Is You Is Or Is You Ain't
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
The Art Van Damme Quintet
Columbia C2L 7
From Billboard - April 21, 1958: Here's a bargain package, spotlighting more than 40 standards – covering a period of 50 years. The tunes... are handed relaxed, tastefully simple instrumental treatments by the Quintet with standout work on lives by Chuck Calzaretta and accordionist Van Damme. Solid nostalgic wax.
2 disc set in a book-fold package featuring copious notes which contains a good amount of biographical information.
From the jacket notes: I first heard the Art Van Damme Sound on a summer's evening some twelve years ago on my way to chow in some forgotten army camp, near the end of World War II. Through an open barracks window this clean, lyrical blend of five instruments stopped me dead in my tracks as I eavesdropped on some Chicago GI who was listening to a bit of "home" on his radio. I lingered long enough to hear the announcer identify the group – the Art Van Damme Quintet – a fact which I mentally filed for future listening pleasure.
I suppose it has happened to others hearing Art Van Damme for the first time – the group's imaginative musical interpretations make a striking first impression. Maybe you wouldn't phrase it that way – or any way – other than it just sounded good to you hearing them for the initial time. And the quintet's aural attraction has not diminished one degree for me in these years between. If I had never heard them before and had chanced upon the same sound today, it would again pull me up short in my traces to pause and listen to this musical marvel.
And so, a dozen years and a few hundred radio programs later, I have the inestimable pleasure to put down, at some length, in writing what I've been saying on the air for the past ten year about on of my all-time favorite musical groups. Like the late Ben Bergie, evidently a lot of people besides me consider Art Van Damme the finest accordionist in the world. The music critics think so, too, because Art has again won the Down Beat award as the best musician on that instrument in the country, in the world for that matter, and that included Sputniks I and II.
What about this former clarinetist in his high school band whose first love has always been the accordion? How did he, almost singlehandedly, lift this instrument from its lovely, much-maligned position of an "mom-pah-pah" anonymity to its highly respected place today in the world of popular music, accepted on an equal plane with any other solo instrument? We must go back to Art's birthplace, Norway, Michigan, where at the bring and shiny-faced age of nine, he started taking lessons, the usual faltering steps learning the endless scales and then the gradual modulation to the regular pattern followed by everyone who has selected the accordion as his means of musical self-expression. There was the advance to the classical and popular category in the traditional manner where most have been stranded. In just one year, although he cringes at the term, Art was considered a child prodigy and was advance enough to make personal appearances at local theaters in the Norway neighborhood. This exposure and training was invaluable experience and served as a study foundation for what was to follow in his career. Somewhere in this era, Benny Goodman enters the Art Van Damme picture – not B.G., physically, but his influence from his vast contribution to musical Americana, made in indelible impression on the Van Damme ear. In a sense, here was Art's new field to conquer. This was the important moment when Art discovered that many of the great Goodman clarinet figures could be integrated and interpolated onto the accordion keyboard. However, we could go even further back in the annals of popular music, in this case jazz, to a man who made one of the most startling endowments in the history of keyed instruments – Earl Hines who, like Art Van Damme, raised his instrument to an important new solo level in the realm of music. From the dim obscurity and secondary role of a rhythm section component, Hines' melodic, butterflylike right hand has become on of the four primary major piano influences on the music scene today. You'll hear traces of it in Erroll Garner, Nat Cole and Oscar Peterson. Hines proved that the piano could play solo, and very few who followed after him could match his imagination., originality, drive and beat. In a sort of subtle way Earl Hines diminished the musical prejudice against all keyed instruments and made it somewhat easier for Art Van Damme's keyboard conception to become the remarkable success it was to become some years later. The thread of consequences here may seem a little thin, though sturdy in my estimation.
Back in the Goodman era in the Art Van Damme story, the Goodman small combo arrangements worked hand-in-glove with what ideas Art had in mind for a musical group. Art found that B.G.'s clarinet interpretations lost little of their gloss when transposed to the accordion keyboard and, consequently, today the Van Damme "book" of arrangements is generously sprinkled with Benny's quintet and sextet charts. Some have been recorded and you may have heard them in earlier Art Van Damme albums – for instance, Don't Be That Way and Blue Lou.
