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A History of the Accordion in Americana Music

 


CarterSisters_Cover

Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters

Invented in 1829, the accordion came to be embraced by people in North America early on….

Soon, up in the mountains and down in the bayous….

in big cities and in small towns….

in the country and in the deserts of the West, as well as deep into Mexico,

on the Great Lakes and the Great Plains…

in the northern states and Canadian provinces….

the accordion thrived…

 it entertained,  delighted, inspired and brought folks together, to dance and sing….

 

Some of the first to become proficient on the accordion were French educated Creoles from the South,  just a few years after the instrument was invented.

Early Accordionist

This photograph, taken about 1850, just 21 years after the invention of the accordion, indicates that the instrument was already being mastered by African American musicians in Louisiana.

Creole musicians were very well schooled in music and provided entertainment at elite “house concerts” and elegant parties in Louisiana.

historical African American Accordionist

This musician, probably Creole from Louisiana is unknown to us, but from his fine clothing, he may have been well known in 1870

Young people were eager to make some noise with the accordion. Although it was expensive, it was new and it was radical. With its bellows providing the “lung power”, the accordion impressed women, who saw that they could participate and make music with this rather tiny, relatively light weight and very expressive instrument.

Young woman with her accordion c. 1870

This very “steampunk” teen age girl, looking directly into the camera, proudly and defiantly displays her accordion c. 1870

Because it was loud enough for sound to be carried above the “din”, the accordion was heard in music that emanated from front porches, weddings, social gatherings, dances and as entertainment in theaters and taverns for over 150 years..

The piano accordion evolved from the smaller bisonoric diatonic accordion, into a completely different, unisonoric musical instrument. The piano keyboard was added as was the innovative Stradella bass section which used preset chords.

The accordion grew larger, but the changes empowered players of other types of keyboards to find it easier and faster to learn the instrument.

Historical accordion boys

Brothers NYC c. 1900

The piano accordion was played by artists who were immigrants….

Guido Diero 1910

Guido Diero studied the accordion in Italy,  immigrated to America and worked in a mine in Oregon.  Photo c.1910

PietroDeiro1920

Guido’s younger brother, Pietro, also studied the accordion. Both were very influential for the spread in popularity of the piano accordion in America, as performers and as music publishers. Photo c. 1920

….And it was played by artists who were sons and daughters of  immigrants

Violaturpeinen

Viola Turpeinen was probably the first woman accordionist to record, and certainly the first female accordion star in America. A second-generation Finnish-American, starting in the 1920’s she played the Finnish dance circuit in the upper mid-west region of Michigan / Wisconsin / Minnesota. Eventually based out of New York, she toured widely and it became a tradition for dancers to see her headlining travelling shows every summer. (Accordion Noir) c. 1920

The accordion was popular in live stage productions in Vaudeville

Father with Daughters Vaudeville 1920's

A father and daughters act c.1920’s

The accordion was heard in early recordings of Gospel, Blues and Boogie Woogie………

 

Lead Belly c. 1930

Huddie Ledbetter , known as  Lead Belly,  with his diatonic “Windjammer” c.1930

The Death of Amede Ardoin

amede-ardoin-1075

Amede Ardoin, a diatonic accordionist beloved in  Louisiana, was highly influential in Cajun music. Ardoin died from being horrifically beaten after performing at a white dance in Eunice, LA. This heart breaking event haunted African American musicians who, from that point on, began to shy away from the accordion. Photo c. 1930’s.

In the transitional years from the Great Depression forward into the war years, the piano accordion was widely used because dances were an important source of entertainment. By the mid 1940’s, so many immigrant Catholics and returning soldiers wanted their children to play the songs of their ancestral homelands on the accordion, that the Roman Catholic Church forgave the instrument its “tavern” reputation and gave it a special status allowing it to be used in church services.  Because of this, the piano accordion was suddenly deemed respectable and “pent up demand” fed the market for instrument sales and lessons.

gang of accordion players

The accordion, with Anita Carter, was used by Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, in what would have been strictly a “string band” in previous years.

Mother Maybelle, the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins

Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters, along with Chet Atkins. Photo c. 1945

The first woman to play Bluegrass, professionally, was an accordion player….

Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys II

The first woman to be hired as a professional Bluegrass musician was Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester who performed with and was a member of Bill Munro and his Bluegrass Boys. Photo c. 1947

Pee Wee King reinvented what was known as “Hillbilly Music”, founding a new genre of music known as “Country & Western” music. His Western Swing Band was the first to wear the spangly “Nudie Suit” that came to be associated with Country music.

Pee Wee King V

Probably the most influential musician in Americana music, Pee Wee King helped to create a new genre of music, Country & Western music, combining the two under “one roof”, in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. He even co-wrote the state song! C & W music was among the first genres that was not inspired by the music of Europe. c. 1948

The piano accordion became synonymous with “class”. The big band dance scene had died off, but small combos in swanky clubs became a new kind of venue.

Art_VanDamme3

Art Van Damme brought the accordion into the world of Jazz. He toured for forty years, performed brilliantly with the instrument and elevated it to an unprecedented level of coolness. Photo c. 1950

Dick Contino V

Teenager, Dick Contino was earning $4000 a week billed as the “Greatest Accordionist in the World” c. 1950

JoAnne Castle c. 1957

Jo Ann Castle is significant for what she didn’t do, as much as for what she did. A rare and gifted musician, she headlined in Las Vegas clubs as an underage teen, had a best selling instrumental album in 1957 that scored #67 on the Billboard Hot 100. The pretty 18 year old created a lot of excitement and Castle was promptly hired by a well known variety show as an accordionist. After a short time, her employer insisted, as a condition of her employment, that she change her instrument to honky-tonk piano, which was not her specialty (her repetoire consisted of three songs at that time).This was done to make way for a male accordionist of average proficiency to displace her.

From that point the “bubble” flattened as demand for the instrument’s sales plummeted to a fraction of what they had been a decade before.  All through the 1950’s, the accordion establishment did not trust or support Rock ‘n Roll or any aesthetic associated with the genre. Publishers did not want to pay songwriters for current hit songs to be reformatted for the piano accordion but preferred instead, to push the “same-old, same-old” European style tunes to a changing demographic.  As young people advanced in proficiency on the piano accordion, classical music was the promoted path because it was already in the public domain. In fifteen years of post war popularity, this short sighted business plan shifted the identity of the accordion from an American “grass roots” instrument to one perceived as predominantly, a European instrument.

In America in the 1960’s, ‘The Times They Were A-Changing’ and the immigrant’s children had grown up. Americana music was taking them in a different direction and young people were listening and participating. The Civil Rights movement had inflamed the cities and the South.  The Viet Nam War and the draft angered America, especially young people. Women were agitating for equality and rights. Much of the music of the 1960’s were songs about life and death issues that were impacting young people during that era. They knew that they had a lot to gain or lose and expressed it through their music with a message, sexual tension or an angry protest. The accordion establishment was afraid of it and the musicians who created it. In spite of the long history of the accordion in North America, the establishment felt a sense of ownership and wanted to keep their instrument away from any political or social undercurrent, fearing that it would become associated with rebellion, as the bandoneon had been in Argentina. (Astor Piazzola) They did not cultivate as potential customers, African Americans who could have easily become prominent players of the piano accordion in current music and taken it in their own direction. They did not explore new markets and promote the instrument, for example, to inner city children through churches as they had aggressively and systematically pursued white children and their parents in the suburbs. Women were seen as teachers of the instrument rather than as legitimate players and potential performers, as they had been in the past. With draftable white males defecting, in significant numbers, from the ranks of accordion players in favor of the guitar and other instruments, the accordion establishment was afraid that if they didn’t take control, the future of the piano accordion could be left in the hands of black and women musicians.

Curiously, accordion players never sang with their instrument in that era, which they had freely done in the 1940’s. Young people could not see how the piano accordion could be used to make their music, and found no one inspiring that could play or sing with the instrument their way. The accordion community had insulated itself so well from the times that there was nothing new allowed in, or out and there were no innovative players to emulate. Except for jazz, accordion music was cheesy and watered down, at best. Young people were not only disinterested in playing the accordion, they scorned it.  They saw the piano accordion as part of something that they loathed and their strong feelings were transferred to the instrument. This attitude is the very reason for the accordion jokes, the disrespect and the “hairy eyeball” that so many accordion players still encounter. As a result of these tactics, there was a “brain drain”, as energy was taken away from the stylistic evolution of the instrument for decades in America because it was held back. Instead of finding this very expressive instrument worthy and highly regarded as it always had been, talented musicians simply went on their way and found other instruments with which to express their musical vision. The Hammond B3, Hohner Harmonica, saxophone, piano and both electric and acoustic guitar defined the music of the 1960’s,70’s, 80’s….The establishment’s action was to do little to nothing, wait it out and bank on the return to sensibility when the Viet Nam war was over and the music changed, and women were done trying to be men.

