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Thread: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

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    Question Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    I’m a big fan of instruments built by the Kay Musical Instrument Co from Chicago and I’ve owned quite a few from almost all decades of production. There is one figure who is credited with the ‘Venetian’ shape guitars and the fascinating adjustable neck joint that appears on many of them. Joseph Zorzi. I have dedicated a lot of time to trying to piece together his life and have come up with nothing.

    A quick history of the company is that they began in 1890 with Andrew Groehsl, an Austrian luthier, who began producing mandolins, guitars, and traditional Slavic instruments. In 1921, Groehsl was bought out by Henry "Kay" Kuhrmeyer, Charles G. Stromberg, and Frank C. Voisinet who formed Stromberg-Voisinet. That firm lasted until 1931 when Kuhrmeyer bought out his partners and launched the company under his own name. That, of course, continued until the late 1960s when, after a few acquisitions, the brand name was sold to an importer of Asian instruments.

    All the information on Zorzi can be found in Michael Wright's book, The Histories of Cool Guitars - Guitar Stories Volume 2 and most of it appears to be credited to luthier George Manno. Manno and Wright put together this story of Zorzi’s life
    1878
    Born in Messina as Guiseppe Zorzi
    1894
    Began apprenticeship with Milanese luthier Leandro Bisiach
    1898
    Recruited by Lyon & Healy and moved to Chicago
    1899
    Promoted to production chief of Washburn instruments with L&H
    1924
    First meeting of the American Guild of Luthiers of which Zorzi was one of the founders
    1926
    Zorzi advertised a Guild meeting at L&H and was fired
    Zorzi was then hired at Stromberg-Voisinet
    1929
    There exists, according to Wright, a 14 fret Kay Kraft guitar with Zorzi's signature and dated 12/29
    1934
    Joseph Zorzi leaves Kay to start his own private shop
    I, ever the double-checker, decided to find all the information about Zorzi that I could so that I could repeat this great story with confidence. I’ve assembled a fair amount of information on small or relatively unknown builders on my website and finally putting together a biography of Joseph Zorzi would be incredible.

    Michael Wright is incredibly difficult to track down or get a hold of and a Facebook message to George Manno resulted in an expression of his sincere disinterest in speaking with me. That was a bit discouraging and unexpected, usually folks are happy to share information.

    Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.com are my two go-to family record searching websites and I have explored every possible variant of Zorzi’s name: Guiseppe Zorzi, Joseph Zorzi, Joseph Zorzie, Joe Zorzi, Joseph Gorzi, etc etc to see if there is perhaps a misspelling. Nothing. I came back with about a dozen matches to those names but none of them remotely match the story given in the book. If anyone is interested, I can post the details of every match I found but Joseph Zorzi the Las Vegas bartender or Joseph Zorzi the Pennsylvanian coal miner aren’t great leads.

    Newspapers.com led me to a 1988 article in The Southtown Star on George Manno which includes “Manno himself recently purchased a 1927 guitar constructed by Joseph Zorzi, a lifelong resident of Chicago Heights and head of a guitar manufacturing company.” Now I’ve worked on a number of Stromberg-Voisinet instruments and their defining trait is that they have no markings or stamps. I have no idea how he obtained a date on that guitar. I wrote the guide on identifying Kay instruments so I’m pretty familiar with what serial systems they used and they never used date stamps.

    I’ve also compiled a list of employees who worked for Lyon and Healy prior to WWII using some newspaper references and a Lyon and Healy book entitled Everything Known in Music from 1916. The L&H book includes every employee who had been with the firm for more than 10 years which, according to the timeline, he would’ve been there for 18 years in a prestigious position. His name does not appear in the roster and neither do Philip Gabriel or Fritz Brunner who were, according to Wright/Manno, experienced luthiers at the firm who worked alongside him.

    The Zorzi neck joint, as it is called among the Kay-Kraft fans, is a fascinating device that appears on many of the Venetian shaped guitars. It was patented in 1930 by Henry Kuhrmeyer, with no mention of Zorzi.

    I bought a 1987 book from the Illinois State Museum entitled “Tuning the Wood” which documented contemporary Illinois stringed instrument builders from an exhibition at the Illinois Art Gallery because Google Books told me that Zorzi’s name appears. At the very end of the book, in the references section, was a citation for a book entitled “Mandolin making in the classic Italian style” by Joseph Zorzi which was dated to 1935. I reached out to the Illinois State Museum and got in contact with a researcher who informed me that they don’t have any record of the book and the employees who are still around from that era were not familiar with it.

    So this has continued to stump me for months and I’ve reached the end of what I’m able to find. Tomorrow the 1950 census becomes available and I’ll continue digging to see if Zorzi somehow resurfaces but I’m here to ask. Does anyone know who Joseph Zorzi is?

  2. #2
    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    "It's comparable to playing a cheese slicer."
    --M. Stillion

    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them"
    --J. Garber

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    Registered User PlayerOf8's Avatar
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    At the time Michael was working on his Kay story I spoke to several old times who gave me information on Zorzi. I trusted what I was being told what accurate. Over the years I have learned that the musical instrument making business was filled with many characters. A few years ago I came across the name Agustino Nesteri in a violin. A well-know deal in Chicago told me that Zorzi's name was attached to that maker as well.