Art's family moved from the Michigan country to the Windy City of Chicago in 1934 where he attended Amundsen High School, of which he is one of the most celebrated alumni. He played clarinet in the school band, which must have had the swingin'est reed section in the state! In his last year at school, Art toyed around with a trio and played for school affairs much to the delight of the students. Out of Amundsen in 1938, he was determined to start a group professionally built around his accordion and to make music his vocation and career. One of his first units was a trio, accordion, bass and guitar which included Wally Kamin (Mary Ford's brother-in-law), on bass and Bert Hill on guitar. Their first professional play-for-pay bookings started at the Sportsman Club at 75th and Stony Island on Chicago's South Side and then blossomed into other jobs around the Windy City Loop district. A short while later Art switched to the combination of accordion, bass, drums and vibes when he made the valuable addition of Chuck Calzaretta, one of the real veterans of the troupe, handling the mallets.
It was in 1940 that Les Paul, whose trio had been featured with Ben Bernie's orchestra, induced the Ol' Maestro to travel up to a club on the North Side of Chicago to hear Art play. Bernie was won over by Art's deft and imaginative accordion style and signed the group to tour with the band. Traveling with the Bernie orchestra, Art as given featured solo spots and gained invaluable experience from the road travel plus the more important exposure due to the great number of engagements the band fulfilled. Art is quite modest about how highly Ben Bernie thought of his accordion talent. Ben used to introduce him as the "greatest accordionist in the world." And to date, in my humble estimation, this comment is still timely. When conversations and discussions are begun concerning music, instruments and musicians, invariably the association of "accordion" and "Art Van Damme" is automatic – all other accordion artists follow after. In the musicians' parlance, other affectionate terms have been affixed to the instrument like "belly Baldwin," "stomach Steinway" or "pleated piano," but the artist's name never varies. At the top of the list it's always Art Van Damme.
In a recent interview for a leading musical publication, he said in effect, "The accordion field is a difficult on because it is tough to get the public to accept the accordion... Our group must perpetuate our style wit a definite ensemble sound in order to reach the public." Well, reached the public he has in the past dozen years, and with target like efficiency, record after record, album after album and appearances after appearance on radio and television. Art's conception of a "definite ensemble sound" has become so distinctive and singularly individual that the Van Damme Sound today is as identifiable musically as Erroll Garner, the Shearing blend, the immediately recognizable Basie beat or the Sinatra phrasing. This successful musical recipe was concocted by Art over twelve years ago and has never varied an iota in essence in the almost baker's dozen years which have spun by since he decided, "This is it – accordion, vibes, guitar, bass and drums to the end!" And the arrangements have always been fresh as this minute, never banal or ordinary or trite, but always imbued with a bubbling effervescence and scintillation in performance, with little melodic surprises liberally strewn along the thirty-two bars to make for most invigorating listening. I assume the highest compliment a musical can receive in an esthetic and dedicated sense is for a brother artist to comment, "Man, you really swing!" In this day and era of "top pop" musical illiteracy, we owe a debt of gratitude to the few uncompromising artists who sustain a superior plane of endeavor in the caliber of music they present. Though I am not a musician and do not know a clef from a hot cross bum, let me state that the Art Van Damme Quintet swings like a hula dancer's flanks.
The recorded Van Damme music of 1945 is still being played on the air today, and the same virile incandescence, the pliant smooth blend, the keyboard pyrotechnics and the animated, breezy arrangements are as ear-pleasing today as they were then, More Van Damme records are used as theme signatures for various disc programs all over the country than those of almost any other artist, because their music contains all these qualities. Not only in the Van Damme Sound popular with the listening audience but also with disc jockeys. Besides the regular fans who buy his records and albums, even the most haughty of critics – those in the jazz realm – in the last year's Down Beat Poll voted him his sixth top award for first place on accordion. And only a decade or so ago, the accordion wasn't accepted as a worthy instrument of mention in their dedicated world of jazz. So this aura of respectability now surrounding the accordion, and approaching in glamor almost any other solo instrument, is due almost solely to the artistic efforts of the affable and modest Mr. Van Damme.
