Saturday, August 10, 2019

Art Van Damme - The Accordion in Jazz [From the Archives with Revisions]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Art Van Damme, in his prime years, played so many gigs in clubs, hotels and concert stages across the USA and Europe that it is said that he never needed to do any practice. He was constantly in action, developing and honing his skills and repertoire, pioneering the use of the accordion as a jazz lead instrument.

So influential was Art’s playing style that he has influenced most of the western world’s jazz accordionists. One musicologist made the following neat comment: ‘The hippest cat ever to swing an accordion, Art Van Damme dared go where no man had gone before: jazz accordion.’”
- Rob Howard

The accordion seemed to be everywhere present during my growing up years in an Italian-American household in New England.

The world-class accordionist Angelo DiPippo often gave performances in various local venues.

Also available courtesy of my Dad’s record collection were the Capitol recordings that accordionist Ernie Felice made with Benny Goodman’s small groups.

And every so often, Art Van Damme would make an “appearance” at our house in the form of NBC radio programs, television shows hosted by Dave Garroway and Dinah Shore and long-playing records on the Columbia label.

The Columbia LP’s featured Art’s quintet which, because of his use of vibes and guitar and the way many of the groups arrangements were “voiced,” reminded me of pianist George Shearing’s combo.  A few of these albums also featured guest artists such as vocalist Jo Stafford or legendary Jazz guitarist, Johnny Smith.

Whatever the setting, Art’s music was always very melodic and featured arrangements that were very hip and swung like mad. Lasting little more than three minutes in most cases, each tune was a musical gem: the epitome of taste and perfection.

As was the case with Shearing’s quintet, nobody took long solos, but when Chuck Calzaretta played one on vibes, or Fred Rundquist took one on guitar or Art improvised on accordion, one knew immediately that they were good players who knew what they were doing on their respective instruments.

Because I was so accustomed to hearing accordion and, more importantly, to hearing it played well, I could never understand why the instrument became the object of so many jokes that unmercifully ridiculed it.

That is until I started gigging on a regular basis and ran into so many terrible accordionists which only served to make me appreciate the likes of an Art Van Damme even more.

However, even among those who held most accordionists in contempt, the mere mention of Art’s name brought a grudging approval that he was “… a class act although I can’t stand the sound of the thing.”

Although you would be hard-pressed to find anything about him in any of the manuals about Jazz, in a conversation that I once had about him with pianist and composer Mel Powell at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, Mel referred to Art as “one of the most-talented musicians I’ve ever heard – regardless of the instrument.”

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of information about Art in publications, blogs and websites that cater to accordion. In such circles, he has rightfully assumed legendary status as one of the instrument’s greatest performers.

It was to one such publication that we went in search of the following overview of Art’s career. It also contains particular reference to many of Art’s recordings. A number of these are available should you wish to seek them out.

© -Steven H. Solomon/Accord Magazine, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Written by: Steven H. Solomon 
Publication: Accord 
MagazineUSA. Reprinted courtesy of owner/editor Faithe Deffner. Back copies available. 
Date written: Spring 1983

"At first glance, Art Van Damme seems like countless other successful West Coast residents. He is married, has three children and six grandchildren, and heads for the golf course every chance he gets. What makes his career unusual, however, is that he earns his living by playing the accordion.

Hold on a minute, you say. Since the accordion was invented about 150 years ago, thousands of musicians have put bread on the table by playing professionally. What is it that makes Van Damme so special?

It's simple. Van Damme is among an elite group of only about a half-dozen virtuosos who have been able to find just the right blend of technical and creative ability needed to be successful on the international level. This is what places Art Van Damme in a league all by himself.

Instead of playing just local clubs and whatever casual work is available, Van Damme routinely jets overseas for concert tours that draw thousands of fans. For those not lucky enough to get a seat at one of his sold out performances, he can be heard on European television and radio.

"Most of my work now is in doing concerts and clinics," Van Damme said recently when asked about his gigs. "This I enjoy more than doing club work, because the audience is more attentive and listens more intensely."

Van Damme prefers to be in front of the crowds, especially large ones, rather than while away his time in small clubs or in front of cameras and microphones. He believes that it all boils down to creativity.

"For recordings to be played on the radio, time is a very big factor. It is preferred that recordings be in the two or three minute category," Van Damme explained. "So when I do a concert I get a chance to stretch out, as they say. I get a chance to play quite at length."