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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    My apologies in advance for what is going to be a lengthy post, the purpose of which is to end the 'Zorzi myth'.

    As I explained years ago in another thread, I have serious doubts about this man’s alleged role in musical history, and think it would be good that the record is finally set straight. Even so if this means I will be proved wrong in my current assumption that most of the facts and contentions made about Mr Z that are being taken for granted since decades are in fact a fabrication, and are derived from one single publication. I am fully aware that this is a rather serious allegation, so I will try to explain my view in some detail.

    It all started with an article in Guitarmaker, issue 19, having the apparent purpose to establish Zorzi’s importance in instrument making history. Selected claims made in this publication:

    1. Joseph Zorzi joined Lyon & Healy in 1898, and became ‘production chief’ of that company in 1899. He then was allowed to design his own instruments.
    The context: L&H and operated at the time a large factory at Ogden Ave in Chicago with around 300-400 employees, with a claimed output of 100,000 instruments per year. The factory foreman (also sometimes referred to as ‘superintendent’) and instrument designer for L&H since 1885 was George B. Durkee, a trained engineer, who was also the author of more than 30 musical instrument patents assigned to L&H (the last of which was issued in 1900). His successor, Walter Kirk, was 33 years old and had joined L&H in the early 1890s. Kirk would in 1914 design the L&H carved top mandolins, in regard to which three patents were awarded, and also held over 30 L&H other patents as author. Both Durkee and Kirk worked on and designed a wide range of instruments, including guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, harps and pianos.

    The Zorzi angle: undisputed is that in 1898 Zorzi was twenty years old, and had a background a violin maker. It would seem inconceivable that one year after allegedly joining L&H (more on this later), a 21 year old violin maker would become ‘production chief’ of such a big operation, also in view of Durkee’s and Kirk’s existing roles, their technical background etc. It should also be noted that Lyon & Healy was at the time not making, and never in its history manufactured, any violins (they only traded and imported these). The claim that Zorzi was also allowed to ‘design his own instruments’ is unfounded. Not only was Durkee at the time the sole designer of all instrument lines, as also evidenced by all patent documents, but for example the models of L&Hs most notable stringed instrument line, the Washburn guitars and mandolins, remained unchanged between 1897 and 1905. Also, no L&H patents for fretted instruments were filed in the same period – so which important instruments did Zorzi design then? No musical instrument patents can be found in any era that have Zorzi as author (which in itself may be of little significance, but are in contrast to the many patents authored by Durkee and, later, Kirk), and in thousands of pages of historical musical periodicals in the 1880-1930 periods that are available online, there is no mention of Zorzi’s name at all, as opposed to those of Durkee and Kirk.

    2. Zorzi worked in the L&H guitar department for ten years (i.e. 1898-1908) then moved to violins. He was building presentation guitars in the 1920s. Zorzi also was involved in the manufacturing of the L&H Style A mandolin together with his friends and colleagues Philip Gabriel and Fritz Brunner, and was fired by L&H in 1926.
    This would imply that Zorzi worked for 28 years at L&H, and allegedly shifted between both the guitar, mandolin and violin depts during this period. The most important proof that this is a fabrication is the 1916 booklet published by L&H on the occasion of the opening of its large new downtown headquarters, which contains one page listing all employees having a tenure with the company of more than ten years at the time. Zorzi – who allegedly had been 18 years with L&H in 1916 - is not on that list, which can be viewed online (it does include Kirk): https://archive.org/stream/everythin...e/n32/mode/2up.

    Just imagine this – why would L&H deliberately leave out an 18-year workforce veteran from this list drawn up for the purpose to publicly praise their longtime workers? I could just leave it at this fact alone, but also note that no mention of any made to order presentation guitars in L&H literature was made after 1900. If anyone can show L&H made presentation guitars from the 1920s, please do come forward. Any suggestion in the article that Zorzi was behind the design of L&H carved top mandolins is also untrue, since these were created by Walter Kirk and evidenced by the patent documents regarding the headstock/tuner, tailpiece and body shape designs.

    3. Zorzi was co-founder of the American Guild of Luthiers in 1924 together with Lloyd Loar, Joseph Virzi and CF Martin III. This organization also aimed to promote instrument makers employee’s rights and salaries.
    According to the article, Zorzi’s activities for this organization, and him advertising a guild meeting at L&H were the reason for him getting fired by L&H. There is no proof that I could find of an American Guild of Luthiers, let alone in 1924. A ‘Guild of American Luthiers’ was established in 1972. I also understand that a ‘luthier’ around the 1920s merely meant a violin maker (as opposed to the wider interpretation used nowadays), so the title of this alleged organization would not seem to make sense for people like CF Martin III. CF III was not leading the Martin company until 1945 by the way, and why would he even want to be involved in an organization ‘aiming to promote employee’s rights and salaries’? It makes your head spin (I further leave Loar out of this..).

