Svend Asmussen & His Arena Quintet: “Honeysuckle Rose” (Odeon Kpo 3516, 1940)

It’s going to be a short week around here, as I’m off to Denmark tomorrow for the Roskilde Festival. I’ve been to festivals before—Laneway in Melbourne and Sydney and every Pitchfork festival, plus the last Wakarusa held in Kansas, but this one seems to be something different entirely. There will be somewhere in the range of 120,000 people there. Should be interesting.

So, in honor of my destination, some music from Denmark today and tomorrow.

First, something old. Today, Svend Asmussen is possibly the oldest working jazz musician in the world. He’s still playing violin and gigging regularly at age 95. I’m pretty sure he’s only player of any instrument that can say he’s played with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Stephane Grapelli, Django Reinhardt, Lionel Hampton, Stuff Smith, L. Subramaniam, David Grisman and Jean-Luc Ponty. It’s a broad assortment of collaborators that reflects his longevity.

Asmussen was born during World War I, a conflict that mercifully spared his country, and in his teens he fell in love with jazz after seeing Louis Armstrong perform in Copenhagen. He didn’t consider his instrument, the violin, a jazz instrument until he heard recordings by Joe Venuti, but once that happened, he committed to jazz violin, bringing along some gyspy influences from his childhood.

He recorded his first sessions as a leader in his early twenties, and was one of Denmark’s top bandleaders when Germany invaded in April, 1940. Germany’s Nazi government had a weird relationship to swing, deriding it as a cultural pollutant on one hand and embracing it as a propaganda tool on the other, but in Denmark, it was the clear where they stood: the music was banned.

This did not stop Asmussen, though. He continued to perform underground, and even made recordings, like the quintet version of “Honeysuckle Rose” heard in this post. The song was written by Fats Waller, with whom Asmussen had performed in the 30s, with lyrics by Andy Razaf. Asmussen’s version shares plenty in common with Django Reinhardt’s brand of gypsy swing, and that’s Asmussen himself singing.

In 1943, German police arrested Asmussen as part of a larger crackdown on prominent Danes, and he spent most of the rest of the war in prison. In the post-War period, he became one of Scandinavia’s most popular entertainers, and for a time led an enormously popular pop/jazz/vocalese trio with singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrik Neumann called the Swe-Danes.

Asmussen’s career has lasted over 70 years. It’s amazing to think of how many other musicians and trends have come and gone in that span. I’ll be happy just to live to 95, much less to have the kind of physical facility and endurance Asmussen needs to keep playing his music.

Anne Brown: “Summertime” (George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, 1940)

This is as close to an original cast recording of “Summertime” as we’ll ever get. The original 1935 production of Porgy & Bess wasn’t recorded. Gershwin’s opera had a short run on Broadway, and then toured—during its time in Washington, DC, a protest by the cast led to the first desegregated audience at the National Theatre.

In 1940 (some sources say 1942), though, members of the then-current cast and some original cast members were assembled by Decca for a recording of selections from the opera. This is Anne Brown, the first woman to play Bess in the opera (Abbie Mitchell played her during rehearsals in Boston, but wasn’t part of the Broadway cast), singing “Summertime,” much as it would have sounded in 1935—the first minute is the overture.

Porgy & Bess originated with a novel by DuBose Heyward, which he and his wife Dorothy adapted for a stage play. Gershwin’s opera stuck more closely to the novel, and his brother Ira worked close with Heyward on the lyrics. Show-business racism prevented Porgy & Bess from being treated as a true opera in the United States for decades, but it was eventually accepted for what it is—the Nashville Symphony & Chorus did a full version in 2006, based on the scores and stage directions used for the original 1935 production that’s worth getting your hands on.

One thing you’ll notice immediately listening to this, if you’re only familiar with pop and jazz version of this song, is that Brown’s singing style is obviously classical—she’s an opera singer. There aren’t a whole lot of non-production versions of the song that even hint toward that, and I suspect that most performers of the song don’t really have any familiarity with it as a part of a larger production. It has a life of its own now, defined as much by those pop and jazz versions as by the production it was originally a part of.