Party in a Box
“At first, I thought it was so silly, I couldn’t play it and not giggle.”
-- Glen Hartman, accordion player for the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars
At least once every Schatzy performance, Greg Schatz jumps off the stage and makes his way through the crowd. But even as he leaves the band behind, he takes the music with him. For Schatz fronts the band which bares his name from behind an accordion, and as he winds through the club, he pushes and pulls on the bellows of his instrument, sending air over the reeds and music in between the people who fill the room and the outside street. The sound is seductive, but with a pulse – something like a piano crossed with a horn, only this piano has feet.
“The accordion is affordable, portable, and loud,” says Schatz. These qualities, along with the raw appeal of its distinctive sound, are what originally popularized the accordion in Europe in the 1800’s. Germany, Italy, and France all fell in love with the accordion, and New Orleans’ present music scene reflects these old world sounds as well as those born from the accordion’s crossing over the Atlantic. When any of New Orleans’ many accordionists straps on this free reed instrument, he or she brings the vaudeville to the performance and the parade inside the bar.
Common belief has it that the accordion made its way to Louisiana in the hands of the German immigrants who flooded here in the mid 1800’s. The accordion traveled well on ships and could operate as a band in itself. John Roger, who built his own brand of button accordions in Meraux, LA, called Cajun, put it this way: “You can play it acoustically and still hear it. You can play it by itself and it’s the band. If you can sing, even better.”
Cajun Acadians quickly adopted the accordion, and the accordion, in turn, changed their French-country music, becoming perhaps more central to it than even the violin or guitar. Louis Michot, who plays fiddle for the Lost Bayou Ramblers of Broussard, Louisiana, says that when his brother Andre “throws the accordion in there, it brings a deeper and funkier rhythm.” Andre learned how to play the accordion from Ray Abshire who learned from Nathan Abshire, who learned from hearing it in dance halls in and around Lafayette. “The way it honks is funky and junky,” affirms Michot.
Zydeco, which evolved out of Cajun music, and draws from the blues and rock and roll, also prominently figures the accordion. The King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, played a piano accordion, however most Zydeco musicians commonly play the button accordion, which makes one sound when you push its bellows and another when you pull. On the other hand, piano accordions sound the same notes whether you’re pushing or pulling. The right hand has a keyboard at its disposal and plays the melody. The left hand, in Glen Hartman’s words, has “all the funny buttons.” It plays the accompaniment – bass notes and chords. “Taking advantage of both hands is a little bit like juggling,” says Schatz. There are chromatic accordions, which can sound every note, and diatonic accordions, which are locked into certain scales. All accordions use bellows to push air through reeds and create notes, but there’s no set way to make this happen.
“I think of accordion as a very distinctive flavor, like garlic, that can go in a bunch of different directions,” says Schatz. When you count the bands in town who utilize this flavor, the sounds start piling up. In addition to native Cajun and Zydeco, accordions in New Orleans bellow to gypsy jazz, dance music from Martinique, and a host of other genres. Mary Go Round uses her accordion to transform her folklorist-style storytelling into a cabaret package. Walt McClements lends his accordion to the rambunctious, brassy circus sound of Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? In The Zydepunks, teaming accordionists Christian Kuffner and Eve create a hybrid of Cajun, Irish, Klezmer and Punk sounds. Ron Hodges, of the Iguanas, plays his diatonic accordion in a Tex-Mex style. For Schatz, playing the accordion has opened up a world of ethnic folk music, which, in turn, influences how he writes his own songs. “With the accordion, if I want to play something that sounds like it’s middle eastern, it’s easier to do so. Certain licks that you play on the accordion I think, oh, that sounds like the swamp to me, and others sound like the Romanian country side.”
But the versatility of the accordion doesn’t stop at its culture references. “The nice thing about it is that you can play it like a single note instrument, like a clarinet, or you can play it more like a church organ and have chords,” says Schatz. “The rough rule of thumb,” he continues, “is the more people I play with, the less busy I make my own parts.”
In her band, The Herringbone Orchestra, Courtney Lain follows the same rule, playing quietly in order to be in step with the other, acoustic instruments. Unfortunately, this often means you don’t hear all the crazy sounds coming from Lain’s accorgan, which is an electric, Italian made accordion with an organ synthesizer built into it. The accorgan works like a pump organ, producing two simultaneous sounds – those of an acoustic accordion and an electronic organ. Lain hugs her accorgan in close and rests her left cheek on the button cabinet in order to listen through the bellows. Her atmospheric and playfully creepy accorgan layers a drama line under the delicate tinkle of harp, bass clarinet, cello, drums, and euphonium. “I use the quieter settings because I don’t want to overpower everybody. That’s the beauty of having an orchestra, the sounds together.”
Patrick Harison plays accordion in the Panorama Jazz Band, where he says he uses the accordion like a horn rather than a piano. “It’s an air powered instrument using reeds. So it has more in common with the clarinet or the sax, rather than a strap-on piano.” But even though their sounds are generated differently, the relationship between the piano and the accordion is not incidental. Several local musicians, including Hartman, Lain, and Bart Ramsey, began their accordion careers precisely because they were piano players. “I took up the accordion because I’m a piano player but I couldn’t take an accordion to a camp fire,” says Ramsey, whose band Va Va Voom brings to New Orleans the sounds of French Jazz, which accordion enthusiastically permeated over the last century.
It can march in a band. It can play back up or lead. And what’s more, it adds atmosphere. “The accordion brings a great deal of life and a lot of nostalgic connotations for people,” says Jonathan Freilich, The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars’ guitar player. In a city breathing the past into the present, the accordion has become one more indispensable tool. Klezmer, which Hartman describes as Jewish party music, hails from Eastern Europe. The Klezmer All Stars weren’t the first to bring Klezmer to New Orleans, but they were the first to bring it back to the bars and the streets – the places where it originated. “It’s crazy dance music,” says Hartman, “and people like to get crazy.”
In a way, this might be the final word on the accordion. “Electricity can come and go,” says Harison, “but an accordion is a party in a box. Whenever you have an accordion, you can take your party with you.”
Have accordion? Can party; will travel.
Courtney Lain, Greg Schatz, and Christian Kuffner are organizing a New Orleans accordion society which hopes to have events planned for June’s International Accordion Awareness month.