Art Van Damme

Honorary Director of the 1996 Cotati Accordion Festival


Art Van Damme died on February 15th 2010 after being ill with pneumonia for several weeks. A Memorial to this great accordion jazz legend is now online and you can add your Tribute to his Tribute Wall on the Art Van Damme memorials site.

Art Van Damme was born on April 9th 1920 in Norway, Michigan, and brought up in Chicago. Art Van Damme took up the piano accordion in 1929 at the age of nine, and was classically trained before discovering jazz as a teenager – inspired by the recordings of Benny Goodman. In 1941 he joined Ben Bernie‘s band as an accordionist, then from 1945 to 1960 he worked for NBC, performing on ‘The Dinah Shore Show’, ‘Tonight’, ‘The Dave Garroway Show’, and other radio and TV shows with Garroway.

He recorded 130 episodes of the 15-minute ‘The Art Van Damme Show’ for NBC Radio, and from the 1940s onwards also enjoyed a successful and extended recording career.

Van Damme toured Europe and was also popular with jazz listeners in Japan, and regularly won the US ‘Downbeat’ magazine reader’s poll for his instrument. He also toured in Russia and New Zealand. In 2005, Art Van Damme, Myron Floren and Dick Contino–three all- American accordion legends–were all honored at the Las Vegas Accordion Convention, and the following year Art was the chief guest at the ‘Accordions International 2006’ festival, held at Caister, UK.

Art Van Damme, in his prime years, played so many gigs in clubs, hotels and concert stages across the USA and Europe that it is said that he never needed to do any practice. He was constantly in action, developing and honing his skills and repertoire, pioneering the use of the accordion as a jazz lead instrument. So influential was Art’s playing style that he has influenced most of the western world’s jazz accordionists. One musicologist made the following neat comment: “The hippest cat ever to swing an accordion, Art Van Damme dared go where no man had gone before: jazz accordion”.

Art Van Damme died on February 15th 2010. He was 89 years old, and had been ill with pneumonia for several weeks. He had three children and six grandchildren. Although he had retired to Arizona and then to Sacramento California, he continued to perform nearly to the age of 90.

Article as it appeared in CAF Program in 1996

From soloist to trio, to quartet to quintet. That’s the path taken by Art Van Damme, famed jazz accordionist, whose quintet was a fixture at the National Broadcasting Company Chicago for fifteen years. It was in Norway, Michigan where Art was born on April 9, 1920 and it was only ten years later that he started his professional career as an accordionist in his hometown theater. He also made two trips to California doing concerts for the Santa Fe Railway Company in 1932 and 1933.

At the age of fourteen his family moved to Chicago, but it wasn’t until four years later that he turned from classical study and became interested in swing, for which he is so well known. His first trio consisted of accordion, bass and guitar and played Chicago night spots for about three years. Then a break occurred and Art joined the Ben Bernie Band for a theatrical tour featuring his trio. After this, Art played the Chicago Theatre as a single. The next trio consisted of accordion, vibes and bass. The group covered the mid-west thoroughly for the next three years. In 1944 drums were added for an engagement at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. After six months at the hotel, Art signed with NBC for radio shows and later television. In 1945 a guitar was added to set the well-known quintet sound.

In the fifteen years at NBC, other than their own shows, the group worked with many top entertainers: Dave Garroway, Hugh Downs, Ransom Sherman, Howard Miller, Bob and Kay, Dennis James. The quintet did a number of spots for top singers and instrumentalists: Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy de Franco.

Record contracts followed: 1945 through 1952 with Capital Records; 1952 through 1965 with Columbia Records; and 1965 through 1973 with MPS Records of West Germany. During this time the quintet recorded 42 albums plus many singles, including recordings with Jo Stafford, Fran Warren, Johnny Smith and Joe Pass. Albums from Germany are those with quintet, brass, strings, flutes and The Singers Unlimited. In all, fifteen MPS and some are available in the U.S. and Europe, through Polygram.

Since 1973, recordings have been made in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Germany plus many guest appearances on radio, TV and live concerts.

Besides having the group in the top ten instrumental category for many years in Billboard, Metronome and Playboy magazine polls, Art Van Damme was voted top jazz accordionist in the Downbeat magazine poll for ten consecutive years and voted top jazz accordionist in Contemporary Keyboard from 1976 to 1980. The five-year dominance of the CK poll has now put Art in the “Gallery of the Greats.” The quintet has made more transcriptions than any other small group including 139 individual 15-minute shows for RCA Thesaurus and many commercial spots.

After leaving NBC in 1960, Art opened a music studio in suburban Chicago operating until 1965. The quintet also made television guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Today Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Lawrence Welk Hour and The Dinah Shore Special.

Night club work has included The Desert Inn, Las Vegas; the Sahara Tahoe, the Bonaventure Hotel, Montreal; the Bayshore Hotel Vancouver; Harrah’s, Reno; Disney World in Florida and other U.S. jazz clubs.

Art has made 35 tours of Europe since 1967 for recordings, television, radio and concerts. He is married and has three children. Art and his wife, Dorothy, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1991 and have six grown grandchildren. Art’s hobbies include all kinds of sports – especially golf. Art and Dorothy now live in Scottsdale, Arizona.