• Squeeze box: a pain in the brass
    August 19,2013

    Although I’m a “farm boy” right down to my slow-lane image, everyone needs a hobby. And, no, my someday obituary will not include the words hunting, fishing, bowling or golf. I simply don’t have time for those “normal” pastimes nor will I even in retirement. Don’t know how; never learned.

    I do, however, have the foolish habit of music. Music struck me early, probably in the womb. Mother never mentioned the trombone that arrived with me but it had to have been there somewhere. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t play the thing. I’ve always fought its traditional leanings, though. Instead of Bach, Mozart and Sibelius, I wanted Basie, Ellington and Kenton — and it’s happening a great deal these days.

    Odd, you say, that someone would include the fields of farmer and jazz musician in one lifetime? But wait, there are similarities: They can both be sweet as Vermont maple syrup, painfully hard work and, yes, seasonal with a capital “S.” Here in Vermont, the few short weeks of summer are the time for live music. Come September, opportunities for musicians like me get as scarce as melodic-sounding bagpipes. Last week, I played five nights in a row for a guy who runs a 10-piece big band over near the Connecticut River. Gerry Grimo markets his group all winter and then gets a lot of summer gigs around New Hampshire and Vermont.

    The first time I met Gerry was at a Dartmouth College function that had hired his East Bay Jazz Ensemble. I, guarded substitute, approached the bandstand with its disheveled assemblage of drums, horns, and electronics but was particularly struck to see a man with an accordion right in the middle of it. When he saw me, the man smiled and shouted above the din of horns warming up. “You must be Burr. I’m Gerry Grimo.”

    Before I go any further, I must reveal something about trombonists: Like dogs, we’re very territorial. We just “sniff and wag” with fellow brass players but begin to bristle at first sight of a violin. There’s one instrument, however, that makes our lips curl into a low, guttural growl — the dreaded accordion. That night at Dartmouth, however, I chose to “suck it up” rather than make a scene. I readied my horn for the night.

    After the first downbeat, I realized there was nary an accordion sound in the house. Gerry’s old Excelsior had been fitted with modern electronics and out of it came the sweetest sounds of piano, bass, and vibraphone. Gerry, also an excellent jazz singer, provided three-quarters of a big band rhythm section with that old squeeze box.

    Since that night years ago, I’ve remained East Bay Jazz Ensemble’s oft-used substitute trombone player and, in fact, am headed clear to Nashua, N.H., tonight to play at, what else — an accordion convention. Yup, Myron Floren want-a-be’s all over New Hampshire are getting together at Nashua’s Courtyard Marriott this weekend. They’ve hired Gerry’s big band to demonstrate the “versatility of accordions as part of a larger instrumental ensemble” or, from my primitive trombone perspective, to prove those cussed things can play more than “Lady of Spain.”

    I’m about to head out and will finish this epistle tomorrow ... after all, I bet you’re dying to hear my take on the accordion convention.

    Got home at 1:30 this morning, “up to my ears” with southern New Hampshire traffic and tolls. I was even stopped by a New Hampshire state trooper for a sobriety check but he was a nice young man. He readily believed that I was sober as a judge but looked askance when I reported that I was a trombone player returning from an accordion convention. At the risk of turning off my fellow trombonists (down boys, down), I’m pleased to report great things from the convention. Before our band played to a thoroughly gracious audience, we listened to Tony Lovello, of 1970s “Hee Haw” fame, play his tunes and do his schtick. We also heard another older man, Joe Cerrito, play some lovely accordion jazz. Yes, I said accordion jazz.

    I’m a bit sluggish because of my night out and will no doubt short-change some of my farm duties today, but I am at least wiser about one thing: The much-maligned accordion is a very legitimate and versatile instrument. It sure put a smile on my face last night and made me feel good to be both a farmer and musician, two fields that feed the world and “make it go ‘round.”

    Burr Morse lives in East Montpelier.

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