Vassar Clements is considered one of the world's finest and
most versatile fiddle players. His
career began at a very early age. His phenomenal ability
to virtually play any kind of music (bluegrass, country, pop,
rock, jazz and swing) has garnered him various awards, including
five Grammy nominations and a track record that
involves multitudes of recording performances. His performing
and recording experience has been so diverse, the list reads
like "Who's Who" of fiddle players.
Vassar is more than just a fine musician. Many titles have
been bestowed upon him. Some refer to him as a country
"Isaac Stern", others a "Count Basie" fiddle player., and
even the "Miles Davis" of bluegrass, The reason - perhaps is
the fact that Vassar is a music philosopher who elects to play
his thoughts on his instrument. He has simply taken the
medium of music and used it to express his feelings. He is a
prolific composer of instrumentals and plays seven
instruments.- violin, viola, cello, bass, mandolin, guitar and
Vassar's career spans over fifty years. His association
with Bill Monroe began when he was only 14 years old
and still in school. He started with Bill as a regular
Bluegrass Boy in 1949 and was with him through 1956.
From 1957 to 1961 he performed with bluegrass stalwarts,
Jim & Jesse McReynolds. In 1962 he took leave from his
music to pursue other interests, but returned to full time
music when he decided to make Nashville his home in
Vassar did recording sessions and played tenor banjo
in Nashville 's "Dixieland Landing" club until October 1969.
He then started touring with Faron Young and doing
occasional solo dates when time permitted. In February
1971, he joined John Hartford and his "Dobrolic Plectral
Society", initiating a professional association and personal
friendship that has grown even stronger through the years.
After ten months, and earning an enormous amount of
recognition and popularity the group decided to disband.
Vassar then found himself with the legendary Earl Scruggs
and the "Earl Scruggs Revue".
During this time, one of the most important milestones in his
career, was his participation on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's
1972 Landmark album 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken".
This historical event was produced by William McEuen and
featured an extravaganza of bluegrass, country and folk's
greatest artists. It was the turning point that re-kindled
Vassar's career and at the same time introduced him to a
much younger non-country audience.
Within a few short months, Vassar was recording and/or
performing with Dicky Betts, Jerry Garcia, The Grateful
Dead, The Allman Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty
Dirt Band, David Grisman, Paul McCartney et al. In May
1973, The Classic, "Old & In The Way " album was recorded
in San Francisco during a live performance. The Sales from
this project have exceeded other albums of like kind, and has
formed staunch cults that still exist after twenty three years.
Since 1973, when Vassar signed his first major label deal
with Mercury/Polygram records, his personal discography
totals 27 albums ranging from country, waltzes, swing & jazz.
Ironically, in 1992 he recorded his only straight bluegrass
recording for Rounder Records entitled "Grass Routes".
His early experience growing with jazz and swing music
left an indelible mark on his style. Vassar says "bands like
Glen Miller, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, and
Artie Shaw were very popular when I was a kid. I always
loved rhythm so I guess in the back of my mind the swing
and jazz subconsciously comes out when I play, because
when I was learning I was always trying to emulate the big
band sounds I heard on my fiddle. Understandably, the form
of jazz music created by virtuoso Vassar Clements is an
amalgam of the diverse influences that have touched him
throughout his career, but particularly his affinity for the jazz
and swing music of his youth.
Therefore, it is no surprise that even though early in his
career, as he learned and developed bluegrass and country
styles, he also gained respect as a jazz player. Hence, classic
number two: "Once In A While" which resulted from a jam
session with Miles Davis's ex-band members, Dave Holland,
John Abercrombie and Jimmy Cobb. Classic number three:
"Together At Last" with Stephane Grappelli was produced
by Tim Yaquinto and recorded in Vassar's former studio.
Vassar's jazz is an uninhibited and unabashed expression of
his approach to music, people and life in general. In the true
tradition of all the great musical stylists, he has rejected the
straitjacket of labeling. He performs with the depth of
someone who has lived a lot, and as if he had been born
prepared to play. His solos soar and glide gently over the
rhythm in a manner reminiscent of saxophonist Lester
Young's work with the great Count Basie Band decades ago.
This legendary artist can and will take his listener
somewhere on an exploratory journey through time past,
present and future.
To say that Vassar Clements is a musicians' musician is an
understatement. His modest demeanor and his professional
approach to music has made him an idol to many in the
entertainment industry. He is the quintessential American
musician, being well versed in bluegrass, country, rock,
blues, jazz and swing. His career presents a model that most
musicians would gladly follow.
Vassar Clements died of lung cancer on August 16, 2005 at the age of 77.
He is missed so much by so many.