Accordions Worldwide Celebrity Interview, Art Van Damme
Celebrity Interviews

Art Van Damme

September 2005, Castelfidardo, Italy.
Moderator: Holda Paoletti-Kampl

Q. When you started to play the accordion - did you have an idol or somebody that inspired you?
A. When I was nine years old - I lived in a small town in Michigan with my parents who came originally from Belgium. They must have played me a record of some sort and my mother probably wanted me to play an instrument. There was a man in a nearby town, who had just retired from the organ circuit - his name was Heinz Caviani. As he was tired of travelling, he had decided to come home and teach the accordion and I started taking lessons from him.

Q. What was the greatest emotion in your musical career?
A. This is a very difficult question to answer…I was very fortunate when I was younger, as I started performing in my home town and also on 2 trips to California on the Santa Fee Road, when I was just 12/13 years old. We would start in Chicago and finish in California with several stops on the way, performing in a Quintet with my teacher. I studied with the Italian (origin) teacher Heinz Caviani for 5 years! So actually my career started when I was 12 years old.

Because of perfoming in 1933 for the Belgium Janitor Association, the President of this association asked me what my father was doing. This was the time of the great depression. I said he is cutting wood for $1 and he replied - have him come and see me!

And that's why my family moved to Chicago because they gave my dad a Janitors job in 1934 and thereafter, my teacher would come every 2 weeks. But as the journey became difficult, I went to another teacher and studied classical music from when I was 14 until I was 19. Now when does Jazz come in - you ask? I was still at High School and my idol at that time was Benny Goodman. How I developed my style was in my first trio with jazz accordion, saxophone and drums. The saxophone player was a great improviser and I would try and copy him. I didn't learn this anywhere else - I would listen to records and practice in the trio.
Art Van Damme with Holda Paoletti-Kampl

Q. Can Jazz Improvisation be learned?
A. You can be taught how to improvise as far as playing the chords, but the person performing has got to have that special feel for real improvising. You can play the same notes that somebody else plays, but those notes would never sound the same.

Q. Did you ever teach the accordion and transmit your great way of interpretation to others or do you think, every musician should try and find his own way?
A. I did - I had a music store and a studio when I left NBC. I was in NBC for 15 years. I did some coaching - basically professional players that were interested in how I played the accordion. I could teach them a little how to improvise, but I was teaching them more how to play the instrument. That is the important part.

The classical background was the best background that ever happened to me, because it taught me how to play and how to read, which is very important. I was fortunate when I was 24 years old, that they hired my group to go on NBC. You have to read music- because you never know, what you gonna have to play.

Q. Are there some young accordion jazz performers, that you know of?
A. In all my travels, I have most probably heard all the jazz players that are around. There are some very good players in Europe and in the United States. There is not a great amount - one can count the good ones on one hand.

I started coming to Germany in 1967 and since then, Europe has changed a lot, probably because, Europe used to be following about 10 to 20 years behind the United States as far as jazz was concerned. Europe now, has a lot more better Jazz players, than ever before.
Performing at 2005 Jazz Festival in Pineto, Italy.

Q. You have made so many recordings. Do you have some new recordings planned?
A. I started recording in 1944. The first recording was in a Quartet. I had a manager when I was working in NBC and signed a contract with Capital Records.

From 1952 until 1965, I was with Columbia Records. I made many recordings in Europe. In total 42 basic albums and about 16 those have been recorded in Germany, of which 10 albums were never released in the United States. Now a company in Berlin will release them in a box-set of 5 CD's.

Q. You have always played the Excelsior Accordion?
A. The first accordion that was ever bought for me in 1937 was an Excelsior and I played this accordion until 1945. When the Excelsior people in New York saw me playing the Excelsior accordion on NBC, they offered me a contract and they made me a model with an extended keyboard. Only for a short period, I also played another brand of accordion, but basically I can say, that I have played all my life the same brand.

Q. What message would you like to give to young musicians who would like to enter the world of jazz music with the accordion.
A. Unfortunately music is no longer what it used to be. Since rock came in, the conception of what people like in music is not what it was. But if a youngster has some talent, then I say….learn to play the instrument properly - lessons are important. I also suggest studying classical music. Almost all the really fine and best jazz players have had a classical background, so whatever you can think of that you want to play - you are capable of playing.
Performing at 2005 Jazz Festival in Pineto, Italy.

Q. I am no musician, but listening to your music and performance - it seemed so easy and smooth to me. What is your aim to transmit to the audience when you are performing?
A. What I became well-known for, was not just the accordion, but the sound that I played, which was accordion, guitar and vibes. We are selling a sound - this is the difference. So when you are going to a concert and you are having 1 accordion player after the other - that is perfectly fine, but I developed something different, that wasn't just the accordion - it was a combination. Any young player that has the talent now - don't try to do it just on accordion. That it is just for the accordion people!

My point is, that the audience is never only accordion people - but a wider audience, that is listening to music. A young talented accordionist should try to play in combination with other instruments.

Q. You have travelled and performed throughout the world. Is there a stage that is special to you, or do you have preferences for performances, like concert halls, clubs, big festivals, special pieces of music?
A. Every stage is important for a musician. Jazz clubs which are more intimate or outside, just so long as you can get the right sound. As a kid, I used to play standard songs, which were popular at that time, on the street and in Taverns and Bars. When 16, I formed my first group in order to get more money.

I still have a black book from 1937 where I wrote down all the income that I have received….for instance $4 for a wedding ceremony. This helped to pay for my first accordion. For 4 years I also played the clarinet.
Photo at Excelsior Factory, 2005, Left to Right:
Elma Santa, Holda Paoletti-Kampl, Art Van Damme,
Cemex Director Marco Galeazzi , Owner Francesca Pigini

Q. Of course, I have to ask you this last question. What is the secret of your life - being able to capture the attention and fascinate such large audiences over so many decades?
A. I was very fortunate in 1944 to sign a contract with NBC which changed my life, because I was still playing in bars and taverns. This opened up a whole new world for me and I started an accordion band. I was amazed already in 1967 on my first trip to Europe, that so many people had heard of me.

I had network radio shows on NBC and they started getting my records. The show gave me a chance to play with all the great jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie. They came on the show - you name them… I played with them.

I am amazed to see, that the interest in my playing seems stronger now than it ever was. I don't know why, but I am very happy about it.
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