For at least six decades, many young jazzmen have viewed the music’s early years as hopelessly uncool. Aaron Weinstein discovered that in 2003, when he began his four years at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Postbop and beyond obsessed most of his classmates; some of them, he says, “even considered Charlie Parker to be old-school.” In their company, Weinstein was a unicorn, and so he remains. A retro egghead in a jacket, bow tie, and glasses, he plays violin; his repertoire comes from an era of giant-horned Victrolas and Prohibition gin mills.
But his playing isn’t flashy; it has a spare, button-down elegance, leavened by whimsy. Weinstein, 34, has written an instructional book on jazz mandolin, his second instrument, and posts demonstrational videos on YouTube. When he enters a venue, he says, “people who don’t know me roll their eyes, because they see a violin and a mandolin.”
Let ’em laugh: In the New York Times, Stephen Holden proclaimed Weinstein “a sensational talent in the tradition of Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Venuti.” An old guard of masters—Bucky Pizzarelli, Jon Hendricks, Barbara Carroll, Les Paul—have embraced him. Jazz-loving rocker J. Geils hired Weinstein to perform and record with a 1930s-style quartet that Geils had cofounded. Weinstein is no snob about venturing into cabaret: Actress and singer Linda Lavin, who made TV history as the star of the 1970s sitcom Alice, spotlights him in her act.
In his own shows, Weinstein writes and recites deadpan, comically verbose monologues that lampoon the pretensions of music pedagogues, while sticking a pin in his own brainy façade. Jazz violinist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Regina Carter tells of having performed with him at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho. “Before Aaron had played a note,” Carter says, “he had the audience laughing up a storm with his introduction. Aaron,” she adds, “is a very skilled and impressive violinist and he knows a plethora of songs.”
His fourth album, 3×3, debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard jazz charts. (The title, certain to baffle everyone except the audiophile geeks at Chesky Records, denotes a trio—Weinstein, guitarist Matt Munisteri, and bassist Tom Hubbard—who were recorded with three different mic techniques, all of which can be heard in the deluxe edition.) The musicians stood around a single microphone and did the job in one session, just like Weinstein’s 1930s heroes.
Playing such chestnuts as “St. Louis Blues,” “Jada,” and “Indiana,” Weinstein conveys a self-possessed, old-soul assurance. His sometime bandmate Warren Vaché, a veteran trumpeter known for his straight-ahead, swinging style, calls Weinstein “an excellent improviser who is not swayed to trickery to get noticed. And he’s a funny little fellow, too!”
But even as a child in Wilmette, Illinois, Weinstein was dead set on attaining what he wanted. His father, a lawyer, loved playing guitar, and complied happily with his middle child’s request for a violin. What he calls “old-time fiddle music” was his first passion, and his father agreed to drive him to rural Midwestern towns so he could learn from obscure fiddle masters.
Then he heard pioneer jazz violinist Joe Venuti, whose playing was virtuosic, tuneful, and swinging. With that, Weinstein had found his path. He learned everything he could about Venuti and his successors: Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Eddie South, Svend Asmussen. From there, he spent most of his time in his bedroom, “listening to records and playing along.”
One audition earned him a full scholarship to Berklee. But Weinstein went his own way, and soon he was sitting at the feet of the masters. He had begun sending home-burned demo discs to his heroes and asking for feedback. One CD went to his favorite living guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli. Soon Weinstein, at Pizzarelli’s behest, was making treks into Manhattan to play with him. Among other things, Pizzarelli showed him that presentation mattered. “Bucky wore a suit and tie out of respect for the people who had gotten a babysitter, paid for parking, whatever—and for the music.”
Weinstein took the lesson to heart. “It would be 90 degrees in August and I’m walking through Central Park in a suit and bow tie. I had this insane conception that you never know whom you might meet, which is something that Bucky told me.”
His seriousness got attention. Violinist Christian Howes, a Berklee associate professor, took Weinstein to meet Les Paul at Iridium, the legendary guitarist’s weekly Manhattan headquarters. For the first of many Mondays, Paul invited Weinstein to sit in. The nonagenarian’s dexterity had declined, but that taught Weinstein another crucial lesson: “Technique often has very little to do with playing good jazz. What I’m trying for now is to improvise a genuine melody without any extraneous notes. And to not play past the idea.”
No amount of intellect could shield Weinstein from the shock he received in 2009, when cancer struck him at the age of 24 and he underwent highly invasive surgery. A year later the cancer recurred, requiring several bouts of chemo. “I turned into an old man,” he says. While he was recovering, pianist Barbara Carroll, then in residency at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, helped him bounce back by having him sit in on a night when Stephen Holden was reviewing. A couple of days later came Weinstein’s first Times valentine.
While the trauma did provide him “a little perspective on what’s important,” he’s much quicker to relate what he learned from fabled singer Annie Ross. Weinstein was still at Berklee when he sent her his demo, along with a fan letter. Ross invited him to sit in with her at New York’s Metropolitan Room, where she had launched a 13-year residency. He met her in the dressing room. “After some small talk, she said, ‘I’ll see you out there.’ I asked her very sheepishly, ‘Miss Ross, do you know what you’d like me to play with you?’ She said, ‘Yeah—it’s called “Being Prepared.’” After they’d played two songs—including Ross’ own “Music Is Forever,” which he had never heard—she hugged him on stage and whispered in his ear: “You passed.”