‘The Fiddling Viking’ dies at age 100

By Cristina Schreil

Known as the “Fiddling Viking,” Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen found fame for his superb swinging sound and merry onstage charisma. The virtuoso, who performed for more than eight decades, was a treasured fixture of Europe’s jazz scene and an original titan of jazz violin. He fiddled and sang alongside Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Django Reinhardt, and fellow violinist Stéphane Grappelli, in addition to his own ensembles.

Asmussen passed on February 7, just weeks before his 101st birthday. His death sparked an outpouring of memories and admiration from the jazz world.

“To me Svend was the first guy to really play bebop on the violin. He was playing lines as hip as Charlie Parker even before Charlie Parker played them,” says jazz violinist, and fellow Dane, Mads Tolling. He first saw Asmussen play when he was 15, and recalls a natural entertainer. “Svend brought the violin into being a serious jazz instrument, as he had the chops and harmonic knowledge of any great saxophone or pianist improviser.”

Asmussen was born in Copenhagen in 1916. He picked up violin as a child after studying piano. As a teen, he heard recordings by American violinists Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith that deeply influenced him. He pursued sculpture and dentistry, but ultimately found success in music, playing in clubs and on records by his late teens. His first two influences informed him for years; Asmussen adopted Venuti’s four-string bow technique, wherein the bow hair is unfastened, wrapped around the strings, and refastened to the stick under the instrument, allowing the player to bow all four strings at once. He marveled especially at Smith, his idol and eventual friend.

Tolling recalls Asmussen’s unending admiration for Smith’s playing. When he contacted Asmussen for a lesson years ago, his advice was simple: “Just listen to Stuff Smith.” Tolling insists this reflected Asmussen’s demeanor. “Svend being truly humble and always pointing to others as being superior was just part of the way he was,” he says.

Asmussen led several ensembles, including a quartet, a quintet, and the “Swe-Danes,” a trio with singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrik Neumann in the 1950s and ’60s. He was also an actor, exuding a fun sense of humor, and a composer. His career paused upon imprisonment by the Nazis in 1943. Ever the showman, he snapped right back into it upon release. He performed into his nineties, until a stroke affected his bow arm.

Jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty discovered Asmussen in his youth, finding his style to be the closest to modern jazz. Asmussen “played with his heart,” Ponty says. He first collaborated with him in 1966, for the live-recorded concert “Violin Summit” in Switzerland. Smith and Grappelli also joined. “I was 23 years old and thrilled to be onstage with these great jazz violinists,” Ponty says. He spent time with him again in 1974. Asmussen offered Ponty his idea for a new note-changing technique, insisting he should be the one to try it. “It felt like I was with a musical father and I was touched by his generosity and humility,” Ponty says.

Guitarist Jacob Fischer, part of Asmussen’s quartet since 1992, also recalls “beautiful memories” of interacting with his bandleader between gigs. In the tour bus or at a post-concert meal, Asmussen would share “seemingly endless” stories of hearing musical greats: Fritz Kreisler, Jascha Heifetz, Eddie Lang, Reinhardt, Ellington. Fischer adds that Asmussen “never gave up the quest for Stuff’s enormous swing,” and that his “sense of harmony, finesse in phrasing, interesting choice of notes, and understanding of arranging was a brilliant cocktail.” He asserts Asmussen arranged tunes that were complex yet lean, with no unnecessary notes to be found. Painting him as ceaselessly curious, Fischer adds that he’d explore music genres and experiment with new technology into his later years.

Jazz violinist Jason Anick, who teaches a history of jazz violin course at the Berklee College of Music, says Asmussen’s legacy is undeniable. “I love when my students’ faces light up when we dig into Svend’s body of work.” He adds Asmussen “also helped to push the violin deeper into the jazz vernacular, often playing phrases that mimicked the articulation and harmonic refinement of the great bebop era saxophone players. He also played with the perfect blend of sophistication and good humor, making his playing downright infectious.”

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