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Monday, December 24, 2012

A victim of the guitar

By Dick Hirsch

Henry Chimes is in his mid-80s now, happy and content with his life, but his opinion of guitar players has never mellowed. He is a musician, but he has never had much tolerance for guitar players.

“Players isn’t the right word when talking about most people who use the guitar,” Chimes stresses. “They aren’t players, they are just strummers."

He makes no attempt to conceal his sour feelings about the instrument that has soared in popularity for decades, while his own instrument is considered an oddity, a relic.

Chimes plays the accordion. He still has some solo gigs around the holidays as well as some appearances with his band. He fondly remembers the days when his music store on Walden Avenue maintained a complete inventory of accordions in various sizes and price ranges.

Buffalo was a big accordion center, mostly attributable to two large ethnic blocs for whom the instrument was a part of their heritage. That would be the Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans. It was the same in places like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, all places where the accordion was the instrument of choice for people young and old. Parents bought accordions for their children and, along with the instrument came a series of lessons. Christmas was the busiest time.

Henry Chimes sold hundreds of accordions and gave thousands of those lessons. Some children caught on and became celebrities around their schools while others tried but never could master the fingering of the instrument and the squeezing of the bellows. Playing the accordion among teenagers was an admirable pastime. Most of the players were boys and they soon discovered the instrument attracted the attention of girls, a notable benefit.

But trends are just trends and the only constant is change. Somehow the accordion plummeted from its lofty status. It succumbed to the guitar, which required little or no training to engage in a bit of social strumming. The accordion virtually disappeared from view and any mention of the instrument associated it with people generally looked upon as dorks, dweebs or nerds.

However, today I can report what may indicate a modest revival of interest in the accordion, based upon the experience of our daughter, Betsy, a pianist and composer working in New York for Steinway & Sons, the legendary piano manufacturer. Piano is her primary instrument but she dabbles with a number of others, including the guitar, the mandolin and the accordion. She became the owner of an accordion years ago at about the age of 10 when our neighbor, Murray, a dentist, was relieved to get rid of his. He had done some extensive dental work for the owner of a music store near his dental office. Alas, when the work was completed the patient admitted he didn’t have enough cash to pay the bill but would pay part in cash and part with an accordion plus lessons.

Murray agreed, somewhat ruefully. What else could he do? The dentures were already in place. After a few lessons he realized he had no future as an accordionist and had the idea of presenting it to Betsy, who was taking piano lessons. He took the accordion to our house one evening, along with instruction manuals.

The rest is a part of family history. Murray showed her how to strap it on; she played a couple of scales and suddenly she was serenading us with a few tunes she had memorized for the piano. Everyone was pleased,  especially Murray and Betsy. That was the beginning of her dalliance with the accordion. She played it for fun occasionally but mostly it was kept under her bed, first in Buffalo and then in New York. A few months ago one of her musician friends, a bass player, mentioned a group of Broadway musicians that needed a temporary replacement for their accordion player. Betsy volunteered. She tuned up, auditioned and was hired. After one performance she became an enthusiastic regular. She has detected a groundswell of interest in Manhattan clubs.

“Everything sounds good on the accordion,” she said.

That is an opinion she shares with ethnomusicologist Marion Jacobson, the author of a new book about the accordion, published by the University of Illinois Press. The book, “Squeeze This!” A Cultural History of the Accordion in America, traces the history of the instrument from its invention in Italy in the 1820s through its spectacular popularity to its astonishing fall, swamped by rock ‘n’ roll and the guitar. If you are an accordion fan anticipating its full recovery, remember that patience is still a virtue.



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