To see a list of the countries Van Damme has visited with his accordion, you would think he was some kind of career diplomat making the rounds. He has toured in GermanySwedenDenmarkFinlandNorwayCanadaEnglandNew ZealandAustraliaFranceBelgium and Switzerland, in addition to his considerable work in the United States.

Asked about his appearances in 1982, Van Damme replied, "I did the Grand Prix in France, a concert seminar and a radio show in Geneva, two concerts in Colorado and a month long tour back in Sweden. This included concerts, television and another album called "And Live at Tivoli with Quintet". By the way, that was my 20th tour and trip to Europe!"

Not bad for someone who was nine years old before he heard an accordion for the first time, on his parent's Victrola. He asked for and received lessons on an instrument not nearly as flashy as the ones played by his idols Ray Brown, Buddy Rich and Benny Goodman.

At an age when most boys like to play nothing but ball, Van Damme liked to play nothing but the accordion, up to four or five hours a day. He landed his first paying job, a not-too-prestigious booking at his home town theatre (but nothing to be ashamed of either), when he was a seasoned 10 year old pro!

"When going to high school I started a trio with accordion, guitar and bass, and worked with this group in night clubs for a couple of years and then added a fourth man," Van Damme said. "We did many things with two accordions but I preferred the sound of accordion, vibes, bass and guitar, so I discontinued using the two accordions and added drums a short time later. I felt this was the sound to go with."

His group covered the Midwest for several years when they were booked into the Sherman Hotel in Chicago for what turned into a six month job. NBC must have recognized a sure thing when they heard it, because the quintet landed a contract for radio and TV that was to be the start of a long term relationship.

"Besides doing our own shows, we worked with many top name entertainers of the time on programs like the Dave Garroway Show, Ransom Sherman Show, Bob and Day Show to name but a few," Van Damme said.

"And besides doing solo spots, we did a lot of background playing for top singers and instrumentalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy DeFranco."

It was during this time that Van Damme had a record contract with Capitol Records, releasing "Cocktail Capers" and "More Cocktail Capers". Columbia Records signed Van Damme from 1952 to 1965, releasing no less than a dozen albums, among which were "The Van Damme Sound", "Martini Time" and "The Art of Van Damme".

"I left NBC in Chicago in 1960 after working for them for 15 years," Van Damme said. "Live TV and radio had been on the downgrade or downward trend. Sure, I've done TV and radio shows since then, but only on a guest artist appearance basis."

Van Damme opened a music studio and store in suburban Chicago after he left NBC, and appeared with the quintet as guests on the Today Show, Tonight Show, Mike Douglas Show and Lawrence Welk Show. It was at this point that Van Damme realised he no longer wanted the headaches of leading a band.

"I personally don't care to have the responsibility of having a regular group anymore. Original men from the quintet are all still situated in Chicago and I do work with them on occasions when in that territory," Van Damme said. "But as of now, I am not carrying a regular quintet. My work takes me all over and I use local men who I am familiar with."

In 1965 Van Damme signed with MPS Records of Germany and has recorded 16 albums during that time. He has been voted top jazz accordionist for ten consecutive years in the annual Downbeat poll and for four consecutive years in the annual Contemporary Keyboard poll. His radio and TV appearances, seminars, tours and clinics in the United States and Europe since then number in the hundreds.

What this rich background means is that Van Damme is today considered a top jazz accordionist. Some of his feelings on the subject provides much food for thought. For example, he thinks the accordion is not the ideal jazz instrument.

"The fact that we have two separate keyboards, as such, controlled by one force, is a problem. I refer to the bellows, which is the source for both sides, and should be used in the same vein as a trumpet player or sax man as a breathing device," Van Damme explained. "A pianist is free to use either hand as he pleases, but not the accordionist. This naturally only scratches the surface, but I feel this is a basic problem in playing jazz."

Van Damme is equally outspoken when it comes to assessing his field. He is not afraid to name names. "(Leon) Sash, Mat Mathews, Pete Jolly, (Ernie) Felice, (Tommy) Gumina, they are all good friends of mine I'm happy to say and each in his own style is great. They all have something to say on their instruments, helping to take the polka sound out of the accordion," Van Damme said. 

"Unfortunately, there are not too many really good jazz accordionists, but I do feel we are progressing." 

For the future, Van Damme seems likely to be just as busy as ever. He recently completed a pilot for a one hour live radio show with quintet and Roberta Sherwood on vocals that he expects to be syndicated. Plans call for a guest vocalist each week.

"After 38 years I'm going back to radio, which shows that if you live long enough, anything can happen," Van Damme said."

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