Svend Asmussen may be the finest little-known jazz performer in the world. This page seeks to address the vacuum of information about this remarkable gentleman on the Web today.
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.
During the period 1958 to 1961, Asmussen, along with popular Swedish singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrik Neumann, formed a trio entitled the "Swe-Danes," a sort of music hall/pop vocalese group. They were the most popular act of their time in Scandinavia and also toured the United States to acclaim, appearing in venues (Hollywood's Cocoanut Grove, New York's Waldorf-Astoria) from coast to coast. Their "Scandinavian Shuffle" was nominated for a Grammy in 1960. Mr. Asmussen's career outside of jazz is mostly beyond the scope of this page, but I couldn't resist including this remarkable picture of the Swe-Danes. From left to right, that's Svend, Babs, and Ulrik. Click the image for a larger version.
Asmussen's 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 Goodman "small groups" might have produced if Asmussen had been added to the likes of Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton. A suggestion of the possibilities can be heard on an elusive 1978 album featuring a collaboration with Hampton.
OK, so you've read this far and might be interested. Despite his relative obscurity, there are usually a few Svend Asmussen recordings available for purchase in the United States. Allow me to be your tour guide to this remarkable artist.
Four CDs, featuring more-or-less straight-ahead jazz performances, represent a good starting point for most new listeners:
June Night is from Sony Music Special Products and may be available in a variety of reissue packaging. The title tune was a pop hit for Svend back in 1940. The group on this 1983 recording includes Derek Smith, Bucky Pizzarelli, Oliver Jackson, Jr., and Milt Hinton. The cuts include such standards as "Just a Gigolo" and "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." Trust me, if you have any interest in violin\fiddle as a jazz instrument, you will like this album. It has also been packaged together with Stephane Grappelli "Live at Carnegie Hall" on the "Collectables" label.
Svend Asmussen at Slukafter features a 1984 live performance, recorded at a club in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark. A couple of Svend's own compositions are mixed in with nine other cuts, including standards such as "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Things Ain't What They Used To Be." He is accompanied by well-known Scandinavian sidemen, plus American expatriate drummer Ed Thigpen.
Fiddler Supreme is a 1989 recording that brings together 12 selections including re-workings of some great standards (Limehouse Blues, I Concentrate On You, I've Got Rhythm), the Asmussen original "Desperado," and an instrumental version of "June Night." Asmussen and his quartet are in fine form on the swinging oldies as well as the more modern stuff such as two Sonny Rollins compositions. I can recommend this Swedish import if for no other reason than it is actually available from many online CD mail-order stores, possibly in larger local record shops as well.
Fit as a Fiddle is a more recent CD and a nice one too! Here are 11 numbers recorded "Live In Concert" in 1996 at three different venues in Denmark and Sweden. Svend and the three young members of his new quartet are in fine form on this collection which includes "Bye, Bye Blackbird," "I Loves You Porgy," and "A Night In Tunisia." I especially enjoyed the group's version of "Columbine Polka Mazurka" and the exceptional guitar of Jacob Fischer on Duke Ellington's "The Mooche." I defy you to listen to this record and believe that the lead player is an 80-year old man. He's just marvelous! This 1997 release is also available from the online record dealers.
In addition to these four, you certainly can't go wrong with Asmussen's most recent release:
THE EARLY YEARS
Here is our man in his early twenties in the center of an early group. There is little doubt that these young gentlemen were having a good time. Some of Svend's most engaging tunes may be found on two CDs on the Phontastic label from Sweden.
Of the two, the second is probably a better introduction to Svend's early work. A totally delightful album throughout, the 22 cuts include many swing standards familiar to American audiences (Darktown Strutter's Ball, Rhythm is Our Business, etc.). Indeed, little of Asmussen's work could be regarded as "provincial" and of interest only to European listeners. The first CD features Svend's very earliest work, including his original 1940 recording of "June Night." It's great too, but, if you are pinched, the second volume gets the nod.
Asmussen has performed with a remarkably wide variety of other musicians. He is equally at home with traditional jazz, pop tunes, modern jazz, and even oriental variations. Following are a few known to have been released on CD.
On The Good Ship Lollipop offers a lesson in marketing and packaging. When I bought these 1987 performances on LP some years ago, both artists were prominently featured and given equal billing on the cover. The CD version (1995) is offered as a "Teresa Brewer" recording ("featuring" Svend Asmussen). This one is not for everyone, but I really like it. You get the vocal version of "June Night" and the selection of other tunes ("Mean to Me," "More Than You Know," etc.) is a fine one. Side men include Hank Jones on piano and Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar.
