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Joseph Zorzi is credited in modern literature with inventing the adjustable neck joint that appeared on the famed Kay Kraft line of instrume...

The 'Zorzi' Adjustable Neck Joint & Manno's Myth

Joseph Zorzi is credited in modern literature with inventing the adjustable neck joint that appeared on the famed Kay Kraft line of instruments. The purpose of many of my writings is to shine light on forgotten or misunderstood topics and the creation of an iconic instrument is one that I found to be intriguing.

The first half of this article discusses the patent and how it works. The second discusses findings on Joseph Zorzi.

Henry Kuhrmeyer's Patent (S-V Era)


US1932975 [3]
Filed on April 7th, 1930
Renewed March 2nd, 1933
Patent Granted October 31st, 1933

This 1930 patent from Henry 'Kay' Kuhrmeyer during his time at Stromberg-Voisinet shows the early version of the adjustable neck joint as seen on a banjo. The core features are visible including the countersunk screw that passes through a hole in a mounting rod that connects to the body. 

Surprisingly there isn't any mention of a Joseph Zorzi in the patent documents. 

Stromberg-Voisinet Co. banjo label [2]
Image Credit: BanjoHangout - beezaboy

The Patent (Kay Era)

1930s Kay Deluxe with the "Zorzi" neck joint

Stromberg-Voisinet eventually became Kay and was headed by Kuhrmeyer and the neck joint began appearing on more instruments including the famed Kay Kraft line of 'venetian style' instruments.

The new joint featured a radiused, dyed wood block with a raised center rail that was secured to the body of the instrument with three small finishing nails. The end of the neck is radiused to match the body block and has a channel which slides along the rail on the block. A bolt protruding from the neck fits through a hole drilled in the neck block and is secured with a wing nut. That bolt is held in place by a wood screw driven through the heel of the instrument.

Instruction Sticker
Image Credit: Facebook - Thom R
The mounting hardware used in the Zorzi neck joint seen above


Who is Joseph Zorzi?

Joseph Zorzi has been the name for Kay Kraft enthusiasts for over twenty years and in my quest for providing publicly accessible research I attempted to follow Zorzi's life story and establish a biography. This has turned out to be a very difficult subject and one I've spent two years working off and on. For a man of his reputation and achievements, he has dodged appearing in any contemporary news or literature during his life time and even managed to elude what I can find in census records. 

So lets start at the beginning....

How do we know Zorzi?

Nearly everything we know about Joseph Zorzi can be traced to Michael Wright's incredible book, The Histories of Cool Guitars - Guitar Stories Volume 2 from 2000.

Timeline of Zorzi's Life according to Michael Wright's book

  • 1878
    • Born in Messina
  • 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
Michael Wright's book is a wonderful resource for Kay enthusiasts but it is often lacking in direct citations. He credits George Manno for providing a photograph of Zorzi which would become my first lead.

Finding Joseph Zorzi

The earliest reference to Joseph Zorzi that I am able to find is in a 1987 book from the Illinois State Museum entitled "Tuning the Wood" which documented contemporary Illinois luthiers and an exhibition at the Illinois Art Gallery. Hidden in the references at the back of the book is a single citation for "Mandolin Making in the Classic Italian Style" which is attributed to Joseph Zorzi and noted Rome, 1935. I reached out to the museum who had no records of such a book and were not able to locate anyone who was still around who may have remembered it. I don't doubt the existence of such a book but I would absolutely love to find a copy.

The second reference to Zorzi is an article in The Southtown Star, a newspaper in Tinley Park, Illinois. The article contains an interview with luthier George Manno, owner of Manno's Violin Shop, in Chicago Heights and but one singular paragraph mentions Zorzi [4].

Manno mentions his purchase of a 1927 guitar built by Joseph Zorzi
c. 1988 [4]

In March of 1993, George Manno wrote a two-page article for Guitar Maker Issue #19 where he described the life and accomplishments of Joseph Zorzi. At the end of the article, Manno mentions that he met Zorzi in 1972 when he was 92 and the author was 19.  


Timeline of Zorzi's Life according to George Manno in Guitar Maker Issue 19 from 1993
  • 1878
    • Born in Messina, Sicily
  • 1894
    • Left for Milan to study lutherie with Leandro Bisiach
  • 1897
    • Zorzi had completed eleven violins and two violas
  • 1898
    • Jobbers from Lyon and Healy arrived at Bisiach's shop to purchase instruments to take back to the states
    • They decided to take Joseph Zorzi with them
  • 1899
    • Joseph Zorzi was made production chief of the factory
  • Few years later
    • Zorzi was promoted to the head repairman position for L&H's Old Violin department
  • 1924
    • Joseph Zorzi founds the first lutherie guild in the United States
  • 1927
    • Zorzi was fired from Lyon and Healy for advertising his guild
    • Joined Kay Musical Instrument Company and was tasked with building arch-top guitars in the basement
  • 1924
    • Zorzi left Kay and opened his own business as a violin maker
  • 1935
    • Joseph Zorzi and Angelico Boselli opened their own repairshop
  • 1947
    • Luthiers guild was revived and named "The Midwest Guild of Guitar and Violin Makers"
    • Zorzi and Boselli would both be elected president of the guild
  • 1972
    • Manno meets Joseph Zorzi while apprenticing with Boselli
  • January 1977
    • Joseph Zorzi died
    • His collection was sold to an English businessman and all proceeds went to charity

What doesn't add up?