 As far as the piano accordion was concerned, it was fear that ran the show,  In retrospect, the accordion establishment blamed the conservatism of music teachers or that the piano accordion simply “fell out of fashion”.  They put the blame for the downturn of the accordion market heavily on the existence of the electric guitar, while in the rest of the world, the accordion actually thrived alongside both the electric and acoustic guitar.

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” Franklin D. Roosevelt

New Orleans is not afraid of the music or the musicians who create it.

That is why it is the epicenter for the emergence of major new genres of music.

Zydeco music came out of New Orleans in the 1960’s and it was there that the piano accordion was put to good use by Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Clifton Chenier

“Zydeco” music gained popularity in the early 1960’s with Clifton Chenier, considered by many to be the Father of Zydeco, in his landmark 1965 song “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.” The word “zydeco” is popularly associated with the French phrase “les haricots sont pas sales,” or “the snap beans are not salty.”

 

Without a doubt, The Beatles were the gigantic “elephant in the room” during the 1960’s.

Paul McCartney with Accordion

Paul McCartney’s first instrument was the accordion. He frequently took one with him and used it as he wrote songs for the Beatles. c 1965

Titano Tiger

The Titano Tiger

Ernest and Faith Deffner, owners of their newly acquired Titano Accordion Company decided it was time to design a more radical accordion to appeal to the youth culture of America. The Deffners saw a void in the market in the mid-1960’s and looked at it as their great opportunity. They were bold and right to embark on their idea. The Tiger Combo’Cordion was a compact, colorful instrument featuring a ‘quint’ treble tuning for “piercing lead or swinging chords…to flip the crowd”(Hullabaloo Magazine). The main feature of the instrument was the resurrected slanted keyboard which was more user friendly for the position of the human hand, thereby allowing faster finger work.

Faith and Ernest Deffner

Ernest and Faith Deffner

After substantial research and development, the Titano Tiger was rolled out, but, sadly, they decided to choose to endorse the instrument, a spokesman who was a prominent member of the very “same-old, same-old” accordion establishment that loathed youth culture and from whom young people so desperately wanted to escape. After all their fierce determination,  the Deffner Team didn’t recognize that by choosing someone who could not relate to American youth, it would be their greatest tactical error and be a “big wet blanket” on their effort to sell their accordion to America’s young musicians. The futuristic vision of Ernest and Faith Deffner was undermined by fear and, as a result, the Titano Tiger didn’t sell and sits today in collections of rare instruments and in museums gathering dust.

But, there were accordionists who existed outside of the establishment.

179.-Garth-Hudson-The-Band-811C_25-copy

Garth Hudson was a proficient accordionist long before he was hired by Bob Dylan, as a member of The Hawks, renamed The Band. (Photo by Barry Wenzel c. 1968)

Jon Hammond

Musician Jon Hammond deliberately pushed the envelope for the accordion in the 1970s. Photo c. 1974

Large_Nitty GrittyDirt Band_5

Americana band, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a huge accordion-based hit song in 1972, the now classic “Mr. Bojangles”

billy-joel-philadelphia-1978

Singer/ Songwriter Billy Joel frequently incorporates the accordion in his music to this day. photo c. 1978

Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac c. 1980

Christine McVie and Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, in their live performance of “Tusk”, used the accordion to replace the entire USC marching band! c. 1982

Tom Waits II

Singer/Songwriter Tom Waits is a prominent advocate of the accordion in his performances and recordings since the early 1970’s. Photo c. 1990

NY Underground artist Phoebe Legere

A classically trained pianist and vocalist, Phoebe Legere used the accordion when she opened for David Bowie in 1990, and still uses it as an underground artist in New York. Photo c. 1990’s

