The Accordion Plays Jazz - Italy Traditionally relegated within the confines of popular and entertainment music, the accordion suffered throughout the years a singular fate: as an outcast both in the world of "serious" music, which regarded it as not being noble enough, and in the world of popular music consumed by young people, who saw it as old-fashioned. To escape this situation the accordion has often had to pay a very high price.
While the bandoneon gradually came to be perceived as the instrument of tango in Argentina, the accordion was brought from Europe across the Atlantic ocean towards the end of the nineteenth century. Italian expatriates took it to the United States, where it found its cradles in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the accordion was used primarily in orchestral groups, although it also had its niche role in the ragtime genre. The pioneers of this early movements are Charlie Creath (who actually played a number of instruments) and the Italian-American Tito Guidotti. In neither case, however, we can talk about jazz yet.
Significant appearances of the accordion took place in this period thanks to Joe Smelser and Charles Magnante, two swing soloists who played in very prestigious orchestras, including those of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. More or less all of the musicians mentioned above preferred a style ranging from the musette (a term which indicates a specific French accordion style) to the swing which was at its most popular in this period.
Other important artists of the time include Gus Viseur, Toni Murena and Joe Privat.
In Italy the jazz accordion is historically confined to the work of Gorni Kramer, a swing accordionist whose contribution was picked up, among others, by Wolmer Beltrami and Peppino Principe. The most important contribution to the modernization of the instruments was given by June Garner and Alice Hall (1917). The latter, Belgian by birth, might be considered the first "be-boy" accordionist, having played with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and was famous for the amazing energy that she used to put in her improvisations.
This takes us to the first real exponents of the jazz accordion era, and who deserve this label due to the fact that they were real leaders, capable of drawing to this newly introduced instrument a range of musicians of great calibre. The accordionists in question are Art Van Damme and Mat Mathews.
Van Damme recorded more than forty albums, and still plays live from time to time, while Mathews, the least "be-boy" of the two, heralded a style of evident Californian origins. Both accordionists have played with jazz musicians of international stature, including Joe Venuti, Archie Shepp, Kenny Clarke, Art Farmer and many others.
Italian-French accordionist Richard Galliano is currently the prime exponent of the jazz accordion world. His main merits consist in the ability of finding a balance between tradition and innovation, and of mixing several different genres: from French musette to Argentinean tango (which he knows full well, having been a student of Astor Piazzolla's), all filtered through his extraordinary virtuoso skills and trademark accuracy. The jazz accordion scene in Italy is currently represented by the opposing styles of Gianni Coscia and Antonello Salis. Coscia, formerly a student of Gorni Kramer's, has largely drawn from the accepted academic tradition of accordion interpretation; while Salis has taken a much more non-conformist approach to his style of jazz accordion and piano performance, and his moulding these instruments to his artistic goals.
The considerable distance that still separates traditional and avant-garde musicians suggests that the possibilities of the accordion within this musical genre are still largely to be explored.
In this sense, the main problem is that the accordion has been used very little so far to produce modern jazz and true innovation. Beyond doubt, the most influential avant-garde jazz accordionist of today is the Slovak-born American Guy Klucevsek (b. 1947). Klucevsek started experimenting with jazz in the seventies alongside John Zorn before achieving notoriety in the quartet led by Bill Frisell, and collaborates nowadays with the most important avant-garde jazz musicians of our time (as well as with Frisell and Zorn, he plays with Antony Braxton, Don Byron, Dave Liebman). In a movement whose territory is still largely uncharted, with an instrument whose potential is yet to be fully realised, there are many non-specialists and pseudo-accordionists who are taking advantage of a situation which (from the point of view of modern jazz) is still dominated by profound ignorance, and whose main lines of development still grow out of the traditional and surpassed roots of the accordion.
The main issue is that the accordion over the years has built its own "personal" world, largely isolated from the key instruments of jazz (trumpet, saxophone, etc.) which should in fact taken as a model both for their historical importance and for the personalities who managed to ensure their continuous growth.