Harry Lookofsky

Violinist Harry Lookofsky bridged the technical rigors of classical music with the phrasing and rhythms of bebop to create Stringsville, one of the truly singular jazz recordings of its era. He is also known to contemporary audiences as the father of Michael Brown, the creative force behind the pioneering orchestral pop group the Left Banke. Born October 1, 1913 in Paducah, KY, Lookofsky begin his violin studies at age eight, receiving his formal training in St. Louis -- in his early teens he toured the vaudeville circuit as a part of a small jazz orchestra, modeling his nascent approach on pioneering violinist Joe Venuti. Lookofsky joined the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1933, remaining a member of their ranks for five years before relocating to New York City to sign on with famed conductor Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra. Although classical music continued paying his bills, Lookofsky frequently returned to his jazz roots, emerging as one of the bebop era's first and most accomplished violinists -- at times he even played tenor violin, an instrument he cited for its tonal similarities to the tenor saxophone. In 1954, when Toscanini retired, Lookofsky moved over to ABC, where he served for years as concertmaster -- by this time, he was also a fixture on New York City jazz sessions, recording in support of Coleman Hawkins, Sarah Vaughan, Ben Webster, and Donald Byrd. Backed by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Charlie Swift, Lookofsky headlined the Epic session Miracle with Strings, the first recording to feature his signature overdub aesthetic, a technique that enabled him to play multiple instruments at once. These studio innovations reached their apex on the 1958 Atlantic date Stringsville: Recorded in collaboration with arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Hank Jones as well as bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Elvin Jones, the album captures some of the most remarkably lyrical and imaginative bowing ever recorded. But because Lookofsky's overdubbed violin and viola solos are so carefully composed, in direct contrast to the improvisational ethos so dominant in bebop theory, Stringsville was effectively written out of the official history of jazz, never earning the acclaim it richly deserves. Lookofsky remained an in-demand studio player throughout the '60s, backing everyone from Tony Bennett to Wes Montgomery to Gil Evans. In 1966, he also produced the sessions that yielded the Left Banke's pop classic "Walk Away Renee," negotiating the group's contract with Smash Records as well. Lookofsky spent the autumn of his career focusing on television jingles, but remained an active session contributor through the mid-'80s. He died of prostate cancer on June 8, 1998 at the age of 85.
Jason Ankeny, Rovi

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