Buckwheat zydeco III

Stanley Dural was a break through artist for the piano accordion and was well known in Louisiana as a blues organist even before associating himself with the piano accordion or with Zydeco music. Stanley Dural continued the blues tradition as Buckwheat Zydeco and was the most successful Americana accordionist until his death in 2016. Photo c. 2000

Sheryl Crowe

Sheryl Crowe, vocalist, guitarist, pianist and top recording artist caused quite a stir using the accordion on tour and in her recordings. In doing so, she made a tremendous contribution to the presence of the accordion in Americana music. Photo c. 1998

C.J._Chenier

C.J. Chenier took up where his father, Clifton, left off and performs as a blues and zydeco musician throughout the world. c. 2005

Regine

Regine Chassange shreds on the accordion as a member of Montreal’s Arcade Fire. Photo c. 2000’s

corey-pesaturo-iii

In the 21st Century, Corey Pesaturo became recognized as the most internationally awarded American accordionist of all time. Photo c. 2010.

2012 was the “Comeback Year” for the piano accordion.

Ben Lovett with Mumford and Sons

2012 Grammy Award for Best Americana album, “Babel”, featuring the piano accordion, made Mumford and Sons a household name in North America

Johnny Kongos

In 2012, out of the Phoenix Valley arose Arizona’s own homegrown band, KONGOS, who composed and recorded the most successful, piano accordion-based hit song, “Come With Me Now”.  It shattered all records, blew the roof off of perceptions about the instrument, and earned Johnny Kongos and his brothers plenty of contracts and a world wide following.

Bill Haley and the Comets

Also, 2012 was the year that Bill Haley’s group,  the Comets, along with Johnny Grande, were recognized by their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Danny and Bruce

Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, co-founded by the late Danny Federici in New Jersey in 1969, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 2014.

The piano accordion continues to participate in Americana music, today.

Buxton

Buxton (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff of Mother Jones, Americana Music Awards, Nashville, 2016)

The+Band+Perry

The Band Perry

 

Not the end…….

 

 

 

 

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The Extraordinary Dick Contino

 

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Dick Contino

I have sad news to share about the great Dick Contino. We are sorry to learn that he has passed away,  April 19, 2017. In honor of his memory, I am sending you this post that I wrote previously Rest in peace, Soldier.

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Memorial Day is a day of remembering and honoring, not only the fallen soldiers, but also those who have served America. Among the ranks of musicians, one of our own, Dick Contino, stands out as a veteran of the Korean War and as a brilliant accordionist and entertainer.

Born in Fresno, California in 1930, Dick Contino was a precocious child with parents dedicated to his success, from the beginning. The Continos (his father was an accomplished accordionist), recognized their son’s talent from an early age and for  years, drove him 180 miles each week for accordion lessons in San Francisco. His first break in show business came in 1946, a year before Dick graduated from High School. He won the prestigious Horace Heidt/Philip Morris talent competition in Fresno which was broadcast on national radio.

Dick also won first place in talent contests in Los Angeles, Omaha, Des Moines, Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and New York City. When he graduated from high school in 1947, he enrolled at Fresno State College. Always feeling the pressure of his intense ambition and drive to be a successful entertainer,  Dick chose to leave college and dedicate himself to a career as an accordionist. Dick Contino was successful…. very successful.  He toured with the Horace Heidt Orchestra and was billed as”The World’s Greatest Accordionist”. Barely out of high school, Contino reported earnings of four thousand dollars per week, an enormous sum for a musician, just before his career was interrupted by military service.

Part I:

Because he was quite handsome, when he returned from his tour of duty, Dick Contino gained entry into the film industry in Hollywood. He starred in some acting roles, without his accordion. But it was his accordion playing that kept him as a returning star, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show for a record of forty-eight appearances.

Part II:

Dick Contino continuex to perform regularly throughout the United States. His repertoire was eclectic, ranging from Italian songs such as “Come Back to Sorrento” and “Arrivederci Roma” to his signature song, “Lady of Spain” and standards like “Swinging on a Star”.

