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Helmut Zacharias: 1920-2002
Helmut Zacharias

Born: January 27, 1920 in Berlin, Germany
Died: February 28, 2002 in Brissago, Switzerland

Violinist Helmut Zacharias

Copyright © 2002 


The following press release was issued by

German virtuoso Helmut Zacharias, a child prodigy who defied the Nazis and came to be called the "best jazz violinist in the world", has died in Switzerland, his daughter announced Friday. He was 82.

He succumbed to Alzheimer's disease at a nursing home in Brissago on the shores of Lago Maggiore in Switzerland.

In a career which spanned eight decades, Zacharias charmed audiences with his witty, jazzy renditions of classical motifs and pop themes. His last public performance was in December 1995 when he appeared on a nationally broadcast television show in Germany.

Already diagnosed with Alzheimer's at the time, he retired to a sanatorium in Switzerland immediately afterwards.

He was born in Berlin in 1920 into a musical family. As soon as he could stand, at 2-and-a-half, his father put a toy violin in his hand. It was made of tin and imitation fine wood, but he was soon able to play simple tunes on it.

Before he could read he was already proficient at sightreading music - leading his father to let his now 4-year-old son undertake serious musical instruction on the violin.

By the age of six he was performing on the cabaret stage of the Faun club on Friedrichstrasse in the heart of the entertainment district in giddy 1920s Berlin. The Faun was a model for Christopher Isherwood's fictional Berlin nighterie which became the Kit Kat Klub in the stage and film version "Cabaret".

He made his radio debut at age 11 with Mozart's Violin Concerto in G-major. By the age of 14, Zacharias was making concert tours beyond Berlin's limits, finally landing a year later - 1935 - in Berlin's legendary Wintergarten music hall theatre, billed as the world's youngest violin virtuoso.

In 1936, he was now 16, he registered at the Academy of Music in Berlin, becoming Professor Gustav Havemann's youngest student. In 1937, he won the Bernard Molique Prize and in 1938 the Fritz Kreisler Academy Prize.

The clouds of war were already moving across Germany at the time. Nevertheless, in 1939, he toured Europe with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble formed from the Philharmonic, under the direction of Hans Benda.

During the war, Zacharias defied a Nazi ban on "decadent" Swing music to form his own Big Band. Under the noses of Nazi officials, the band held a recording session at the Odeon Studios on Schlesische Strasse in the heart of Berlin in November 1941, producing three records.

A stint in the Wehrmacht interrupted his musical career and he returned to a war-ruined Berlin after V-E Day in 1945 to help set up post-war Germany's first radio orchestra for newly founded Berlin Radio.

He was soon a featured soloist at other German radio orchestras, which sprang up after the war to fill the yearning amongst a war- weary nation for cultural entertainment.

By 1950, he was to be heard on all German radio stations, and AFN Frankfurt called him the "Best Jazz Violinist in the World." A series of recordings of him as soloist, composer, arranger and conductor of large and small orchestras was made in the venerable Baroque Hall of the Musikhalle in Hamburg.

Deutsche Grammophon, which had its headquarters in the Musikhalle, gave him a contract under the Polydor label, launching him on an international career.

He composed more than 400 works and sold 13 million albums.

Two new CDs were released for Zacharias' 80th birthday two years ago, including digitally remastered tracks from that secret 1941 recording session.

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