Jammed with writing assignments this week, I spent yesterday working and listening to accordionist Art Van Damme. It makes no sense to tell you how much Van Damme swings, since all great jazz accordionists swing. What made Van Damme singular were his thick chord voicings and his groovy attack, which sounded almost vocal. So teaming with guitarist Johnny Smith on A Perfect Match (1962) was a brilliant pairing. Van Damme's meaty, sighing chords and Smith's ringing, bell-like guitar notes sound like five people instead of two.
Van Damme was born in 1920 in Norway, Mich. He was classically trained on the piano and began playing accordion at age 9, performing regularly at a local theater. After his family moved to Chicago when he was 14, Van Damme added concerts for the Sante Fe Railroad between the Midwest and California. At age 18 in 1938, he became fascinated by swing and started a trio with accordion, bass and guitar. He was hired in 1941 for a few months by bandleader Ben Bernie and left to become a solo act before forming another trio—this time with accordion, vibes and bass. Drums were added in 1944.
Van Damme's impeccable playing style and one-man band approach landed him a steady job with NBC Radio in 1945—a spot that lasted until 1960. Thanks to his ability to craft small-group arrangements on the fly, he played on more than 100 episodes of The Art Van Damme Show, a 15minute segment for NBC (I wish someone would haul these out for a fresh listen). He also appeared regularly on TV in the '50s on celebrity-hosted variety shows. His visibility on the radio in the post-war years inspired a generation of jazz accordionists.
After NBC, Van Damme opened a music studio and store in suburban Chicago in 1960, moving to Northridge, Calif. in 1968, spending his spare time playing golf. From the 1970s on, Van Damme regularly toured Japan and Europe, where the accordion was a familiar instrument, Van Damme died in 2010 at age 89.
JazzWax clips: Here's Art Van Damme and Johnny Smith on Gone With the Wind.
Here's Van Damme and his quartet in 1951 on the Dave Garroway Show...