Friday, February 19, 2010

ART VAN DAMME DIES - Jazz-Pop Accordionist

"The World's Greatest Accordionist" was the billing Columbia gave to Art Van Damme for his "Swings Sweetly" album. Not many argued the point at the time. The most famous accordionist of the day was probably polka star Frankie Yankovic and things haven't improved much with "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Other famous accordion players? Well, most of them didn't take their instruments seriously: Pete Barbutti (who did a routine about an "accordeen school") and Judy Tenuta. Jo Basile recorded a few albums that benefitted from sexy babes on the cover.

A little better regarded is Astor Piazzolla, who played the bandoneon, an instrument that does seem to have a little more flexibility, especially in tango-classical pieces.

Van Damme, born in Norway (a town in Michigan) in 1920, played accordion in Ben Bernie's band, formed his own quintet, and even had his own 15 minute radio show on NBC, where he was a staffer from 1945 to 1960.

Those were his prime years for "light jazz" albums, including such middle of the road discs as "Cocktail Capers," More Cocktail Capers," "House Party," and "Martini Time." The albums were hardly intended to showcase some hidden hipness in the accordion, an instrument as limited as the harmonica (an annoying instrument even in the hands of Johnny Puleo or Larry Adler...and just mention Max Geldray to a Goon Show fan and watch the eyes roll). With little competition, Van Damme was the usual jazz poll winner on his chosen instrument. And with little real interest in mild jazz accordion in the 70's, he was off Columbia and recording for the German label MPS until he semi-retired.

He died on February 15th, age 89. As you'll hear from the sample of "In the Wee Small Hours..." playing a modest MOR pop tune on an accordion (or harmonica) is modestly entertaining, but doesn't quite grab the attention as much as a vocalist, saxophone player or singer can. The full "Swings Sweetly" does indeed swing most pleasantly; perfect for sipping a martini or two.
"After You've Gone" 1949 song by the Art Van Damme Quintet
A whole Damme album

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