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Svend Asmussen is the last of the great swing violinists who emerged during the '30s. The "Fiddling Viking" turns 94 on Feb. 28th, splitting time between his native Denmark and Sarasota, Florida. Recently the violinist performed at the Second Annual Arbors Records Invitational Jazz Party and released new CDs, one a compilation on Storyville (Rhythm Is Our Business) of his '50s Danish quintet recordings and the other made just last year for Arbors, Makin´ Whoopee...and Music!. There is also a DVD on Shanachie (The Extraordinary Life and Music Of A Jazz Legend) that features an extensive interview with him and numerous performances from film and television.
Asmussen's father exposed him to gypsy music. "I began piano lessons at five while an older brother took violin. A music teacher suggested that my hands were made for the violin, so I switched instruments and was a quick study. At 16 I discovered jazz violinist Joe Venuti and emulated his style through records." He was playing professionally at 17 and made his recording debut as a leader just two years later. "My career choice was validated when an art professor told me that I was making more by playing jazz than he was running his art school."
A number of American artists toured Denmark during the '30s. "I loved the Mills Brothers. I heard Louis Armstrong seven times and shared the bill with Fats Waller for two concerts. He stood backstage holding bottles of liquor and milk, by the end of my show both were empty. When he joined us, he drowned us out, even though he played piano without amplification." Asmussen became fond of Stuff Smith. "Stuff was an inspiration, I played many shows with him." Asmussen also played with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. When World War II began, performing opportunities went underground. Swept up by the Gestapo in 1943, Asmussen was imprisoned for a time in Copenhagen and Berlin before being released.
After the war, the violinist returned to playing and recording. In the early '50s he led a popular quintet and wanted to take it to America, but his sidemen objected to separating from their families for months and they soon disbanded. Asmussen then teamed with singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrik Neumann to form the Swe-Danes. "The group lasted three years and was my closest thing to international recognition. We were popular in Scandinavia and toured the US." Unlike some jazz artists, Asmussen has long thought of himself as an entertainer. "I played revues for 20 years. A typical audience consists of ten percent jazz fans, I have to reach the remainder as well." So shows included novelty numbers and comedy as well as jazz.
Asmussen continued to cross paths with touring American artists. "Duke Ellington and I played adjacent theaters. I was invited to an after-hours party where he played piano. I joined him for ten minutes and he said, 'Man, you play a helluva lotta fiddle!' I shared a concert with Benny Goodman's small group in the spring of 1950; he had Dick Hyman, Roy Eldridge, Toots Thielemans and Zoot Sims. After Benny returned home, he called to ask who arranged my records. When I told him I did, he invited me to join him, but I was making a good income and had kids in school."
Following the breakup of the Swe-Danes, Asmussen revived his '50s quintet and appeared on records by John Lewis and Duke Ellington (on viola, with Grappelli and Ray Nance on violins). He shared co-billing with Grappelli on a 1965 LP, Two of a Kind (Storyville). After Stuff Smith died in 1967, Asmussen composed and recorded the tribute "My Black Brother" while also appearing with Nance and Ponty at the Monterey Jazz Festival. The following decade, Asmussen made albums with Lionel Hampton and Toots Thielemans and also returned to classical music, working with clarinetist Putte Wickman and pianist Ivan Renliden. In the early '80s, He made June Night for Doctor Jazz, featuring Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Derek Smith and Oliver Jackson. Since then he has made CDs for several labels, frequently with guitarist Jacob Fischer.
Asmussen suffered some setbacks a few years ago. "My wife died in 2000 and I had a bout with ill health. I lost interest in music for a time." After meeting Ellen Bick, an author and literary critic whom he soon married, Asmussen regained his desire to play. "I now practice every day and develop my technical skills. I'm also delighted by the great artists who live near me in Florida, including pianists Dick Hyman, Kenny Drew, Jr., whom I consider close to Art Tatum, Larry Camp and Richard Drexler [who played on Asmussen's latest CD]." Asmussen is obviously enjoying life as the dean of jazz violinists, intent on swinging his way past his hundredth birthday.
I was first exposed to jazz while learning to play chess with my uncles. They would play smooth jazz, and then switch up to more standard types of jazz. But, when they played Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, I was
hooked and I haven't looked back.