Art Van Damme, who cut nearly 50 jazz records, made as many world concert tours and appeared on numerous NBC radio and TV shows, died before his 90th birthday concert bash.
The hippest cat ever to swing an accordion, Art Van Damme dared go where no man had gone before: jazz accordion. He started taking accordion lessons at the age of nine, and moved on to classical studies after his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1934. After leaving school. he played in a trio in local clubs under big band leader Ben Bernie hired him in 1941. He soon returned to Chicago, though, and continued to work the club circuit there throughout World War Two.
Van Damme was inspired by swing recordings, particularly Benny Goodman's, and in the late 1930s, he began experimenting, adapting Goodman solos to the accordion. Throughout his career, he would often be compared to Goodman, since the two were both classically trained, technical masters of their instruments, and versatile and creative jazz soloists. He formed a quintet with several of his studio colleagues, and recorded his first album, for the small label, Music Craft, in 1944.
More Cocktail Capers LPHe joined the staff of NBC Radio in Chicago in 1945 and remained a studio musician for over 15 years, even after he became a recording artist in his own right. His early style fits into a small but at the time quite popular niche between the cocktail piano sound and the accordion/guitar/organ sound of the Three Suns. In fact, his earliest albums for Capitol and Columbia all had titles that made this connection explicit: "Cocktail Capers"; "Martini Time"; "Manhattan Time."
Despite liner notes that described this music as "background for badinage," these are excellent albums, if far more subdued that the bebop they shared the record bins with. Van Damme's introduction of the accordion as a featured jazz instrument was well-received critically, and in 1947, Downbeat magazine put his photo on the cover of one of their issues. He would go on to voted "Top Accordionist" in Downbeat's annual poll of jazz musicians for ten years in a row. Later, he was similarly recognized by Contemporary Keyboard magazine for five years in a row.
As time went on, Van Damme moved into more adventurous territory, closer to mainstream jazz. His later Columbia albums feature him at the lead of small, tight combos, and include a mix of standards and Van Damme's own slightly bebop-ish originals. "Accordion a la Mode" may be his best album, although "A Perfect Match," in which he pairs with the fine jazz guitarist Johnny Smith, is a favorite among fans of what's been called "light jazz."