    The main reason why these contentions regarding Zorzi later became more widely accepted and referenced is that musical historian Michael Wright used these as basis for a chapter in his book "Guitar Stories Vol. 2: The Histories of Cool Guitars", apparently without re-researching any of the relevant facts of the Guitarmaker article (boooo!). I am not going into other contentions regarding Zorzi in the article, also repeated by Wright (that Zorzi later worked for Stromberg Voisinet/Kay, designed the reverse scroll guitar etc., but presume this should all be equally taken with a grain of salt. BTW, the so called ‘Zorzi neck joint’ shows Henry Kuhrmeyer as inventor in the 1930 filing documents, as set out by the OP).

    So who really was Joseph Zorzi? He was born in Messina, Italy, in 1878, trained as a violin maker with Leandro Bisiach in Milan until his 19th year, and then came to the US. He worked with Angelo Boselli (not ‘Angelico’ as the author writes) in the periods 1946-1956, and 1962-1964 (Boselli also worked for L&H during 1920-1924). Zorzi died in Chicago Heights, IL in 1967 (which also contradicts the author’s claim in the article that he met Zorzi in 1972). Zorzi apparently built over 100 violins, based on the 1737 ‘King Joseph’ Guarneri model, using his own golden amber oil varnish. Early labels give his name as ‘de Zorzzi’ (sources: amati.com / wenberg).

    Either the ‘Zorzi myth’ was invented by old Joe himself, who fooled the author of the Guitarmaker article in believing it, or is a product of that author’s imagination. Why anyone would want to concoct an elaborate story about the role and importance of a third person (Zorzi) and publish this in a serious magazine, is beyond me. But I do have a theory supported by two other strange events, which I hope you will forgive me for not describing here - at least for the time being... I hope that somebody can chime in here and make some sense out of this confusing mess.

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    Moderator MikeEdgerton's Avatar
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Anyone that wants to know more about our friend Keef and his credentials might want to check out his wonderful book Washburn Prewar Instrument Styles.
    "It's comparable to playing a cheese slicer."
    --M. Stillion

    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them"
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Thanks, Keef, for the patient rebuttal. Nice to see you around here again.

    That's a Texas sized barbecue of sacred cows being led to the smoker.

    In tracing back through the thread links Mike provided, it seems many of us were caught up in some aspect of the "Zorzi Myth".

    Mick
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    I didn't have to go too far to find myself
    "It's comparable to playing a cheese slicer."
    --M. Stillion

    "Bargain instruments are no bargains if you can't play them"
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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Thanks much Mike and Mick - I now see that the author of the Guitarmaker article has earlier posted in this thread. Maybe he can chime in on the above findings.

  10. #9

    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Keef, I’ve come to the same conclusions and have been simmering on the idea that the Joseph Zorzi we apparently know did not exist like we’ve been told. The author of that Guitarmaker Magazine article finally responded to me and gave another name as being the “true” Zorzi. Of course I cannot find a single shred of evidence that Augustino Nestari actually existed. I think I’m chasing snipes

    Your book on Washburn instruments is a favorite of my collection and your input is highly valued in my eyes

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    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Quote Originally Posted by s_nathaniel View Post
    Keef, I’ve come to the same conclusions and have been simmering on the idea that the Joseph Zorzi we apparently know did not exist like we’ve been told. The author of that Guitarmaker Magazine article finally responded to me and gave another name as being the “true” Zorzi. Of course I cannot find a single shred of evidence that Augustino Nestari actually existed. I think I’m chasing snipes

    Your book on Washburn instruments is a favorite of my collection and your input is highly valued in my eyes
    Thanks - that means a lot to me. Nestari huh? Well, he is not on the L&H workers list either.

    Zorzi is Zelig.

  12. #11

    Default Re: Who was Joseph Zorzi?

    Nope he certainly isn't. I've got a copy of that same book you mentioned and have put together a small list of employees from Lyon and Healy from a few sources I found online. I've written on Andrew Groehsl, Stromberg-Voisinet, and Kay. I enjoy the history of these Chicago firms but I like to see cited and researched articles so that I can quote them with confidence.

    Michael Wright's book also mentions a 1929 Venetian that was signed by Zorzi but includes no photos. A 1988 article in the Southtown Star newspaper interviews the Author of the Guitar Maker article with a claim that "[he] himself recently purchased a 1927 guitar constructed by Joseph Zorzi". That would've been an early Venetian made during Stromberg-Voisinet but an important detail is that no Groehsl, Stromberg-Voisinet, or Kay guitar ever left the factory with a date stamp inside the instrument. There are a few 1940s examples sold by Montgomery Ward that have MW's date stamp but those were added later. You cannot exactly date a Stromberg-Voisinet guitar due to their lack of internal stamping and the rarity of surviving catalogs to illustrate design changes. You can narrow it down to 5-10 years, sure, but that is about it.

    A guitar signed by Joseph Zorzi would be the prize of Kay guitar aficionado's collection and they would want to show that off. Allegedly it surfaced in the 1980s, according to the Author, and has never seen the light of day since. Which does raise questions as to it's existence and authenticity.

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