I first heard Svend Asmussen play when I was 14. At the time, I had no experience with jazz, but I had heard Miles Davis and fell in love with his sound. When I heard Svend play, I realized that this is how it’s done on the fiddle. I looked him up in the phone book and he was listed, but I wasn’t sure it was him, as Asmussen is a common name in Denmark. It turned out it was the Great Dane himself.
When I asked if he gave lessons, he said he didn’t teach, but he advised me to listen to jazz-violin pioneer Stuff Smith. Five years later, I had listened to much Stuff, and was invited by another jazz violinist, Bjarke Falgren, to have brunch with Svend at his house north of Copenhagen. Svend was feeling low after the loss of his wife, and he gave Bjarke and me most of his sheet music, including handwritten material. In the last few years, I’ve played tribute concerts to Svend in Denmark, the latest with Jacob Fischer, Svend’s guitar player for more than 15 years.
Svend’s playing is elegant while swinging from note one, and seeing him is like a constant back and forth between band and audience. He is a world-class innovator, virtuoso, and entertainer. —Violinist Mads Tolling
Talking with the Great Dane—an Unabashedly Personal Appreciation
By Matt Glaser
Svend Asmussen’s life has been, and continues to be, miraculous. There is really no other word strong enough to communicate the amount of creativity and life energy that he has shown in his playing, composing, arranging, acting, singing, and other kinds of joyful performance.
The recordings that Svend made in the late 1930s remain a high-water mark for jazz violin players everywhere—incredibly swinging, harmonically advanced, and technically blistering. I often play these recordings for any arrogant young jazz violin player who needs to be brought down a notch or two. They are humbling, indeed.
“Svend was the first jazz violinist in my experience who offered an attractive alternative to [Stephane] Grappelli’s style and sound, to which I had been drawn like so many other budding improvisers,” violinist Evan Price says. “Svend’s phrasing was hip without being self-consciously modern, and gutsy without compromising elegance. The two weeks I spent 20 years ago transcribing Svend’s solos have left an indelible mark on my playing.”
As a young swing fiddler, I was first introduced to Svend’s playing on a small, colorful, extended-play recording that I bought at a flea market. I had never heard such swinging, inventive fiddling in the context of entertaining and creative arrangements. Shortly thereafter, I found myself playing in New York City with the mandolinist David Grisman, who had just gotten a whole batch of rare Svend Asmussen 78s. I begged and cajoled Grisman into letting me borrow those discs overnight, so that I could record them. That evening, I knocked them off a table and broke every single one into a million pieces. I had to call Grisman and confess that I had destroyed these incredibly valuable treasures—it was almost as if I had accidentally set fire to a copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Grisman, to his credit, forgave me, but I don’t think I have ever forgiven myself.
A few years later, I became friends with Svend while writing Jazz Violin, the book that I coauthored with Grappelli. I had met Svend when he came to visit New York City in the early 1980s. One night we went out on the town to hear two impressive violin players who happened to be performing that night: Andy Stein and Darol Anger. I’ll never forget the look of utter fear and amazement on their faces when they realized that Svend Asmussen, the Great Dane, had come to listen to them perform. They both played great, of course, and Svend was gracious and complimentary. After Anger’s gig at the now-defunct Bottom Line, we all jammed backstage on the tune “All of Me.” I still have a cassette-tape recording of that jam session somewhere. I copped a few of his licks that night and still use them whenever I play that tune.
Svend has always been my ideal of what it means to be a swing fiddle player, and I have tried to commit some of his solos to memory. I still practice these solos and come back to them for inspiration, education, and technical development.
Throughout his career, Svend has performed with many of the greatest musicians in jazz, including Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, John Lewis, Toots Thielemans, and many others. He has also explored other styles of music, including Baroque and Scandinavian folk music. But beyond all else, he is one of the few true jazz violinists in history.
At 98, Svend—who now resides in Florida—still has a youthful gleam in his eye and a wicked sense of humor. I spent a lovely afternoon recently talking with Svend and his wife, Ellen, via Skype.
[Glaser:] Svend, I’m so honored to be talking with you. I can’t overstate how, to all of us, you are the greatest jazz violinist, the most swinging, with the most ideas, the hippest melodies.
[Asmussen:] You forgot Stuff Smith.
I didn’t forget him!
Because he was the one who really swung. He couldn’t touch a fiddle without swinging. Sometimes it sounded strange, but it swung. When I was a young man, the first jazz violinist I copied was Joe Venuti. He was really the father of us all. But I set to work developing my own style after hearing the incredibly swinging first recordings of Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys in the 1930s. I also tried to copy another group called the Spirits of Rhythm, also from the same club, with a wonderful guitar player who was 20 years ahead of his time. They were singing in five-part harmony sometimes, in 1936 and 1937.
