When most people think of the violin, they picture a sprawling orchestra or a classical music solo. The violinists on our list took a classical instrument and improved jazz and swing solos to give the music a new sound.
We put together a list of 10 of the greatest and most famous jazz violin players who revolutionized the form and changed the sound of jazz.
1. Stéphane Grappelli
Known as the grandfather of jazz violin, and one of the most famous violinists of all time, Stéphane Grappelli was born in Paris, France in 1908. He’s most known for forming the Quintette du Hot Club de France with gypsy guitarist Django Reinhart.
He didn’t get the best start in life as his mother died when he was five, and in 1914 his father was conscripted to fight in the first world war, so French-born Grappelli had to live in squalid conditions in a Catholic orphanage until 1918.
When he was 12, his father pawned a suit to buy him a violin. He learned to play it by watching people play in the streets. He switched to piano early in his life but was encouraged by classical violinist and frequent collaborator Michael Warlop to keep playing the violin.
He went on to study music at the Paris Conservatory and started his musical career by accompanying silent films.
Grappelli released dozens of solo albums and collaborations with other musicians. His love of jazz and musicians like Joe Venuti led him from impoverished beginnings to become one of the premier jazz violin players in the world.
Grappelli received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, months before he died.
2. Joe Venuti
If Grappelli is the grandfather of jazz violinists then Joe Venuti is considered the Father of Jazz Violin as he is widely credited as the first jazz violinist.
Venuti’s early years are a subject of some dispute, but experts believe he was born in Philadelphia, or his family emigrated there soon after he was born.
He began studying classical violin when he was a child. His music career began in the early 1920s in a classical orchestra and then a dance orchestra that led him to experiment with jazz.
He invented syncopated swing bowing and favored a fast style that showcased his enormous skill. He worked as an MGM studio musician in the 1940s and regularly played on Bing Crosby’s radio show, among other programs.
Venuti released dozens of albums and amassed hundreds of credits and guest appearances.
3. Stuff Smith
African-American Stuff Smith, whose given name was Hezekiah, was born in Ohio and learned to play the violin under the tutelage of his father.
Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was one of his biggest influences, leading Smith to play jazz and swing instead of classical music.
He played in dance clubs with many swing and jazz greats, like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He also recorded with powerhouse performers like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.
Smith was the first violinist to use electric amplification.
4. Regina Carter
As an African-American and a female violinist in a male-dominated industry, Regina Carter has helped pave the way for women in music.
Her journey with music started with piano lessons at age two and soon after began taking violin lessons. She practiced classical violin as a young adult but went on to study jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Carter taught music in school for a couple of years and later became the violinist in an all-woman string quintet in 1987. She’s also released dozens of albums and collaborations.
She’s a recipient of the Macarthur Fellows Program genius award and received the Doris Duke Award in 2018.
5. Michał Urbaniak
Michal Urbaniak was born in Poland, and unlike many other famous musicians, didn’t start learning music as a small child. He was in high school before he took music lessons.
He studied violin and was a self-taught saxophone player who started performing in a Dixieland group.
Urbaniak emigrated to the United States in 1973, where he began touring, eventually recording over 60 albums. Since then, he has collaborated with dozens of musicians, including Quincy Jones and Miles Davis.
Urbaniak plays a custom-made violin, uses a synthesizer, and was one of the first musicians to fuse hip-hop with jazz.
6. Leroy Jenkins
Leroy Jenkins was born in Chicago and learned to play the violin as a child. He became one of the world’s premier jazz violin players and avant-garde musicians.
He has an extensive recording discography winning numerous awards and appearing on dozens of albums, including over two dozen where he led or performed as part of the jazz trio The Revolutionary Ensemble.
He also taught violin and composition at several institutions like the Atlantic Center for the Arts and Carnegie-Mellon University.
As well as performing, he works as a composer writing a cantata and several operas, including a dance opera and a jazz-rap opera. Many of his works explore themes about the Black experience.
7. Jean-Luc Ponty
Born in France to musical parents, Jean-Luc Ponty learned to play the violin as a child. He studied for two years at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris and immediately joined one of France’s major symphony orchestras, the Concerts Lamoureux.
After playing clarinet in a jazz band, he opted to push forward with jazz instead of classical and orchestral music.
Ponty released his first jazz violin album when he was only 22 and soon collaborated with notable artists like Frank Zappa and Elton John. His many albums topped the jazz charts, and he became one of the first jazz artists to release a music video.
Ponty has won multiple awards and earned a Grammy nomination in 1980. His next album is due for release in 2022.
8. Ray Nance
African-American Ray Nance was born in Chicago and took lessons on the piano and the violin. He also taught himself to play the trumpet.
Nance led a band and played for other well-known jazz and swing greats like Benny Goodman before joining Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1940.
He played the trumpet and sang as part of the orchestra. He was also the only violin soloist Ellington ever featured. He appeared on dozens of albums, most of them as part of Ellington’s orchestra.
Nance left the group in 1963 but continued to make guest appearances while he performed with dozens of other prominent jazz artists like Johnny Hodges and Ella Fitzgerald.
9. Johnny Frigo
Chicago-born Johnny Frigo started playing the violin when he was only seven and learned to play the double bass in high school.
Frigo joined Chico Marx’s orchestra and played with other greats like Jimmy Dorsey. He also wrote songs recorded by artists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
After years of primarily playing the bass, Frigo shifted his focus to the violin in the 1980s. He jokingly told famed TV interviewer Johnny Carson that he waited so long to focus on the violin so he’d have less time to be a has-been.
Frigo appeared at jazz festivals worldwide and played on dozens of albums.
10. Didier Lockwood
Didier Lockwood credits Jean-Luc Ponty and Stéphane Grappelli for his interest in jazz music.
He was born in France and became a driving force in progressive rock as part of the jazz and rock fusion group Magma in the 1970s.
Lockwood used an electric violin and experimented with different electric amplification techniques to create unique melodies and sound quality.
He released over 30 albums during his career, including a tribute album dedicated to Stéphane Grappelli in 2000.
Summing Up Our List of Famous Jazz Violinists
We hope you enjoyed reading about these famous jazz violinists and how they came to be world-class musicians.
These musicians have taken an orchestral instrument and created a new jazz sound.
We’ll be adding to this list soon, so please let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorite notable jazz violin players.