Art Van Damme, 1920-2010

Art Van DammeThere aren’t a ton of jazz accordionists and one could argue that, if it wasn’t for Art Van Damme, there might not be any at all. Often called the father of jazz accordion, Van Damme was a pioneer who helped establish the accordion as a serious jazz instrument. He passed away on Monday at the age of 89.

Heavily inspired by the recordings of the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, Van Damme developed his early style by adapting Goodman’s solos to the accordion. In 1945, he joined NBC Radio as a studio musician where he recorded more than 150 shows with his quintet, in addition to numerous TV appearances on the Tonight Show, Dinah Shore Show, and others. Over the course of fifty years performing, he recorded more than 40 albums, toured throughout Europe and the US, and was voted “Top Accordionist” in Downbeat magazine’s annual poll of jazz musicians ten years running. His melodic improvisation and light touch were hallmarks of his playing.

If you’re interested in exploring Art’s music, you can find a few of his 1950’s albums on iTunes. I also highly recommend the four-CD compilation Squeeze Me: The Jazz and Swing Accordion Story. It’s an excellent introduction to jazz accordion and features tracks from Van Damme, Joe Mooney, Johnny Meyer, Mat Mathews, and many more.

MP3 Monday: 2010 Grammy Winners

Last night’s Grammy Awards weren’t just about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and the wonders of Auto-Tune. At the pre-telecast awards ceremony, a handful of accordionists picked up awards, too. Let’s review the big winners:

Best Cajun or Zydeco Album: Buckwheat Zydeco

The Cajun/Zydeco category has only been around for three years, but it’s already produced three different winners. Buckwheat Zydeco played organ for the legendary Clifton Chenier’s band before picking up the accordion and, since Chenier’s death in 1987, has become zydeco’s best-known (and most mainstream) artist. Lay My Burden Down is probably his most mature album to date, mixing his party-time zydeco with inspired covers (including “When the Levee Breaks”).

Best Tejano Album: Los Texmaniacs

We reviewed this album last summer and were excited to see it recognized last night. Both Texmaniacs leader Max Baca and accordionist David Farias have shared in other Grammy wins, but this was the first for their group that combines blues and rock with traditional conjunto. On Borders y Bailes, released on Smithsonian Folkways, they breathe new life into the century-old music of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Best Norteño Album: Los Tigres Del Norte

With more than 32 million records sold in their 40-year history, Los Tigres have long been the kings (or “Los Jefes de Jefes”) of norteño music, so their victory was no surprise. What’s surprising, though, is that Tu Noche Con… is their first live album. Los Tigres take their role as spokesmen of the people very seriously, and the album contains a great mix of the politically and socially-charged corridos, rancheras, ballads and cumbias that have built them a loyal following.

And finally, for those wondering how 18-time Grammy winner Jimmy Sturr would fair after the polka Grammy’s demise last year — he lost to Loudon Wainright III for Best Traditional Folk Album. There’s always next year.