. When Crosby closed a deal for five film assignments at $300,000, Lang went along to California. The guitarist even made a brief appearance in The Big Broadcast of 1932.
Most of Lang's record work behind Crosby consists in single-string fills and arpeggios, played as often with fingers as with pick. Some of his more impressive accompaniments are How Long Will It Last?, Here Lies Love, and Please.
For all his preoccupation with the genesis of the Crosby image, Eddie continued to find numerous extra recording jobs, jazz and otherwise. He worked frequently with the Boswell Sisters, a jazz-oriented vocal trio, displaying on pieces like Mood Indigo, It's the Girl, and There'll Be Some Changes Made a new feathery touch, combined with the steadfast 4/4 rhythmic flow, that was signaling the coming of swing music and the end of the "hot" era. There were, too, more dates with Venuti, notably four band selections under the name Venuti-Lang All-Star Orchestra.
The All-Star session, which included Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, and other contemporaries, was a curious mixture of stomp and swing; yet most of the participants seemed to be looking ahead to new developments of the thirties. Teagarden offers his traditional Beale Street Blues, and a nod to the past can be heard in Farewell Blues, but Someday Sweetheart and After You've Gone are harbingers of the sound of Benny Goodman, circa 1935. Lang displays on these numbers an evolving style of playing rhythm chords that would belong to the new decade. Along with a handful of other guitarists, most of whom had taken their inspiration from Lang, the quiet man from South Philadelphia had sealed the banjo's fate by 1932. (Duke Ellington's Fred Guy, one of the last to give up banjo for guitar, made the switch in 1933, a few weeks after Lang's death.)
Two guitar duets recorded with Carl Kress in 1932 document Lang's continuing search for new possibilities on his instrument. Pickin' My Way and Feelin’ My Way are full of virtuoso tricks, such as the achievement of a gruppetto effect (several neighboring notes used as embellishment just before or after a melody note) with but a single stroke on the string. There is even a Hawaiian sliding device — used, of course, with taste and restraint.
The two duets (and it should be mentioned that Kress, who used a unique tuning system and a rhythm approach different from Lang's, was a first-class performer) are the final chapters in Eddie Lang's text. There were other recordings, but nothing new was added to what had already been set out.
Eddie was still a young man of 28 in 1933, his last year, and was looking forward to continued personal prosperity with Bing Crosby. Crosby has given (in his autobiography Call Me Lucky) the facts of Lang's untimely death.
He had a chronically inflamed sore throat and felt bad for a year or eighteen months before his death. He mistrusted doctors and medicine. Like many people who came from backgrounds similar to his and had no experience with doctors or hospitals, he had an aversion to them. But his throat was so bad and it affected his health to such a point that I finally talked him into seeing a doctor.
Many times afterward I wished I hadn't.
The doctor advised a tonsillectomy, and Eddie never came out from under the general anesthetic they gave him . . . [he] developed an embolism and died without regaining consciousness.
The legacy left by Lang to jazz guitarists was colossal. Almost alone he proved the desirability of the guitar as a band instrument, making life more interesting for rhythm players — as well as soloists — than ever before. Setting an example for all to follow, Eddie put to work technical devices, some established in formal music and others of his own invention, that had never been used in jazz before. More than thirty years after his death, guitarists are still impressed by Lang's command of his instrument. ("Artificial harmonics?" exclaimed guitarist Jim Hall in 1962. "I know about them, but the only man I've heard use them in jazz recently is Tal Farlow, who is probably the most technically advanced guitarist we have today.")
From Lang, guitarists Carl Kress and Dick McDonough evolved personal styles that in turn influenced many rhythm players in the thirties. Kress departed from Eddie's solo approach to combine chords and melody simultaneously. George Van Eps, also building on Lang's foundation, followed with a method of playing melody, chords, and intelligent bass lines at the same time. The Van Eps system was adopted or modified by many of the best rhythm guitarists — Freddie Greene of the Count Basie band was one — during the thirties. Musicians also learned from Lang that the guitar could be used to accompany singers as effectively as could the piano.
Part of the credit for the advent of the guitar solo in jazz must go to the electric microphone, but it was Lang who first put the microphone to work in a creative way. The guitarist did not merely play into the microphone, he used it to bring out his most subtle ideas. In this way, Lang's work presaged the arrival of the electric guitar, a development that followed his death by several years. With or without electrical amplification, however, Eddie's concept of hornlike single-string jazz solos was to remain the dominant mode of self-expression on the instrument, from the European Django Reinhardt to Tal Farlow. There were other men playing solo guitar in the twenties, musicians like Teddy Bunn, Lonnie Johnson, and blues man Blind Lemon Jefferson, but none approached Lang's finesse, technical command, resourcefulness, and expressive scope all at once.
Eddie Lang set another kind of example as well. Like Bix Beiderbecke, he was a serious musician who dug deep into jazz but also looked to formal music for inspiration. Despite Lang's reluctance to read music, other jazzmen saw in him the complete musician, a man who would handle any assignment, including a session with Bessie Smith, with authority and intelligence. He was one of the first to disprove the notion (still held in some quarters) that all-around musicianship and the spirit of jazz cannot go together.
Unlike some of his gifted friends, Lang neither dashed himself to pieces on the crags of self-indulgence nor shielded himself from everyday reality through perpetuated adolescence; yet he fared no better than the weakest of them at the end. In its way, his end may have held the deepest irony of all.”