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Deiro, Doktorski and Vaudeville
by Dr. Paul Allan Magistretti

Vaudeville Accordion Classics Henry Doktorski does an excellent job performing Guido Deiro's compositions from the Golden Age of Vaudeville.

Guido Deiro was the first major accordion star in vaudeville and essentially defined the instrument in America. Even today performers and the public alike have a perception of the accordion as a solo instrument designed (if not destined) to deliver dazzling runs, rousing tunes and a thrilling visual experience.

The release of this new recording of The Complete Works of Guido Deiro invites some historical background.

The rise of the piano accordion in America is tied to the ubiquity of parlor pianos and organs in the nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Keyboard instruments dominated the consciousness of the masses. It was an age before recordings when people made their own music and a keyboard instrument was far and away the medium of choice. The piano was flexible, in need of no accompaniment and was a status symbol for the rising middle class — being the putative "King of Instruments." Historically, keyboard playing had been at home in churches, concert halls and the courts of princes; dissimilarly, button accordions were born and bred among the huddled masses and immigrants, whom the general population disdained.

Given the era's predisposition for pianos it was natural that the public's interest be exploited. Audiences were thrilled when they saw their esteemed configuration of keys tilted ninety degrees and played brilliantly by charismatic performers who moved about a stage giving the keys wings. Vaudeville found a star vehicle and the piano keyboard was it (e.g., when Frosini auditioned for vaudeville with his chromatic accordion he was rejected. After he had a dummy piano keyboard attached creating the illusion of a piano accordion he went on to great success).

The piano accordion's emergence from the shadow of the piano has haunted its identity down to the present day. Often critics, musicians and audiences see it as a physically challenged mini-piano/auto-bass system, a parody of the real thing. However, in the beginning there was no invidious comparisons, because seeing an accordionist play his free-flight keyboard was as contemporaneously exciting as seeing a gyrating rock guitarist today — which helps explain why Guido Deiro's talent and charisma were not only recognized, but were rewarded with the phenomenal salary of $600 a week at a time when people made a dollar or two a day.

The many and diverse chromatic systems that found their way to this melting pot nation created a pedagogical nightmare and there was a need for standardization. The solution was readily available via a piano interface and there was the added advantage of an existing core of piano teachers who could serve the students and sell instruments. Furthermore, piano keyboards could play in any key, which many button accordions couldn't — so, the new keyboard could access music without any (especially ethnic) limitations; it was win-win-win, a progressive, American solution.

During the dawn of the piano accordion stage performances and recordings fixed its style and repertoire. Prophetically, The Sharpshooters March was Deiro's first recorded hit. While his stage performances included popular songs, abridgements of classical music and opera, show tunes and his own compositions, vaudeville was a show in which the performer had to capture and hold a large, not always sympathetic audience and such audiences responded best to excitement and visual appeal. After all, the audience was comprised of working people, middlebrows and groundlings, not court dilettantes or musical sophisticates. The common man's taste, preferences and bias dictated repertoire and defined the instrument. Showstoppers rather than sensitive renditions won over the crowd and led to an accordionist becoming a headliner; violins and Irish tenors handled sentiment. Guido Deiro despite the challenge of other musicians, clowns, dancers, jugglers, comics, singers and animal acts, stood out as one of the brightest stars on the circuit.

Many great performers following Guido Deiro tried to modify the vaudevillian identity of the instrument. Galla Rini, Magnante, Bill Palmer and others wanted to bring it into the concert hall and often succeeded brilliantly. Magnante's famous Carnegie Hall Concert in the thirties is a case in point — Magnante and his associates played Bach and other classics and received great reviews — attendance was excellent, too. However, the instrument's image remained unchanged and concert opportunities continued to be few and far between. Dick Contino brought the accordion back to prominence in the nineteen fifties on Horace Heidt's amateur radio show, but the show was essentially vaudeville and boosted interest in the instrument, but without affecting its identity. In fact, Contino played show-stopping renditions of Lady of Spain, fulfilling brilliantly the accordion's established identity. To this day you can give odds that whenever someone stands up with an accordion the public expects a dazzling keyboard display — Dizzy Fingers, Nola, Flight of the Bumble Bee, Malaguena, Hora Staccato, polkas, mazurkas — the accordion is still perceived of as fireworks and people want to see it go off.

