Jazz violinist turns 100

Jazz violinist turns 100


norman lebrecht

March 03, 2016

Violin maker Jens Stenz writes from Aarhus, Denmark:

Svend Asmussen 1 1992
photo (c) Jan Persson/Lebrecht Music&Arts


On February 28th Svend Asmussen celebrated his 100th birthday.

Born in Copenhagen in 1916, Asmussen began playing the violin around the age of seven.

After some lessons with classical music-teachers , he decided that jazz was his main interest… although he names Fritz Kreisler as a main inspiration for sound quality and expressiveness. And in Asmussen’s playing there are certainly Kreisleresque qualities.

Other influences were Louis Armstrong, whom he befriended in Copenhagen in the early 1930’s, the Mills Brothers, Fats Waller, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington,Eddie Lang and Joe Venutti.

Asmussen began playing professionally at 17, when he made his first recording with his own band.  Over 75 years he toured the world as a bandleader and soloist, playing with big bands, at church concerts and in studio.

During World War Two he was incarcerated by the Nazis and spent time in a prison in Berlin. Asmussen used the time to rehearse choreography for cabaret shows while writing ‘mindful and intriguing arrangements” for his violin concerts.

In 1945 he declared ‘jazz is dead’, rejecting ‘non-danceable’ performance and overly intellectual styles.

He joined the Swe Danes trio with jazz singer Alice Babs and guitarist Ulrich Neumann, making the US charts.   A close friendship arose with composer Hoagy Carmichael and jazz clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman. In the 1960s he played with such jazz greats as Stephane Grappelli, Stuff Smith whom he called his black brother and Swedish jazz pianist Jan Johansson.

Even at the wildest moments when playing electric violin with wah wah pedals and electronic sound boosters, Asmussen maintained hs hallmark elegance which has always been his hallmark.

About 5 years ago a minor stroke forced his bow-arm to give up playing, but he still enjoys life going to concerts and living together with his wife Ellen Bick Meier. In a recent interview he claimed that he was up and ready to take another 100 years.


  • Nicola Lefanu says:

    I liked this:

    “Ellington pitted Mr. Asmussen against two fellow fiddle legends, Grappelli and Ray Nance, and the Dane more than held his own. At the end of the date, Sam Woodyard, Ellington’s drummer, said to Mr. Asmussen, “You really played your ass off.” Mr. Asmussen replied, “I hope not—then my name would have to be ‘Mussen’ from now on!”

  • ruben greenberg says:

    Happy birthday Svend! Sam Woodyard wasn’t an easy man to please. Nor was Benny Goodman. They both thought Svend was the greatest.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Anyone know what he was in for? There had to be some precipitating incident, right?

  • Jens Stenz says:

    Dear readers..

    I wrote this text about one of Denmarks greatest, if not the greatest jazz musician.

    There has never been any explanation as to why Asmussen was sent to jail in
    Berlin around 1944-45?. Let there be no doubt that the Nazi regime hated anything that could be associated with America (Jazz music amongst other things) or playing music with black or Jewish people. Asmussen was one of the first to break all “rules” by playing with these marvellous people and making friends with them all – not because of their colour, race or religion, but merely because of their great musicianship and human qualities.

    To my knowledge, Asmussen has never agitated pro or against any political issue from stage nor in his private life. And as far as I know he has never made any big deal by promoing the Berlin-prison story..

    I did not write nor do I like the “Anti nazi-jazz violinist” words in the headline of this article and I have asked that it be removed. After all the time spent in prison is such short part of an illustrious career of our dear Svend.

    All the very best.
    Jens Stenz
    Aarhus, Denmark