There are many ways to characterize the relationship between Jules Azzi and Andy Wolf: Friends, business partners and musical kindred spirits, they are also mentor and student. Whichever label you choose, though, one thing is certain: When they met in 1999, it was love at first sight.
The love in this case is a shared passion for the crafting of world-class violins, violas and other stringed instruments. Together they have a combined 75 years experience playing, making, restoring and dealing in world-class stringed instruments. This has led the two men to establish Azzi & Wolf Fine Violins, a historic, three-story luthier shop at 1400 Elm St., conveniently across from Music Hall.
A life-long Cincinnatian, Andy Wolf was born and raised in this Over-the-Rhine neighborhood to German immigrant parents. His mother was a direct descendant of the Brothers Grimm. His father loved the violin, and Wolf credits him with fostering his musical career.
"I started on violin when I was 5 years old. My dad came to this country from Germany, and the first money he earned he bought a fiddle. And then as each one of the kids came along we got a fiddle for our fifth birthday. And at 10, I got a cello. Then I started studying cello, and I liked that much better. I've got these big paws," says Wolf, holding up two thick, callused hands worn from years of working with instruments
"Around that time, Prohibition came to an end and there was suddenly a lot of work for small Jazz groups. There were also two conservatories. There was the College of Music, next to Music Hall at the time, and the Conservatory of Music up on Oak. And I got scholarships to both."
After college Wolf got a night job at the Post Office, built houses and swimming pools during the day and played Jazz on his nights off. In 1947 he joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as a bassist, where he played and toured for 39 years. During his tenure with the CSO one colleague was his former wife, Yvonne, granddaughter of famed composer Georges Bizet.
In the 1950s Wolf went into business with Dave Horine, a local bass maker and restorer, and in 1963 they moved their Bass-Viol Shop from Court Street to the Elm location which houses Azzi & Wolf today. Long before selling his share of the business in 1983, Wolf received seed money from the city to begin the revitalization of Over-the-Rhine. He rehabbed 10 buildings around the intersection of 14th and Elm streets, including the now-defunct Bacchus Restaurant, a favorite among symphony-goers during the '70s and '80s.
After Wolf retired in 1986, at the age of 70, he continued to repair instruments from a workshop in his Dayton, Ky., home, which he shares with his wife, Emily Hodges. Like Wolf, she's a music lover and spent 25 years singing in the May Festival. Luckily, Hodges also has a sister in Brooklyn whom they visit every Christmas. It was his brother-in-law who directed Wolf to Azzi's shop during a 1999 visit.
"The very first day I was there I visited and told him about my interests and that I had played in the orchestra. I was astonished at the things he was doing," says Wolf. "At the time he had just finished making a cello. I told him I played, and he said try it out. A gorgeous instrument! It sounded up a storm, and I said, 'Wow!' And he was so open."
Nearly 50 years Wolf's junior Jules Azzi was born in Lebanon in 1964. He started playing the lute, a traditional instrument in the Mideast, when he was very young. Then he fell in love with the violin.
"Ever since I was a kid I loved music and carving and taking apart toys to see how they worked," says Azzi in distinct, French-accented English. "I made my first violin at 16, and then I made six more. I won a scholarship from the French government to study in France."
Azzi received his diploma from the famed violin-making school in Mirecourt where he worked on instruments for A-list soloists like Vladimir Spivakof and Yury Bashmet. In Paris he studied with master restorer Roger Lanne and developed his talent for copying rare Italian violins. After two years refining his technique with Jacques Français in New York, he opened his shop in Brooklyn. In 1996 he was awarded a silver medal at the Violin Competition of America for his viola, as well as a certificate of merit for a violin.
Azzi admits he is a bit surprised to find himself in the Midwest after establishing himself in New York. Still, he relishes Cincinnati's mostly untapped market and being located a brief drive from half-dozen symphony orchestras.
"The idea for this shop was never mine. I'd never been to Cincinnati. But when I came here and saw the history and Music Hall," Azzi says, his voice trailing off in astonishment. "And there is nobody here that has my expertise and knowledge. So, I said, a place like this could use somebody like me."
Wolf heartily agrees. When the opportunity came to get the property back, he mortgaged his house and bought it. "And right away we've had inquiries. People in the symphony -- they're all waiting. And hopefully Jules will supply them."
Azzi will be the supplier because Wolf, an expert at repairing and playing, has never actually built a string instrument. He's ready for that to change, however, and he knows true craftsmanship is passed from one artist to another. That's why he's anxious to assume the role of student, even if his mentor is a couple of generations younger.
"The main reason Andy was excited to bring me here was to learn with me. That was originally why he would visit in New York."
"I'm not a maker," says the 86-year-old co-owner. "But I'm hoping to learn. I'm going to be the pupil here." ©