European Encounter teams Svend with John Lewis, better known as leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Recorded in 1962 and reissued in 1986, this is a thoroughly delightful album, featuring seven cuts, six of which are Lewis compositions. Listen for the rare tenor violin on "New York 19."
Toots & Svend Yesterday and Today teams our man with jazz harmonica virtuoso, Toots Thielemans. This is a great example of how instruments not ordinarily associated with jazz can come together with success. Svend plays violin, viola, and cello. The first cut, an exceptional version of Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" is a highlight. Seek this one out!
Svingin' With Svend features a delightful collaboration in which Svend Asmussen sits in with the David Grisman Quintet. This 1988 release is just too good for words, as Svend plays off against the mandolin master Grisman with exceptional results. Recorded live at Fat Tuesday's in New York, this CD is hard to find, but a must have for true fans. Indeed, the few seconds of spoken introduction to "Swing Mineur" is worth twice whatever you have to pay for it (not to mention the title, that makes me smile everytime I see it).
Two Of A Kind serves up Asmussen and Grappelli together with top Scandinavian sidemen. Three of their own compositions are included along with a couple of standards --"Honeysuckle Rose," "Satin Doll," and "Someone To Watch Over Me." The two giants of the jazz violin were brought together by Bent Fabric on his popular Danish "Blue Hour" television program in December 1964. The 1965 recording session followed.
Garland features 6 compositions, all but one written and arranged by Dr. L. Subramaniam, the Indian violinist, and recorded in Copenhagen in 1978. I seldom play this LP, but it certainly illustrates the versatility of our man Asmussen, who seems to be at home with just about any form.
The Chamber Choir & Eric Ericson Encounter Svend Asmussen presents an exceptional mixture of Beethoven, Schumann, and Bach pieces alongside those of John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington! Toss in folk tunes from Brazil, Japan, and Africa, a live TV-audience, and the famous Swedish Chamber Choir under the direction of Eric Ericson, and the result is something quite extraordinary. The recordings date to 1972-73. The CD was reissued in 1988.
ALL THE REST
I have several Asmussen releases on LP which may or may not have been released on CD. This is by no means a complete list, but the following are worth mentioning and certainly worth picking up from a used record dealer if the chance presents itself.
Danish Jazz, Vol. 6 covers the same period as Phenomenal Fiddler-Vol. 2, but only 4 of the 15 cuts on this album are duplicated on the CD. Where else can you hear Svend doing the great novelty numbers "The Booglie Wooglie Piggie" and "My Old Man"? I've had this LP for many years and if this were the kind of world it should be, it would be released on CD as the next order of business.
Hot Swing Fiddle Classics was my introduction to Svend Asmussen. Four of the five cuts on this 1979 release are also on Musical Miracle-Vol. 1, but the tracks by other hot fiddlers Stuff Smith and (especially) Emilio Caceres make this an attractive album nonetheless.
As Time Goes By features a collaboration with Lionel Hampton, recorded in Copenhagen in 1978, with support from Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen (bass), and Ed Thigpen (drums). This LP is really tough to track down, but your effort will be rewarded. Producer Rune Ofwerman plays piano on the title track and the result - - just a hint of what Benny Goodman's small group could have been like.
Danish Imports is, as the album states "intimate jazz by two of Europe's greatest instrumentalists." Svend teams with guitarist Ulrik Neumann for a dozen laid back standards that are truly delightful. Spin this baby on the turntable and all the stress and cares of the day melt away. Recorded in Hollywood in 1961 during a break in the Swe-Dane's annual US tour.
Dansk Guldalder Jazz Vol. 1-2 is a double-LP covering Danish Jazz releases between 1933 and 1941. Asmussen's first recording ("Tiger Rag") is included. Svend appears on about one-quarter of the 28 cuts. The highlights here, though, are the two songs by "De Tre Rhythm Girls," a terrific vocal trio!
Dansk Guldalder Jazz Vol. 3-4 is another double-LP, these volumes covering the years 1942 to 1949. This one mainly features Leo Mathisen and others, but there are a couple of Svend offerings of interest, recorded in Stockholm, Sweden, with the late '40s version of his group.
Despite the "All The Rest" heading of this section, there are numerous other albums featuring Svend Asmussen. These include many non-Jazz recordings, as well as an available-only-in-Europe multiple CD set reissuing virtually all of his earlier popular recordings. A more complete discography, compiled by Joel Glassman, is available elsewhere.
