Now that you’re all acquainted with the roots of gypsy jazz, I’d like to present a contemporary shoot of it. There are thousands of “Gypsy Jazz” or “Jazz Manouche” bands playing these days, and 98% of them are pale shadows of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, always aspiring to but missing the mark of Django and Stephane’s legendary collaboration. Then there’s 1% who’s better technically than Django (sniff about Stochelo and Jimmy Rosenberg) but still generally working out of the same ideas. Then there’s that very special 1% who’s taken Django & Stephane’s innovations and used them as a stepping block to something greater – something original. John Jorgenson, Grant Gordy, and David Grisman are a few of those rare innovators. They can draw upon Django and in the same breath draw upon Milt Jackson (who himself drew upon Django, on a totally different instrument), and weave these strains together with bits of Americana, blues, classical, klezmer, whathaveyou. They’re keepers. They’ll keep you listening, keep you on your toes.
David “Dawg” Grisman is probably decently familiar to readers of this blog. If not, he ought to be, and further posts may correct that lack. He’s probably best known in the bluegrass/newgrass field, in which he is a pioneer (see the Muleskinner album in the archives). While he is always respectful of tradition, he is never a mere revivalist of it. He takes the tradition, values it, and then runs it through his brain full of jazz and classical and world music and contemporary life… and whatever comes out always bears his stamp: DAWG. He can play hot as well as cool, and he’s a generous collaborator. More on him later.
I hadn’t heard of Svend Asmussen before hearing this recording, and I’m shocked that he escaped my watchful ear for so long. Not only is he great, he’s a legend in his own time, with a legendary history, and yet nobody seems to know about him. I guess there can only be one Scandinavian jazz musician in the public eye at one time, and Jan Garbarek has been hogging the throne.
Following is what the interweb yielded to my inquisitive efforts:
Svend Asmussen may be the finest little-known jazz performer in the world.
A bit of a child prodigy, Asmussen’s recording career spans more than 60 years. As a young man, Svend was something of a novelty performer, beginning to excel on the violin, but also performing on vibes, and other instruments, as well as being a vocalist.
As a more mature performer he explored and recorded in a wide variety of styles, including that of the Indian subcontinent. Now, as an elder statesman of the instrument, his jazz violin virtuosity takes a back seat to no one, including his contemporary, the much better known Stephane Grappelli.
Perhaps the primary reason that Asmussen is not well known in the United States is that he has preferred to make his native Denmark the headquarters of his operations and has made only infrequent appearances in the U.S., most notably at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival “violin summit” with Ray Nance and Jean-Luc Ponty.
The story of Asmussen’s life would make a pretty good movie. In the late 1930s, Svend worked in Denmark with touring artists such as Fats Waller, The Mills Brothers, and Josephine Baker. In 1939 he was quite a hit in London, Hamburg, and Paris. But the outbreak of war in Europe postponed other proposed tours and projects.
The Nazis hated American Jazz. At one point Asmussen was arrested and incarcerated in Berlin. After the war, he became the most popular entertainer in Denmark, if not all of Scandinavia. At that time, his popularity extended beyond jazz, as he was perceived primarily as a club, vaudeville, and radio performer. There were also many film appearances and credits, some of the details of which may be found on a separate page.
His early influence was Joe Venuti, but it was a visit to Denmark by Stuff Smith that rekindled his interest in jazz. He certainly had the opportunity to be better known abroad. On more than one occasion, he turned down invitations from Benny Goodman to join the clarinetist’s famous group. Apparently, he was comfortable to remain a big frog in a little pond. This is too bad, as it makes one’s mouth water to imagine what the fabulous “small groups” might have produced if Asmussen had been added to the likes of Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton. Svend has, in fact, recorded with Hampton, but the details are unknown to me.
Biography by Scott Yanow:
It seems strange that Svend Asmussen is not better known in the United States, for he has been a top swing violinist since the mid-’30s. He started playing violin when he was seven and, in 1933, made his professional debut. Always based in Scandinavia (hence his obscurity in the U.S.), Asmussen made his first records as a leader in 1935 and has been consistently popular in his homeland ever since. He played with the Mills Brothers and Fats Waller in the 1930s when they passed through Denmark, but when Benny Goodman tried to get him in the mid-’50s for his small group, strict immigration laws made it impossible for him to work in the U.S. Asmussen recorded with John Lewis (1962), Duke Ellington (as part of a 1963 violin summit), Toots Thielemans, Lionel Hampton (1978), and on a few occasions with Stephane Grappelli, in addition to many dates with his own groups.
Matched with the great veteran swing violinist Svend Asmussen, Grisman holds his own on one of his most jazz-oriented dates. With guitarist Dimitri Vandellos, bassist James Kerwin and drummer George Marsh completing the quintet, Grisman and Asmussen jam on the title cut, two of the violinist’s originals, “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” Milt Jackson’s “The Spirit Feel,” and a pair of Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelli tunes. Highly recommended.
1 Svingin’ With Svend 4:02
2 Nadja 6:24
3 Lap-Nils’ Polska 8:24
4 It Don’t Mean a Thing 6:35
5 Swing Mineur 6:38
6 Jitterbug Waltz Maltby, Waller 6:20
7 The Spirit-Feel 9:29
8 Nuages 6:02