On the accordion, following in the footsteps of his legendary father, is son Pete Contino and his blues band, The Pete Contino Band. Growing up, Pete never aspired to a career in music. But when his Mother passed away (actress Leigh Snowden), he went on the road with his father to learn the music business. It was therapeutic and it kept his mind busy. Through his involvement with his father’s band, he discovered a love for music and for the accordion. Now that he is a professional with his own band, Pete has observed, in an interview with Michael Limnios, “To use an old cliché, (my Dad’s) are very big shoes to fill. His fans are hardcore, and rightfully so. My father made a huge niche with the accordion. The expectations are sometimes high, but I never try to compete with my father’s reputation.” He states, ” A lot of his fans were funny and interesting and very devoted. Sometimes a fan would be uncomfortable to go up to my dad and they would start asking me questions about him. I would finally grab whoever it was and drag them over to meet him. He’s very friendly, my dad, very approachable.”

Pete Contino

Pete Contino

 http://www.petecontino.com

 


Will Holshouser: Exploring the Space between Folk and Jazz

 

 

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Will Holshouser  (Photo by Gunther Groeger)

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Just as brilliant colors of a sunset blend, and blur together, music genres converge. While all have characteristics in common, each is distinct from the other, and each possesses its own dynamic, its own musical parentage and its own spirit. Virtuoso Accordionist, Will Holshouser, in his restless pursuit of the connections between the genres, brings to us a new understanding of the space between Folk music and Jazz.

Will is one third of the trio under his own name, The Will Holshouser Trio as well as the collaborative trio, Musette Explosion. He has played for many years with the brilliant American Jazz violinist Regina Carter and has performed on two of her albums, “Reverse Thread” and “Southern Comfort“.

Regina Carter, Violinist performs “Hickory Wind”, accompanied by Will Holshouser, Accordionist

Nearly two centuries have passed since “Folk” music was recognized and in spite of the enormous body of work surrounding it, there is still no specific definition of what it really means. Music within this genre is also called “Traditional Music” and it is seen as an “authentic expression of a way of life now past, or about to disappear.” Artists Regina Carter and Will Holshouser are reinventing and reinterpreting the genre with exciting original work, presenting an entirely new musical perspective of Folk music. Upon awarding her a MacArthur Fellows Award, the Committee stated, “Regina Carter is a master of improvisational jazz violin….pioneering new possibilities for the violin and for jazz.”

Live on Soundcheck, Regina Carter, Violinist, performs ‘I’m Going Home’ featuring Will Holshouser on accordion.

Jazz originated in the United States, over one hundred years ago, in the neighborhoods of New Orleans. It is rooted in African-American experience, the indigenous music of Native American people and Euro-American traditional music that emanated from various regions of Europe. As these musical styles came together, early Jazz emerged as the popular music of the day in New Orleans. It spread and developed, throughout the twentieth century, into what we now recognize as Jazz.

Will was studying Jazz piano at Wesleyan University, when a friend found an accordion at a rummage sale, purchased it, and gave it to him. “It got me out of my Jazz headspace.” He says, “It was a good way to connect with a lot of Folk music that wasn’t really part of the piano repertoire and a doorway to a lot of music that I really enjoyed.” Will became an accomplished accordionist by listening to records. As his career took him to New York City, Will found a mentor, William Schimmel, an accordionist who has performed with Tom Waits and others.

 The Will Holshouser Trio performs, ‘Reed Song’

As Musette Explosion, along with guitarist, Matt Munisteri and tuba player, Marcus Rojas,  Will takes French Musette in an American direction and places an emphasis on improvisation.  Musette Explosion has worked as a backing band and has recorded with Folk music legend Louden Wainwright III, and most recently, with Chaim Tannenbaum.  Musette Explosion’s debut album, was featured on the National Public Radio program “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, in November of 2014.

“The nostalgic aspect is there, and we love the old repertoire, but we want to bring something new to it so we do it in a New York way; we improvise a lot.” Will has also written new tunes in the style, and says that there are a lot of bands finding old music and doing new things but, “This is the only one that I know of that combines these particular flavors in this way.”

Musette Explosion performs the classic “Swing Valse”

Because the versatile and fearless Will Holshouser moves seamlessly between French Musette, Klezmer, back to Jazz and then again, to American Roots music, his talent as an accordionist is in demand. Will is constantly touring, recording, and performing all over the world as an improviser and composer. Additional projects include touring and recording with Amsterdam-based improvisers Han Bennink and Michael Moore, clarinetists David Krakauer and Andy Statman, and pop visionaries, Antony and the Johnsons. As a freelance accordionist, Will has appeared on a wide range of recordings and in live concerts, with Kiran Ahluwalia, Martha Wainwright, Uri Caine, Arnold Hammerschlag, the New York City Ballet, the New York City Opera, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Western Wind, Mark Morris Dance Group and the Raymond Scott (tribute) Orchestrette.

