Art Van Damme was born in 1920 in Norway, Michigan, and began his association with the accordion at the age of nine. Five years later, Art moved to Chicago, where he attended Amundsen High School and began the study of classical accordion and played a predominantly classical repertoire, as the Germany-based Hohner Company flooded the market with sheet music transcriptions of popular classical pieces. In 1938 armed with a formidable knowledge of harmony, counterpoint and theory, Art turned to the jazz idiom and formed his first group, a trio, with bass and guitar and began playing at night clubs, focusing on the jazz and pop music of his idols Buddy Rich, Ray Brown and Benny Goodman.
In 1942 the trio began affiliation with the Ben Bernie Orchestra. Soon thereafter Art branched out on his own, in Chicago theaters as a single act. When these engagements were completed he formed another trio, and in 1944 added drums to make a quartet. A year later the full quintet came into being, consisting of accordion, vibes, bass, drums and guitar and cut his first record. Until 1952, the Van Damme quintet worked for NBC in Chicago on radio and television, performing often as guests of well known fifties talk-show hosts Dave Garoway show, Ransom Sherman Show, Bob and Day Show to name but a few. He also accompanied singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee and instrumentalist like Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy DeFranco.
It was during this time that Van Damme had a record contract with Capitol Records, releasing “Cocktail Capers” and “More Cocktail Capers”. Columbia Records signed Van Damme from 1952 to 1965, releasing no less than a dozen of immensely popular albums, among which were “The Van Damme Sound”, “Martini Time” and “The Art of Van Damme”.
In 1965 Van Damme signed with MPS Records of Germany and has recorded 16 albums during that time. He has been voted top jazz accordionist for ten consecutive years in the annual Downbeat poll and for four consecutive years in the annual Contemporary Keyboard poll. Art’s appearances on radio and TV, seminars, tours and clinics in the United States and Europe have numbered in the hundreds.
Art Van Damme was married, had three children and six grandchildren. Although he retired to Florida, he continued to perform nearly to the age of 90. He had been ill with pneumonia for several weeks when he died on February 15 at the age of 89.