restricted access Chapter 8 Play Me a Tarantella, a Polka, or Jazz: Italian Americans and the Currency of Piano-Accordion Music
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8 Play Me a Tarantella, a Polka, or Jazz Italian Americans and the Currency of Piano-Accordion Music christine f. zinni In 1971, Roxy and Nellie Caccamise traveled from the small town of Batavia, New York, to Bruge, Belgium. Pioneers of the piano accordion in upstate New York, they had been selected to represent the American Accordion Association at the World Championship competition. Among the competitors was one of their students , John Torcello. Like other first- and second-generation Italian American accordionists, the group from western New York first heard the strains of accordion music at neighborhood gatherings of friends and relatives. Unlike earlier generations, Torcello was able to develop a wide-ranging repertoire of Italian folk and classical music, American popular music, and jazz by studying at Roxy and Nellie’s accordion school. He became a member of a forty-piece accordion bandandsharedthelocalstagewithcelebritieslikethefamedconcertperformer, composer, and radio star Charles Magnante, the jazz artist Art Van Damme, and the orchestra leader Lionel Hampton. Early exposure to accordion music on the streets,aswellastheconcertstage,inspiredTorcellotofurtherhisstudies.Years later,hewentontoplaywithLucianoPavarottiandtheLosAngelesPhilharmonic. I come to this accordion story from growing up on Batavia’s south side. Music wastheglueinourneighborhood—aplacewhere,likeinotherLittleItaliesacross western New York State, Italians and Poles lived side by side. While the ethos of ourneighborhoodhaschanged,theechoofItalianoperas,tarantellas,mazurkas, 157 Play Me a Tarantella, a Polka, or Jazz waltzes, and polkas continues to haunt the streets. Roxy and Nellie’s music store still stands, now run by their daughter Rose. Rows of accordions line the walls of thestore.Thenamesofthemodels—Stradella,Soprani,Excelsior,Giulietti,Guerrini , Bell, Pan American, and Italo-American—suggest the breadth and scope of the story and some of its Italian roots. While my love of accordion music evolved out of childhood experiences, it was only years later, when I was conducting oral historyresearchforavideodocumentaryonItalianAmericansintheregion,that I began to realize the larger significance of our neighborhood story. Following the echo that bellowed back and forth between local, national, and transnational venues, I discovered how Roxy and Nellie’s accordion school reflected the Italian American influence on American popular music. As the anthropologist Dennis Tedlock has stressed, culture is an emergent phenomenon made in the interstices between people.1 In this essay, I look at the emergence of accordion schools and accordion bands in the United States established by Italian Americans. Approaching the subject from the perspective of grassroots oral history and performance theory, I map the ways in which Roxy and Nellie’s efforts were connected to a longer history and larger matrix of Italian American musicians, composers, publishing houses, and manufacturers in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. This essay also suggests how the interactions and interplay of peoples within, and through, these communitybased networks functioned to create a parallel economy and a cultural space that was not only imbricated in the politics of identity but helped span gaps between folk and fame. Taking an actor/action-centered approach to life-history narratives , I submit that the accordion schools created by Italian Americans operated through the interstices of two cultures and proved to be a strategic intervention in American cultural life with polysemous meanings. The Beginnings AsthenotedItalianAmericanauthorsJerreMangioneandBenMorrealesuggested more than fifty years ago, music was the art most closely associated with Italians in the first waves of immigration to the Americas.2 This is evidenced by the number of Italian stage performers, opera singers, and band musicians that gained prominencebetweenthemid-nineteenthandtheearlytwentiethcentury.AsVictorGreeneandHarryW .Swartzassert,bytheturnofthecentury,bandmusicwas ubiquitousintheAmericas,andItalianmusicianswereeverywhere.3 Performing selectionsfromgrandopera,theflamboyantAlessandroLiberatidirectedhisband from horseback. Known as “The Toscanini of Band Music” and “Svengali of the Baton,” Giuseppe Creatore played off the cultural capital of his Neapolitan roots 158 christine f. zinni and enthralled audiences with the warmth of his smile, his emotional displays, and demonstrative feelings for his operatic repertoire. The success of Creatore’s Italian Band prompted the influx of other musicians from Italy to America—and a host of bandleaders sporting mustachios and wild, long hair. Compared to the strict regimentation of the military ensembles led by Germans and Czechs, Creatore ’s intense, athletic performances were controversial. Commenting on the hypnotic effect the conductor reportedly had on his audiences, a journalist from theChicagoTribuneremarked:“Toneisthewirelessmediumheusestoreachyou, butthecurrenthesendstoyouishisownintenseindividuality,andyoufeelitand obey it just unresistingly as do his men.”4 Crisscrossing the country to perform at diverse venues, from the mid to the latenineteenthcenturyItaliantouringbandsledbyItalianconductorslikeCappa, Grafulla, Scala, Minoliti, Liberati, Franciulli, Creatore, Corrado, Gallo, Vesella, Don Phillipini, Tommasino, Ferulla, Satriano, Cassassa, Donatelli, Ruzzi, and Sorrentini competed with band luminaries like Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa by featuring Italian bel canto...


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