Will Hollhouser,accordion

Musette Explosion (Photo by Reuben Radding)

 NPR interview:  http://www.npr.org/2014/11/10/363051645/accordionist-interprets-french-waltz-tradition-in-musette-explosion

Will Holshouser appearing with Regina Carter Tour Dates:    http://reginacarter.com/tour

http://www.Willholshouser.com


The Many Facets of Kate Dunphy

kate dunphy III

Photos by Johnson Sarkissian

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana   Kate Dunphy brings to music a skill set envied by many, but possessed by few.  She is a gifted musician and performer and an emerging young composer and arranger. Kate is not only reviving the accordion but, reinventing it. With her artistic vision, she is also changing perceptions by allowing us to see that the accordion can be used to inspire new and different music in America.

Kate Dunphy began to study the accordion at a later age. An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, beginning the study of piano at the age of four, it wasn’t until her last year of music school that Kate received an accordion as a gift from her father. In 2007, Kate graduated from Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut, with her B.A. in Music Composition and also earned the composition prize, the prestigious Edward Diamante Award. Determined to be a professional musician and composer,  she relocated from her home state of Maine, to New York City, settling in the borough of Brooklyn.

Since then, Kate Dunphy has composed many original works for the accordion, performing those with several different groups, independently and also with her previous world music project, Loukoum. Her original compositions are beautifully wrought, and range from the haunting and complex, Tire Iron to the charming French musette of L’Oiseau en Bois. The forceful, passionate, Tango highlights Kate’s proficiency as an accordionist and as a composer.  Ruby Roadwith its Celtic moodiness, imparts a sense of magic and madness.

Kate Dunphy has appeared at international events, such as The U.S. Open and Instyle Magazine‘s Anniversary Gala in Mexico City.  She has performed for the Royal Family of Kuwait and for many celebrities such as Martha Steward, Vera Wang, Tyra Banks, Oscar de la Renta, Christina Hendricks and others.

Along with Loukoum, Kate has also performed with Avalon Jazz Band and Postmodern Jukebox. Her current project, Carte Blanche Jazz Band has recently released a new EP, Back To Henri, and features 5 original tracks that Kate wrote for the band. Carte Blanche recently released their first music video for this EP in August, 2014 and features her composition, C’estJuste Un Tango. 

                                                                                                              

JONSARCBPICWITHCREDIT

 www.carteblanchejazzband.com

The incredibly versatile Carte Blanche Jazz Band, featuring Kate Dunphy,Accordionist

Post Modern Jukebox and Kate Dunphy perform a delightful, Klezmer cover of Jason Derulo’s Talk Dirty.

The bright, fresh interpretation by Avalon Jazz Band, with Kate Dunphy, Accordionist.

KatesoloConservatoryGarden

Kate Dunphy


And Now! Ladies and Gentlemen, the AMAZING Rob Reich

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Rob Reich

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana  When it comes to Americana, the accordion and the circus  rank very high on a long list of highlights relating to the American Experience.  Also included are Jazz and picnics in the park on a lazy Summer Sunday. It’s only natural that a very innovative, and savvy musician would eventually find a way to combine all of these elements, into one ring. In fact, the word “circus” literally means “ring” in Latin.

Rob Reich, Accordionist, Pianist , Composer and Music Director for The Circus Bella! All Star Band, an 11 piece orchestra, accompanies the  acts of Circus Bella! with high-flying, original compositions and a dazzling musical vision. Inspired by 1920’s New Orleans Jazz music and both French and Klezmer influences as well as American circus marches, the Oakland, California accordionist has been composing original music for Circus Bella! since 2008. The vision was to recreate the kind of traveling circus that was popular in the United States before eighteen thirty.  A circus moved from town to town, putting on shows with trained animals, acrobats doing difficult tricks, and funny, colorful clowns. And always, there was music to accompany the acts.

