Living

Jamming with a one-man band

Kathy Mroz of Rock Hill, left, and Doris Allen of Fort Mill, play their accordions during a gathering in Fort Mill.
Kathy Mroz of Rock Hill, left, and Doris Allen of Fort Mill, play their accordions during a gathering in Fort Mill.

The music of the accordion seems reminiscent of pleasant days gone by: A lively polka, or the champagne music of famous accordion player Lawrence Welk.

But around these parts, say members of the Carolina Accordion Association -- who dedicate themselves to the preservation of its music -- the so-called squeezebox is a curiosity.

"When I first came here, I could not find anyone," said Kathy Mroz of Rock Hill, who searched for fellow players. "Some people don't even know what an accordion is."

Mroz, 67, now gathers to jam with Rock Hill and Fort Mill-area members of the accordion association, which counts around 40 of its members scattered across the Carolinas.

They will share their affection Sunday, when the Southeast Accordion Association gathers in Charlotte for open mic and jam sessions with a dinner and concert featuring Tony Lovello -- billed as the legend of the accordion world.

The hand-held, bellows-driven instrument is widely played around the world -- but not universally respected, perhaps because of the false idea that it's only good for polka music.

In fact, the accordion has been the butt of a lot of jokes -- like one by popular The Far Side illustrator Gary Larson, who once drew a cartoon with the punchline, "Welcome to heaven, here's your harp. Welcome to hell, here's your accordion."

Accordion buffs want a little more credit.

"It's a hard instrument to play, because both hands are doing two different things, and they're moving in opposite directions," explained Fred Freiberger, 70, of Lake Wylie, who only began playing a year ago.

The accordion features a set of piano-style keys on one side and buttons on the other, separated by a bellows that is expanded and contracted.

"An accordion is a one-man band," said Carolinas association president Robert Wilusz, 66, of Fort Mill, who formed the group by networking with other players. "That's why a lot of musicians don't like accordions."

Wilusz performs at schools, parties and Oktoberfest events and other festivals, as do some of the other members. "I'm fishing it out of the closet and trying to preserve it for the younger generation," he said.

Like many of the players, Wilusz started as a child. He wanted to play the piano or the organ, but there wasn't enough money or room in his parents' home.

"They said, 'What else do you want to play?'" Wilusz recalls. He settled on the accordion, which was available for a $2-a-week rental, including lessons.

Doris Allen, 80, of Fort Mill, began playing at about 10, after watching someone play an accordion and begging her parents for lessons. She once played in an accordion band.

Mroz had a brother who was once engaged to Lawrence Welk's daughter; the famed entertainer played his accordion in their home. "He played so well," she recalls.

But Ed Osiecki, 79, of Fort Mill, said the instrument began its demise in popularity in the mid-1960s, soon after Elvis Presley made it big on the music scene.

Then, Osiecki said, everyone wanted to play guitar. "That was the end of the accordion," he maintains.

But it's still an attention getter.

"It's really kind of an eye-opener," Wilusz said. "You walk into the room playing the 'Beer Barrel Polka' and you've got everybody's attention."

It's also a social instrument, he said. "I think the accordion enables you to talk to about anybody," he said. "You're not a stranger. People will open up to you."

WANT TO GO?

What: Southeast Accordion Association gathering, with accordion open mic and jam sessions, dinner and 7 p.m. concert with accordion legend Tony Lovello

When: 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Where: Holiday Inn conference center, Charlotte.

Admission: $65 for nonmembers

Details: Karen Adam, Southeast Accordion Association, (850) 936-8722 or Bob Wilusz, Carolinas Accordion Association, (803) 802-1958 in Fort Mill, or visit www.accordions.com/seaccassoc/

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