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March 5th, 2016
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Swensen and Jensen

It’s funny where the road of musical exploration leads.

Like me, you’ve probably heard Dizzy Gillispie’s “Hot Syrup” and Thelonious Monk’s far-out “Waffle Pants.”  Who knew that these avant-garde free-form compositions were inspired by the catchy song stylings of two Norwegian jazz legenSwensen and Jensends?

They were a unlikely pair.  Bookish seagoing accountant Oscar Swensen teamed up with the flamboyant accordian salesman Gunnar Jensen in the late 1920’s and performed under the names “The Snappy Boys” and “The Rhythm Whiz-Bangs.”  For a short time, they billed themselves as the “Oslo Hula Rangers,” in a creative but ultimately misguided effort to capitalize on the twin trends of Western and Hawaiian music which were sweeping through Scandinavia in the early 1930’s.

Finally, their toil in the ‘melody mines’ paid off as they struck musical paydirt in 1934.  Released as the B side to their all-but-forgotten “I Have The Crazy Jazz In My Toes,” they took the nation by storm with their uptempo original “Hver Gang Spiser Jeg Min Waffle, Far Jeg Sirup Pa Min Bukser” (When I Eat My Waffle, I Get Syrup On My Pants.)

Dizzy Gillespie in Oslo

Dizzy Gillespie (right) in Oslo

 

The influence of this number, with its catchy syncopation and enigmatic lyrics, spread far beyond the borders of Norway, as far as Northern Denmark and parts of rural Finland.  American jazz legends like Monk and Gillespie were exposed to the tune (and some might say, infected) when they toured Norway in the 1950’s. 

Swensen and Jensen were enjoying their new celebrity as the premier jazz duo in Norway, when their career was interrupted by the gathering clouds of war in Europe.  They were not alone.  As the Norwegian Jazz Archives notes, “For Norwegian jazz musicians, the outbreak of World War II came at a very inconvenient time.”

 During the German occupation, “Waffle” became an anthem of underground resistance when the lyrics were changed to “When I Kick a Nazi, I Get Dirty On My Shoes.”  After the war ended, post-war Norway was ready to look to the future; a future which sadly did not seem to include Swensen and Jensen.

Lack of bookings and long-festering issues contributed to the duo’s breakup in the mid-1950’s.  Swensen harbored resentment over changing his name from Swenson to Swensen, in order to rhyme with Jensen.  Jensen had always campaigned for the lyrics of their hit song to reflect his personal preference of jam and butter on waffles, rather than ‘bourgeois’ syrup.

They drifted apart.  Swensen would later find reknown as one of the nation’s most prominent beekeepers.  Jensen continued to seek the limelight, and would find it as the beloved Norwegian clown, “Tante Otto.”  A short-lived reunion tour in 1963 ended in bitterness and acrimony.

Oscar Swensen can still be found on the bandstand, occasionally sitting in for a guest appearance with “The Hot Club of Sarpsborg.”  Gunnar Jensen has retired to his workshop, seeking to perfect his design for a new type of board game played with seven-sided dice.

There are some real life-lessons here.  I’m just not sure what they are.

(We gratefully acknowledge the resources of the National Library of Norway and the Norwegian Jazz Archives.)

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