The music of Circus Bella has been an integral part of its productions since its first performance in Delores Park, in 2008. Reich has worked with circus artists to develop arrangements that complement each act. His scoring leaves room for the musicians to improvise to match the feeling of the moment, as the act evolves. In this way, the musicians and the music of  Circus Bella!  are literally ensemble members, collaborating with the performers in the ring.

A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory with a degree in Composition, Rob has been composing music for the last 15 years.  He is very well known in the San Francisco Bay Area for his accordion work with Tin Hat, Gaucho and The Nice Guy Trio, and freelances with many other Bay area ensembles. In 2011, The Circus Bella All-Star Band released a Kickstarter-funded CD of original music.

In 2010, Rob was commissioned by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival to compose “Sidewalks and Alleys”, performed and recorded on this CD by the Nice Guy Trio and an all-star string quartet.Rob has written music for various projects ranging from this tune for a sexy double trapeze act, the score to a beautiful dance film noir, to this silly song about shoes.

Rob Reich has presented us with the opportunity to be reminded of what music can do to bring people together  in an imaginative way, to reinvent the old and to recreate a whole new genre of entertainment. I will take that on a lazy Summer Sunday, or any day of the week!

Rob Reich released his latest album, on April 7, 2015. Shadowbox, twelve exquisite Jazz compositions written and performed by Rob Reich.

The Music of Rob Reich and the Circus Bella! All Star Band:

this tune

beautiful dance film noir

silly song

robreichmusic.com


Remembering Art Van Damme, America’s Foremost Jazz Accordionist

Art Van Damme

Art Van Damme

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana  Born in the tiny town of Norway, Michigan, Art Van Damme was not expected to become a serious American Jazz musician. Classically trained as a pianist and motivated to become a professional musician, Art was a performing musician by age nine in a local theatre in upper Michigan. His family moved to Chicago when he was fourteen years old where he became a performer on the Santa Fe Railroad between Chicago and California. By the time he was eighteen years old, he had a Swing band, with Art on accordion, along with a bassist and a guitarist.

Art Van Damme had a vision that the accordion should be a major instrument in Jazz music, and made it his mission to try to accomplish it in his lifetime.  By the time he was twenty-one, influenced by Benny Goodman, Art was a band leader during a time when the Big Band concept was thriving.  As a youth, Art was inspired by Benny Goodman and would study Goodman’s solos on clarinet and meticulously try to duplicate them on accordion. So, it was not surprising that, throughout his career, the style of Art Van Damme was often compared to the style of Benny Goodman, even though their instruments of choice were very different.  Versatile, technically brilliant,charming and confident, Art Van Damme was cut of the same material as any of the prominent musical talents lionized in the 1940’s. However,in the midst of his success, he made a bold decision to leave the Big Band format and to become, first, a solo accordion act, then adding vibes, bass and a few years later, drums.  

By becoming a small ensemble performer, Art began to try to fit his music into a niche market, away from the Big Band venues, focusing on more intimate settings such as small supper clubs and restaurants and marketing studio recordings of his work.  This was a very smart move during a time when musical styles were responding to emerging tastes and lifestyle changes of  Post War America. The Big Band Era was over as suddenly as it had begun. For twenty years and after,  Art performed and recorded consistently. He was a recognized part of the Jazz mainstream, touring and playing his brand of a softer, more subdued style of Jazz than had been previously popular. Art also worked as a session musician, but was constantly booked as a live performer, and toured extensively with his quintet. He traveled to Europe some 40 times or more and appeared on television and radio programs numerous times, in the States and abroad.   

When interest in the accordion began to mysteriously wane, around 1960 , and hoping to help counter act this trend,  Art Van Damme opened a music store and an accordion studio in Chicago, while he continued to tour and record, mainly in Europe. Unbelievably, the accordion in America, almost overnight, went from being an enormously popular instrument to fading, fast, from the American musical landscape. While Art had been astute at finding the pulse of changing musical tastes of America, he and other musicians unfortunately, had become victims of it.  Art continued to record and perform until as late as 2008. Today, Art Van Damme is critically acclaimed as the best Jazz Accordionist America has ever produced and was a genuine breakthrough artist for the instrument. Art  passed away, peacefully, in 2010 in his adopted state of California.

 

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(Art Van Damme, 1920-2010)