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date: 13 November 2019

Asmussen, Svendfree

  • David Flanagan
  • , revised by Anthony Barnett

(b Copenhagen, Feb 28, 1916; d Feb 7, 2017). Danish violinist, entertainer, and singer. He began playing violin as a young child. As a schoolboy he heard the popular violinists Eli Donde and Otto Lington, but did not at first consider music as a career. He undertook studies in sculpture (at the Academy of Arts in Copenhagen), dentistry, and law, and during the same period led amateur orchestras. In 1933 he made his professional début at the Apollo Theater in Copenhagen, and the following year he formed a sextet, along the lines of Joe Venuti’s groups, which first recorded in 1935. In 1936 he heard Stuff Smith’s contemporary recordings; these exerted a great influence on his understanding of how the violin might be used as a jazz instrument. Asmussen played with the Mills Brothers (1937) and Fats Waller (1938) when they toured Denmark, and he recorded with Oscar Alemán (1938). During the early 1940s he performed throughout Scandinavia and opened a club, My Blue Heaven, in Stockholm. He then temporarily forsook jazz for acting and vaudeville. He was imprisoned in Berlin as a hostage against a threatened general strike in Denmark, but was released before the end of World War II and resumed his musical activities, successfully combining a career in jazz and popular music.

While leading groups on the cruise ship MS Kungholm Asmussen visited the USA at least twice, and in 1955 he was photographed while taking part in an on-board jam session with Smith and Jonah Jones in New York. From 1958 to 1963, with Alice Babs and the guitarist Ulrik Neumann, he played and sang in a trio, the Swe-Danes, which toured and recorded in the USA. He performed with Smith in Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland (1965–7) and with Stéphane Grappelli, Ray Nance, and Jean-Luc Ponty at the Monterey Jazz Festival (1967), and recorded with John Lewis (1962), Duke Ellington (1963), and Grappelli (1965), and in several sessions with Babs; later he recorded with L. Subramaniam (1978). In autumn 1986 he toured the USA with David Grisman. He continued to perform and record, mainly in Denmark, well into his ninth decade, while dividing his time between there and the USA. Asmussen acted or performed in, or recorded soundtracks for, films, documentaries, and cartoons; notably, he reprised the voice role of Louis Prima as King Louis for the Danish dubbed version of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book (1969). His many television shows include telecasts during the 1980s with Benny Goodman at Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, and a concert with Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Ed Thigpen in 1986. Asmussen’s style is recognizably individual while revealing its debts to Venuti and the early work of Smith. His many recordings show that he sacrificed the biting attack of Smith, for which he had once strived, in favour of a musical intricacy at times almost filigree-like, while his tone was characterized by a veiled, almost muted, quality. On one of his most moving recordings he plays only pizzicato in a sympathetic accompaniment to Sathima Bea Benjamin. His career is documented in the three-hour DVD The Extraordinary Life and Music of a Jazz Legend (Shanachi SHA 6334) released in 2009.

Selected recordings

Duos with U. Neumann

Danish Import (1961, WB 1408)

As leader

Tiger Rag/My Blue Heaven (1935, HMV 1327)

My Blue Heaven (1940, Odeon 404)

Sweet Sue/Limehouse Blues (1940, Odeon 448)

It Don’t Mean a Thing/My Old Man (1943, Tono 4329)

In Ellington Mood/Rhythm is our Business (1950, Odeon 5531)

J. Lewis: European Encounter (1962, Atl. SD1392)

with S. Grappelli: Two of a Kind (1965, Met. 15177)

of Violin Summit (with S. Grappelli, J.-L. Ponty, and S. Smith): Violin Summit (1966, Saba 15099)

with A. Babs: Alice Babs and Svend Asmussen (1972, RCA LSP 10370)

Amazing Strings (1974, MPS 20223736)

with K. Drew, N.-H. Ørsted Pedersen, and E. Thigpen: Prize/Winners (1978, Matrix 1001)

June Night (1983, Doctor Jazz FW39150)

At Slukafter (1984, Phontastic 8804)

Fiddler Supreme (1989, Intim Musik 006)

Fit as a Fiddle (1997, Dacapo DCCD 9429)

Still Fiddling (2002, Storyville 101 4252)

Makin’ Whoopee!….and Music! (2009, Arbors ARCD 19390)

As sideman

O. Alemán: Sweet Sue/Limehouse Blues (1938, HMV 6212)

E. Moseholm: Erik Moseholm Presents Jazz Strings 1958 (1958, Sonet 2011)

D. Ellington: Jazz Violin Session (1963, Atl. SD1688)

S. B. Benjamin: A Morning in Paris (1963, Enja 9309–2)

L. Subramaniam: Garland (1978, Sto. 4075)

Selected films and videos

En lille tilfaeldighed (1939)

Solv giver arbejde (1942)

Musik om bord (1958)

Monterey Jazz (1968)

Svend Asmussen Quartet (1986)

The Extraordinary Life and Music of a Jazz Legend (2009)

Bibliography

  • Feather ’60s; Feather-Gitler ’70s
  • T. Rosenkrantz: “Swede and Hot,” Metronome (1945), March, 15
  • “The Talk of the Town,” New Yorker, 31 (30 April 1955), 24
  • B. Henius: Svend Asmussen (Copenhagen, 1963)
  • D. Morgenstern: “Jazz Fiddle,” DB, 34/3 (1967), 16
  • M. Glaser and S. Grappelli: Jazz Violin (New York and elsewhere, 1981) [incl. transcrs.]
  • M. Zwerin: La tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing under the Nazis (London, Melbourne, Australia, and New York, 1985), 173
  • M. Glaser: “Violin Summit: Great Jazz Solos, with Commentary and Advice on Playing,” Strings, 2/1 (1987), 20 [incl. transcr.]
  • D. Grisman: “Svend Asmussen: Europe’s Swingin’ Jazz Violin Giant,” Frets, 9/1 (1987), 26 [incl. discography]
  • P. Shelasky: “Svend’s Signature: Solos with Fierce Swing,” Frets, 9/1 (1987), 28 [incl. transcr.]
  • M. Glaser: “Svingin’ with Svend,” Strings, 3/8 (1988), 23 [incl. transcr.]
  • “… If it Ain’t Got that Swing!,” Orkester Journalen, 62/3 (1994), 2
  • A. Barnett: Desert Sands: the Recordings and Performances of Stuff Smith: an Annotated Discography and Biographical Source Book (Lewes, England, 1995), 198; suppl. as Up Jumped the Devil (Lewes, 1998), 65; cont. online at http://www.abar.net/smith.html
  • M. Bedin: “Fiddlin’ Viking: Svend Asmussen,” Jh, no.547 (1998), 14
  • M. Hennessey: disc notes, Svend Asmussen Still Fiddling, Storyville 101 4252 (2002)
  • E. B. Asmussen: June Nights: Svend Asmussens Liv I Musik (Copenhagen, 2005)
  • W. Friedwald: ‘This Working Musician Is 94,’ The Wall Street Journal (New York, July 8, 2010)
L. Feather: The Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Sixties (New York, 1966/R1986)
Down Beat
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