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Svend Asmussen: Phenomenal Jazz Fiddler
Richard Brooks
2005-03-01

Svend Asmussen, the world-renown jazz violinist, is by all measures a most remarkable person. This spry eighty-eight year old is still performing! I was thrilled to see his two superb performances at the Oslo Jazz Festival on August 11 and 12, 2003. He has been in the music and entertainment business for over seventy years and has recorded over thirty albums.

Svend was arrested by the Nazis in 1943, and only a stroke of luck saved his life. As a result, the world has benefited from his artistry as a versatile entertainer and artist: a jazz violinist and singer, a band leader and arranger, a film actor, and an artist (paintings and drawings). His movies are still shown regularly on Danish television. There is even a winding street named after him on the isle of Bornholm in Denmark. Its name is the Danish equivalent of "Asmussen Swing."

His latest CD, Still Fiddling, was released in 2002 and is currently available. Asmussen has played jazz violin with such jazz greats as Fats Waller, the Mills Brothers, Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Joe Venuti, Stéphane Grappelli, Bucky Pizzarelli, John Lewis, Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Lionel Hampton, Toots Thielemans, Alice Babs, and Ulrik Neumann.

On April 17 and 18, 2002, I was honored to interview him at his home in Copenhagen, Denmark. He shared many personal and musical experiences with me, and I left with an even greater appreciation for one of the greatest talents I have ever met. While Svend said he had forgotten a lot, his memory for details amazed me.

Svend (pronounced "Sven," the "d" is silent) Asmussen's jazz violin style is truly unique and instantly recognizable. Stéphane Grappelli once told my friend Ed Wadsworth (violin with Hot Strings of New Orleans) that Svend was his favorite jazz violinist -- a master of the odd interval. That is because his musical phrasings, or choice of notes, are based on the styles of horn players, not string players. Just as horn players must pause in order to breathe, pauses accent their playing.

Svend Discovers Jazz

Svend was born into a musical family on February 28, 1916, in Copenhagen, Denmark to parents of German origin. Svend had three brothers (Ernst, Johan, Andrea) and a sister (Grethe). At twelve, Ernst gave up on the violin because it was "no fun to watch his seven year old brother surpass his abilities so quickly," so he took up the piano [Bent Henius' 1963 biography of Svend Asmussen].

Among Svend's earliest jazz recollections was that of the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins playing "Talk of the Town" on the piano in Svend's family living room. Svend was sixteen, and Hawkins had a great time humoring Svend about his ukulele and toy saxophone! Svend began violin lessons when he was seven years old, but by sixteen, he stopped his formal musical training.

This was also around the time when Svend first heard the 1927-1928 recordings made by Joe Venuti, the father of jazz violin, and Eddie Lang. Svend was "absolutely impressed." Svend mastered Joe's four-string violin technique: the bow is taken apart, the bow stick is placed under the violin, and the bow hair is placed over the four strings, allowing all strings to be played simultaneously. Svend was very well-known locally because of his "trick" fiddling, which helped to establish his reputation as a very talented musician. By the time Svend was nineteen, he was becoming a known musician playing at dances.

Svend began his professional career in 1933, singing and playing violin and vibes [online profile at www.oldies.com/artist/view.cfm/id/3400.html]. His first recordings date back to 1934. Svend's solos are reminiscent of Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang's "Stringing the Blues" made in the late 1920s. However, his musical life turned upside down the following year when he heard Stuff Smith. Stuff later became a personal friend. "He's still my man," Svend said. Stuff changed Svend's way of thinking about music: "Yes, you know -- the phrasing to play jazz on the violin. Stuff -- he didn't really treat the violin as a violin. He treated it as a horn and as a vocal. That's what I try to do. When I play ballads, I try to play as Sarah Vaughan sounded, or Dinah Washington. When I play a jazz number, I try to sound like Lester Young or Clark Terry."

Svend wasn't expected to be a professional musician. Svend was supposed to be a sculptor and later, a dentist. When his interest in art, sculpture, and science diminished because of his musical activities, his parents suggested a career as a dentist. After one year at dentistry school around the age of twenty, Svend said to his parents: "I can't stand that any longer. I can't see my future as a dentist." At the same time, he was developing a reputation and earning money as a musician.

In a compromise with his parents, however, he returned to the original plan to be a sculptor and attended the Royal Academy in Copenhagen. During one of his sculpture classes, the director of the academy mentioned to him that he had seen a newspaper article about his playing dance music at a restaurant. When the director learned that Svend was earning twice as much as he was as the Academy Director, he encouraged Svend to continue playing!

Svend's technique and style (his choice of notes) is astounding. His virtuosity was recognized and appreciated by all the jazz greats with whom he played. His accomplishments are even more remarkable when one realizes that he is basically self-taught. When asked whether he ever considered a career in classical music because of his outstanding technique, his reply was, "My technique is not for classical playing. The real classical technique you must acquire between your seventh and twelfth years -- inside those five years. That's the period where you have to study eight hours every day. And I studied only fifteen minutes a week [for his weekly lessons]."

...

[For the rest of this lengthy article, as well as the tune "Swing Manouche," by Svend Asmussen, purchase the Spring 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Richard Brooks lives in Palo Alto, California, and works in high-tech in Silicon Valley. He is president of the Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association, and plays bluegrass, swing jazz, and as many Svend licks as he can.]

Photo: Morten Langkilde, Politiken