Is that where you also began to learn to arrange for your band?
I did that all the time, yes.
And Benny Goodman had asked you to come and arrange for his group?
Yes. And I played with him. I was playing in Paris at the time and he called me. We played quite a lot together later on. Maybe you have seen that.
When you were developing your style, how did you practice? How did you develop your improvisations?
Well, I listened to other players, and later, right after the war, to [saxophonist] Charlie Parker. I tried to copy him.
So you would listen to records and you would play along on the violin with these recordings?
Yes, I listened to them and copied them. Sometimes I wrote down what they played.
You transcribed the solos. Wow! And did you play a chordal instrument like a piano or a guitar also?
Your harmonic understanding of the violin is beyond belief. It’s like Bach, your understanding of the upper parts of the chords.
Bach! I know the guy! I studied quite a lot of Bach—I tried to play all his Partitas.
The book you wrote of improvisations on standard tunes for unaccompanied violin is so beautiful. Like taking Bach and applying it to jazz violin.
Those solos—I could almost play them 20 years ago. When I wrote them I was living in France in the wintertime and there was nobody around to play with, so I had to find a way of making solos so I didn’t need to have accompaniment. At that time, I could technically play them, which I can’t any more.
To me you’ve always had this Bach component in your playing, you know, the other jazz-violin players, in the first octave, they would play 1, 3, 5, and then in the second octave they would play again 1, 3, 5, but you would play the upper parts of the chord: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. In that sense, you were the most modern jazz-violin player. In the 1930s, you were playing things that were way, way ahead of not only violin players but other musicians.
I’m very happy that you know this! I didn’t really know it myself.
Ellen: He’s so modest. I just want to mention that he is still arranging and he has just sent an arrangement of a hambo [a traditional Swedish dance] that he composed years ago to the Norwegian classical violinist Arve Tellefsen. And he is arranging and composing—still so active at 98.
Getting back to these recordings you made in the ’30s. The arrangements are so beautiful and so hip.
Sometimes we had to modify the tempo to fit the song on the record. It had to be no more than three minutes and 12 seconds, or we had to do it all over. I was always watching the red light like a hawk.
Your playing is so relaxed. You’re like a dancer when you’re playing, moving the violin around and playing the hippest things, totally swinging, all over the fingerboard. It’s really miraculous! When you think back on your recordings, what’s the favorite solo that you played?
There was one that I liked: “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief”—I liked that. I don’t like any of the other ones!
I have a lot of my students learn to play your solo on “Honeysuckle Rose.” That’s just unbelievable.
[Western swing fiddler] Johnny Gimble [of the Texas Playboys] once told me that he liked and admired some of the recordings from the ’30s, especially “Darktown Strutter’s Ball.” He said that that recording was the most swinging fiddle he had ever heard.
I know you two met on “A Prairie Home Companion,” the Garrison Keillor public radio show. There’s also video of you and Gimble playing on the PBS-TV show “Austin City Limits.” How did that come about?
I came to visit Nashville and I wandered into a TV studio where they were rehearsing, and to my great surprise Johnny Gimble recognized me. He had me go to my hotel and get my fiddle and play a number with him.
During a period of your career you were playing Telemann and Bach in concert. What spurred you to start playing classical music?
Some friends of mine gave me the idea because they had played at more than 5,000 churches in Sweden, and I found it very inspiring because the acoustics were so good. There were no limits to what you could play, and financially it was very good also. But you don’t play on chord changes when you play in churches! In one church, we made our entrance and people applauded. The local priest looked up and said, “No applauding in the altar of God!” But after the first number, everyone applauded anyway and after the third number he applauded! After the show, he didn’t even have time to say goodbye because he was counting all the money.
When you were a young man, did you have the opportunity to see American jazz musicians live in concert?
When Louis Armstrong came to Copenhagen in 1933, I was in the audience for all five of his concerts. There is video footage of him from one of those concerts. When he plays “Dinah,” it’s fabulous. What he plays is completely up to date. I also had the opportunity to meet Coleman Hawkins. When I was 16 years old, I was woken up by someone playing the piano downstairs— playing chords that my older brother didn’t know about. I went down and I saw a man sitting at the piano playing “The Talk of the Town.” I knew at once that this was Coleman Hawkins because I had heard the Fletcher Henderson recording of this song on which Hawkins plays a famous solo. I took my four-string guitar and joined him. I knew the chords and I sang his solo [Svend sings solo]. He said, “Yeah! That’s my solo from the record!”
He was very surprised.