Joseph Zorzi does not appear in any public records

I used Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org to extensively browse census records searching for Joseph Zorzi as well as a variety of names (Giuseppe Zorzi, Joe Zorzi, Joe Zorzie, etc). I also searched Italian-American genealogical articles, cemetery records, and newspapers. I investigated a dozen individuals with similar names as well as numerous people whose names weren't close but birth dates were similar. 

I've found grocers and coal miners and laborers but no one who could have possibly been Zorzi. These records are digitized using AI and volunteers and I realize that the searchable census data isn't 100% complete but this is the first individual who I have not been able to find any trace of.

Joseph Zorzi does not appear in a 1916 Lyon and Healy Employee List

I purchased an original 1916 copy of Everything Known in Music which was published by Lyon and Healy. There is a page dedicated to their employees and mentions every employee, by name, who had been with the firm for 10 years or more. Joseph Zorzi does not appear in this list.

Also missing from the list are: Philip Gabriel, Fritz Brunner, John Abbott, Angelico Boselli. The only name from Manno's article that appears is Jay C. Freeman, sales manager and the man who supposedly brought Zorzi to America.
Of course, the list is available on Archive.org which I did not know until after I purchased my copy
Image Credit: Archive.org

Zorzi does not appear on the neck joint Patent (US1932975) 

An oddity considering his name is so closely attached to the invention but Kuhrmeyer is the only name that appears. One opinion that arose when I discussed this was that perhaps the credit was given to the founder of the company and presumably the man bankrolling the patent but I've never seen a musical instrument patent leave out the actual inventor and Kuhrmeyer, himself, was an inventor. It wouldn't be outrageous to claim that Kuhrmeyer invented the neck joint.

The "Zorzi signed and dated" guitar has never been photographed or corroborated

Anyone who is familiar with Stromberg-Voisinet and the Kay Musical Instrument Company knows that they never date stamped or wrote the date of manufacture inside their instruments. S-V never stamped their guitars with any identifying information and Kay only stamped a batch number and occasionally a model number. 

A guitar signed by Joseph Zorzi and dated to 1929 would be the pinnacle of any Kay Kraft guitar fiend's collection and would likely command a hefty price. An instrument signed by an employee or designer is unheard of. Nobody has ever claimed to have a signed or dated Kay or S-V instrument besides Manno. I asked him about the instrument but he ignored my message.

Manno has expressed his disinterest in revisiting the subject

I first reached out to George via Facebook Messenger and excitedly told him what I do and that I would love to learn more about Zorzi's story. At the time I had zero doubts in my mind that he existed. He very shortly told me "stop!" and "I don't know what to tell you". 

I posted an article asking "Who was Joseph Zorzi" on MandolinCafe.com and passed the link to Manno, finally he responded
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[sic] Nesteri in a violin. A well-know deal in Chicago told me that Zorzi's name was attached to that maker as well.
Augustino or Agustino Nestaro is another individual who I was unable to find any information about

Hubert Pleijsier was unable to corroborate Manno's story 

My post on MandolinCafe did yield an interesting conversation. The author of the absolute best pre-war Washburn book commented on my thread with an incredible breakdown, "the purpose of which is to end the 'Zorzi myth'.'" His book is the bible for Washburn fans and is incredibly well researched.

Pleijsier, completely independently, came to the same conclusions that I did and even raised a few more points that I believe solidify the point. Here are some of the excerpts:
  • 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 [George] Durkee’s and [Walter] Kirk’s existing roles, their technical background etc.
  • In regards to the 1916 employee list:  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?
  • 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.
  •  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 original post can be found here: Mandolin Cafe - Who Was Joseph Zorzi

His final conclusion was:

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.

Conclusion

Owing to the lack of tangible evidence in support of and due to the existence of verifiable evidence against, I believe the claims of Joseph Zorzi's life have been largely overstated and even fabricated.

Whether these stories and accolades originated from 'old timers' spinning yarns or the imagination of Mr. Manno may forever be a mystery. I believe that Manno's 1993 article was the culmination of anecdotes and folklore and not of ill-intent but that it was irresponsible to present them as fact. Including direct quotes or attributing claims to individuals would've changed the perception of the article and given us a clear origin for each statement. Michael Wright republished what Manno had written without independently verifying his claims and thus, owing to the popularity of the book, it had become fact. 

It is unlikely that Joseph Zorzi's name will ever be separated from the Venetian body shape and the adjustable neck attachment of those guitars. But I am satisfied that publishing this article may spark further discussion and perhaps lead to the reveal of more information. This is up-to-date as of June 2022

Questions still unanswered

  • Who has Zorzi's 1935 book on mandolin construction?
  • If Manno is truthful, where is the guitar signed by Joseph Zorzi?
  • If the real Zorzi died in '67, who did Manno speak to?
  • Who actually designed the Venetian body shape?

Sources

[1] https://patents.google.com/patent/US542788A
[2] https://www.banjohangout.org/archive/368246
[3] https://patents.google.com/patent/US1932975A
[4] https://www.newspapers.com/image/537618444/?terms=%22joseph%20zorzi%22&match=1


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