For my entire life, I’ve had this problem where I take on a hobby and instead of treating it like a hobby, I treat the hobby as if it is my job. Or worse, as if it is a matter of life and death. Maybe the best example of this is when I took up accordion-playing in 1999.
I’d been interested in the accordion since I lived in Paris ten years earlier. The idea of the strolling café accordionist was very romantic to me and I really enjoy the French Musette music and the swing jazz. Later, in San Francisco, I discovered Jewish klezmer music which also prominently features the accordion.
At a friend’s wedding in 1998, I met someone who said she owned an accordion. When I asked her where she bought it she gave me the business card of an accordion shop in Oakland. The next night, I took a little trip across the bay. It should have been no surprise that I came home that night with an actual accordion. It was a Colombo Grande Vox from about 1954 and it was white and green and glittery. And I had no idea what to do with it. The sound wasn’t the best, as it was a really honky loud accordion. I ended up selling this in 2001.
My second accordion was given to me by my friend Jason. He found it in a flea market in Kansas City for $25 and flew with it to San Francisco. (As an aside, a real friend is someone who will carry-on an accordion for you.) This one was an Iorio Candida, also from the 1950s. Unlike the Colombo, this accordion had a very sweet “wet” sound, which was much more like what I wanted to hear. At the same time that I sold the Colombo, I had the Iorio cleaned and tuned. It’s got a “ladies size” keyboard, which is a little small for me, so I don’t play it much. But it still sounds lovely.
When I moved to Philadelphia later in 1999, I started looking around for a place to take lessons. While San Francisco had a lot of independent teachers and even a few music stores where one could take group lessons, I was surprised to find that there was virtually no accordion scene in Philadelphia. Here, the accordion was a goofy novelty that old guys in the Italian Market played on Sundays. After some searching I found the Acme Accordion School in Westmont, New Jersey.
Acme was started at the height of the accordion’s popularity in the late 1950s by Stan Darrow. Stan was the leader of the Westmont Philharmonia Accordion Orchestra, a group of very serious accordion players who toured the world playing a classical repertoire of Bach, Beethoven, and all those guys. I called the school in November 2000 and was told that I should come visit the place that weekend, as they were having their big Accordion Day open house.
I was stunned to find what amounted to a museum of accordiana. Stan had a case of old (mostly unplayable) antique accordions. There was a large collection of ceramic figurines featuring accordions. The walls were lined with photographs of Acme students and their accordions as well as glossy 8×10 pictures of famous accordion players. The amazing thing was where the accordion scene in San Francisco recognized and embraced the ironic nature of the accordion, Acme seemed to have no idea of the public perception of the instrument. It was the most earnest place I’d ever seen. In San Francisco, concerts and accordion events were packed with hip young folk like myself who loved the accordion, but also knew that what they were doing was in some way kind of goofy. The crowd at Acme was made up of very serious and very talented octogenarians, middle-aged men who had missed the whole Beatles/Rock-n-Roll thing (which Stan told me later with more than a hint of bitterness had almost put him out of business), and the nerdy kids of those middle-aged men who were just a couple of years away from discovering punk rock and abandoning the whole thing.
Needless to say, I signed up for lessons immediately.
It wasn’t long before I began taking the lessons seriously, and it wasn’t long before I decide I needed a much much better accordion. As soon as Stan let me take home an enormous Titano Cosmopolitan from the 1960s, I knew I had to have this.
For two years, I practiced every day, I entered competitions, and I was made “student of the year” for 2001 at the Acme Accordion School. For Christmas that year I recorded a little album of songs which I burned onto a CD and gave away to friends and family. The ten songs can be played on the small player underneath the album cover here.
Sometime in late 2002 I just burned out. I had to take a second job and various other life issues took precedence, and I just couldn’t put the time in that I wanted to. The Titano sat in its case until May 2004 when I sold it to someone in Montreal and used the proceeds to buy a mountain bike, which starts another obsessive story for another day.
I missed the accordion, of course, and in October 2005 I was able to get a much smaller more portable accordion from a shop in New York called Main Squeeze. I still have this one, though I haven’t played it as much as I’d like.
In 2006 I played a song at a benefit at The University of the Arts here in Philadelphia. Years ago my friend Jay suggested I learn the Pixies “Here Comes Your Man” on the accordion, so that’s what I did. I’m not much for playing live and what with my students and colleagues around I was a little nervous.
I’ve played twice at the Ruba club in Philly. Once in 2002 and again in 2009.
Here are a few tracks I’ve recorded over the last few years that involve my accordion in some way. Typically alongside a ukulele and guitar and some recording tricks.
You can read more about this here.
So that’s where it stands. If and when I add to the accordion legacy, this is where you’ll find it. Thanks for listening.