Another amazing facet of this remarkable group is the personnel turnover, which has been practically nil since the inception of the final decision to use the complement of the present five instruments. Except for the period of little more than a year when the guitarist, Claude Schooner, had to take a leave of absence and was replaced by Freddy Rundquist, the unit has remained the same. And what is more important, Art has managed to maintain this unity and cohesiveness of thought as though they were one cooperative idea and to make the eventual musical results a consummate pleasure to even the most discriminating ear. The aforementioned talents – Shearing, Garner, et al – have kept a group together for a year or maybe two, but longer that that is almost unheard of in the trade today. What is equally astounding with the Van Damme group (besides their longevity) is that Art has kept them working all the time. Since 1945 the quintet has been on the NBC staff in Chicago, holding one of the most enviable positions in all radio and television in the Midwest. It was 1945 when Art made it a quintet, when he added guitarist Claude Schooner, who had left Mark Twain's old haunts in Hannibal, Missouri, to bring his plectrist talents to Chicago. Out of the picturesque western town of Deadwood, South Dakota, came Lew Skalinder, to lend his solid, driving bass pulse to the quintet's sound. From Chicago is diminutive Max Mariash, who is the sensitive and dedicated drummer and who always plays with such taste. And one of the real veterans of the five some is dark-haired, good-looking Chuck Calzaretta, whom I consider on of the most underrated vibists playing today. Chuck looks as though he just stepped off the campus of nearby Northwestern University, just a stone's throw from Chicago in suburban Evanston. With the mallets he exhibits the fragile delicacy of a Red Norvo and yet he can supply the beat necessary when the temp is accelerated. His solos always supply an extra listening bonus in any of the group's varied arrangements. Chuck, along with Lew Skalinder and a dear friend of Art's, Dick Doerschuk, supply all of the arrangements in the unit's extensive and exciting repertory. And finally, to lead this handful of artful musicians through the past rhythmical and lilting years is accordionist par excellence Art Van Damme. In appearance, he looks like a mild-mannered high school math teacher or the guy who handles the real estate loans at the bank down the block. Evidently because of his close association with his music, he maintains a youthful and gracious demeanor that belies his 37 years. His unparalleled accordion wizards plus the overall quiet discipline of the crew and the music they represent makes any traffic with the Art Van Damme Quintet a distinct pleasure. Besides having a vibrant, exuberant quality of records, their appearances on television or in person have an equally pleasing and refreshing effect. Their confident approach to the task of being entertaining is instantly discernible as Art cues them with a downbeat. Professionals to the nth degree are all five, and yet there is an intelligible, yet subtle, difference to the visual effect they create. Many small groups, especially in club performances, give an impression akin to boredom, while others have a superior attitude and most do not have the talent, individually or collectively, to warrant eve a whisper of such deportment. Consequently, any communication with the audience is lost and a ho-hum attitude prevails over both parties. The Van Dammes, however, display an acute awareness of the listeners, whether visual or unseen behind radio, TV or recording microphones. Besides the superb musicianship, in ensemble or in solo, as a stage attraction or before the magic lantern TV camera, the air of respect for themselves and the listener is gently and discreetly apparent.
Another of the oddities concerning the Art Van Damme rise to musical success is its exception to the rule that they must make cross-country tours to become know. Usually the practice has been for an organization, whether it be a small combo or a big dance band, to hit the road and do strings of one-nighters to build reputations, to attract and covert fans, in personal appearances. (Incidentally, this formula does not always work.) Yet here is a distinct antithesis to the prescribed diagnosis of what constitutes a hit attractions. For over a decade Art Van Damme and his men have been favorites with music fans who have never had the opportunity of seeing them in person. Until the advent of television, many devoted fans had never seen them at all. Radio exposure, both live and on record, was the sole factor in their becoming record buyer's favorites. Only a handful of occasions has the quintet taken a hiatus from its staff duties at NBC and filled some night club bookings. In 1949, dance in Kansas City, in Milwaukee and Chicago had a opportunity to see them in person. And in 1956 they accepted a one-week date at the Colonial Club in Toronto, Canada, where they followed Dave Brubeck. Needless to say, they won many new fans and entertained a host of old fans north of the border. Frank Holzfiend, owner of the fabled Midwest mecca of music, the Blue Note in Chicago, has left the latchstring out in an open invitation to Art to fill any two weeks at the Note if he can tailor the NBC work schedule to fit.