Those of you with browsers that support certain music players may now click the little black right-pointing arrowhead and listen to Svend Asmussen playing just a taste of his signature tune "June Night." Some of you heard it when this page first loaded. [18 seconds -- 205K]
Svend Asmussen recordings are not always easy to find, but the Internet's leading retailer usually has them. Clicking on the Amazon.com image will take you to a page where you can search for them. And if you buy something, there is a small rebate to yours truly that will help defray the expense of maintaining this site.
SVEND ON VIDEO
Back in 1981 the still-active Benny Goodman made an appearance at a jazz club in the Tivoli Gardens complex in Copenhagen, Denmark. During the second half of the show Benny called upon his old friend Svend Asmussen to come up from the audience and join in a few unrehearsed numbers. Fortunately, this concert appearance was filmed and is available on video tape. The tape is in color and runs for about 50 minutes. The image shown at left is from this concert tape. The last time I looked, it was still available from internet sources, though you may have to look around a bit. The search will be worth the effort and you won't be disappointed.
After a delay of many years, the "Svend Asmussen Quartet" DVD is finally available in the United States. This is a 42-minute live performance filmed in 1986 at the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen. The DVD is part of a new "Jazz Legends" series released by Storyville Films. The accompaniests are all first rate jazz performers: Kenny Drew (piano), Niels Henning Orsted-Pedersen (bass), and Ed Thigpen (drums). Although the box says "B&W," the recording is actually in color. This is a "must have" for any true fan. Truly, the only faults are that the performance is much too short and the DVD ends a little too abruptly. The set consists of seven songs, including "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Just A Gigolo," and Svend's signature tune "June Night." Each of the artists is in fine form and I especially enjoyed seeing our man plucking the strings on several numbers, something that turns up only occasionally in his studio recordings. The release is Storyville DVD 16030 and you can buy your own copy for a very agreeable price at Amazon.com.
SVEND ASMUSSEN TODAY
An e-mail received from a fan in June 1997 reports that he had just returned from an Asmussen concert in Reykjavik, Iceland
"two hours ago ... and am still swinging. Since your homepage is the first I've seen on this great artist, I wanted you to know that I was there and loved every moment of it."
A correspondent to this page conducted several hours of interviews with Svend in his Copenhagen home. The illustrated results have now been published in the Spring 2005 issue of Fiddler magazine. Looks like the cover image was taken from a photo of our man with Richard and Janet during their first visit in 2001. Click the image at left for a larger version and see the handsome and amiable Mr. Asmussen as he looks today.
Svend is also featured in a nice illustrated article in the February 2005 issue of the British magazine "The Strad." In addition a 3-hour Danish television feature, documenting the career of our man, was broadcast in Europe in 2003. It was seen by over 200,000 viewers in Denmark alone.
And the really big news? (at least for those who read Danish) — in March 2005, Mr. Asmussen's biography "June Nights: Svend Asmussen's Life In Music," published by Gyldendal, appeared on the shelves of better European book stores. And, I am told by someone who should know, it is selling very well. If this treasure ever becomes available in English you will certainly learn about it here. In addition, an audio-book version is in the works, with actor Jesper Langberg reading the text.
Svend Asmussen celebrated his 92nd birthday on February 28, 2008, and his public performances are now quite limited in number. His most recent quartet, seen here, includes Jacob Fischer (guitar), Aage Tanggaard (drums), and Jesper Lundgaard (bass). Ceremonies and events relating to the 90th birthday included an exhibition put together by Revymuseet påå Frederiksberg which opened in the spring of 2006. Among other items on display were Svend's drawings and sketches of musical partners and others throughout his over 75-year career.
A new set of CDs, reissuing material not otherwise readily available, may be forthcoming from EMI as part of the "Diamond Series." There is also a new DVD, entitled, "Et Liv I Musik" that includes over 3 hours of interviews, old and recent music, and photos. It is produced by Universal (Denmark), but so far as I can tell is not yet available outside of Europe. There is some indication that an English language version may be forthcoming.
And how is the gentleman himself getting along? I have it on good authority that he and his new wife Ellen are doing very well indeed. Take a look at this terrific 2007 picture of Svend and Ellen. Now that's a nice looking couple.
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This page created and maintained by Jim Lowe
First appearance: May 18, 1997
Last updated: April 16, 2008
© 1997, 1998, and 2002, by James R. Lowe, who reserves all rights to the content of this page not successfully claimed by others.