Naturally, because of the length of time they have been together, the quintet's book of arrangements has become pretty hefty, with over two hundred charts of pleasurable and versatile tunes, plus a generous assortment of extemporaneous or "head" arrangements which need no written outline and can be played at the drop of a note. So they are all fortified to handle any kind of engagement and are capable of acquitting themselves in their customary handsome manner.
Art admits that jazz is the form of music for which he has the most admiration and follows most closely. He wants the quintet to be known as an all-encompassing one, musically. He states that his playing is not considered real jazz, a half dozen jazz poll awards to the contrary. Art feels that two other accordionists, the Dutch whiz Mat Mathews and Leon Sash, the fine blind Chicagoan, play jazz. Matthews and Sash play the button-style keyboard accordion while Art's is the conventional piano keyboard. In getting material from Art for these notes, I found other accordionist whom we both admire, Joe Mooney and Ernie Felice. These are two veterans who have distinct and original styles. As I said before, whenever accordionists are mentioned, whether the conversationalists are real "cat" or just "fringe area" fans, among whom I am numbered, Van Dammes name is mentioned in the first breath and other follow. This is a tribute to Art's universal appeal to all categories of listeners.
To date, the quintet has a half dozen long-play albums in release plus a couple of other hi-fi page age representations in which they accompanied singer Frances Bergen and a long time personal favorite, Jo Stafford. A warm tribute was paid to the guys by Paul Weston when he brought Mrs. Weston (Jo Stafford), in to Chicago to record the Columbia album "Once Over Lightly" with Art's crew supplying the accompaniment. Both Paul and Jo marveled at the speed and dexterity with which the album was cut. Where, in a two hour session a performer is fortunate to complete two tunes for the record, Jo and the boys finished four at one sitting. Errors were at a minimum, expediting the business at hand, and the compatibly of the two talents got them through ahead of schedule. In fact, so much recording time was saved, Paul and Jo had time to pack and get to New York to see a couple of games of the World Series.
Art's men also supplied the backing for four tunes in a album that Edgar Bergen's wife, Frances, made titled "The Beguiling Miss France Bergen." This album was unique in that three different groups provided the accompaniment for Frances – a unit from the West Coast headed by veteran clarinetist, Matty Matlock, the Art Van Damme Quintet from the Midwest, and the East Coast was represented by Johnny Eaton.
At the moment Art and the fellows are getting network television exposure on the NBC web with three weekly appearances on the Howard Miller Show plus two regularly scheduled radio shows, one with former Kay Kyser vocalist (and a fine0 interpretive singer, I might add), Mike Douglas. Art and the quintet were also invited to participate in a Max Liebmann spectacular a couple of seasons ago in a tribute to George Gershwin.
Art even finds time to do some original composing. A couple of the finished products appeared in earlier albums namely, Madame Von Damme and Let Yourself Down. His best tune, in my opinion, is one used as a theme from many records shows, which he and Lew Skalinder wrote, call Ecstasy. He has already published one accordion instruction booklet and a second will soon follow, which will be a little more advanced in nature. These will give other budding accordionists some valuable insight on what makes an accordion cook, plus some approaches to playing other than the academic Lady Of Spain school of thought.
– Michael Rapchak WAAF, Chicago
A Sunday King Of Love
That's My Affair
No Orchids For My Lady
It's A Pity To Say Goodnight
All Or Nothing At All
I'll Remember April
I've Found A New Baby
Is You Is Or Is You Ain't
Looking At The World Through Rose-Colored Glasses
The Things We Did Last Summer
By The Waters Of Minnetonka
Get On Board Little Children
For Dancers Only
You Don't Know What Love Is
Baby, Won't You Please Come Home
Under Paris Skies
The End Of A Love Affair
Let There Be You
Teach Me Tonight
In A Persian Market
When The Saints Come Marching In
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
Kansas City Moods
Mama's Gone, Goodbye
Tabby The Cat
Mighty Lak' A Rose
He's My Guy
For Sentimental Reasons
Do I Love You
Everybody Loves My Baby