Prominent soloists and groups today are offering varied repertoires and successfully enlightening music directors, conductors and fellow (non-accordionist) musicians. However, most of the public (including many accordionists) are comfortable with the instrument's stereotype; they even choose to reinforce the ghost of vaudeville, which has endured into a tradition. The danger, of course, has been that the accordion is defined narrowly and associated with "certain kinds" of music, and seen as a parody of violins, clarinets, organs and pianos. Of course, when the instrument is used as a MIDI controller it is de facto a parody.

When the worldwide Astor Piazzolla phenomenon reached the media and concert halls of America over a decade ago with the maestro's synthesis of Bach, Ginestera, Bartok, the tango and jazz it helped redefine the dimensions of free reed instruments and their aesthetic potential. Piazzolla created a riveting emotional tapestry. Tejano, Cajun and other vibrant forms of music have further dissociated the instrument from stereotypes; jazz and swing artists are gaining respect (albeit late, for the genius of Ernie Felice, Art Van Damme and Leon Sash was there for all to hear). Lips, Galliano, Marocco, Venglevski, Mia Miki and others are achieving critical attention. Also, a variety of keyboards and free bass systems are giving the accordion added dimensions and a well-deserved reputation for delivering musical experiences unsurpassed by any instrument. So, the future is bright.

In Deiro's heyday the march was king, it was the age of Sousa — and Deiro's marches tend to be his best compositions. In fact, the arrangements and voicings he uses beautifully evoke a marching band from a single instrument. I never realized as a young accordionist and removed from the age of the March King what I was supposed to do with all those marches I was assigned; now I know. Mr. Doktorski plays the marches with enviable fire and precision. In fact, Henry displays some of his best playing on these pieces, embracing the fast tempi and intricate cadenzas with clean phrasing, spacious dynamics and lots of spirit. The pieces are composed of several movements and repeats with contrasts in pace and mood. To fully appreciate them we should imagine the performer alone on a stage facing a huge audience; this imaginative leap will deepen your appreciation.

Deiro's rags appropriately celebrate the jazzy, syncopated mood of the times; they are as enjoyable as Scott Joplin's. The tangos and waltzes have an easy charm, the former suggesting lightness and fun, the latter echoing Deiro's Italian roots or Strauss — fox trots round out the dance forms. Dancers might have appeared onstage with the performer, especially for the tango. Valentino made a big splash doing the tango in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921 and a showman like Deiro might have brightened up his Lido Tango with a visual element.

Included in the album are some marches and watlzes from Deiro's accordion method books; they aren't major works, but they're worthy lehrstück.

There is a lone fantasia, the Egypto Fantasia, which is conceived in several movements. It's Deiro's longest composition and it's good within its parts; overall, however, it seems like a piece that was meant to supply motifs for a motion picture (Cecil DeMille's Ten Commandments was released in 1923). Of course, Egypt was intriguing to the West since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Fascination continued right through the nineteenth century peaking in 1922 when Howard Carter and the Earl of Carnarvon discovered King Tutankhamen's tomb. Egyptian motifs were seen everywhere including the décor of many of the theaters in which vaudeville took place (e.g., the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood). Mr. Doktorski gives such a full and sincere rendition of the Egypto that he succeeds in conjuring up a drama of one's own conception.

Henry Doktorski is one of our country's most versatile and accomplished soloists and captures the scope and fire of Deiro's music. He successfully embraces the spirit of vaudevillie's Golden Age with authority and danger. His playing, in fact, takes a quantum leap with this recording; he has never worked harder, risked more or achieved greater results than he has here. His command of both hands is impressive, and his Stradella playing was especially good, capturing the sense of when the bass system was a fresh, important artistic element. He blends, accompanies and solos without ever lapsing into what is often heard today (even from accomplished players); that cursive oom-pah-pahing and a sense that we're hearing a bass machine that threatens at any moment to overrun, fall behind or drive the other voices into mindless acceleration.

Musically, Deiro's compositions are meant to be catchy, flashy and appealing to the ears and eyes, suggesting the directness of a high wire act rather than emotional depth -- which is not to devalue them. After all, they suited their occasion perfectly. Handel's Water Music lacks the depth of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, but suits the soul of the former composer's aesthetic persuasion — and Guido Deiro suited his own persuasion well. It's a tribute to Deiro's talent that the music is still enjoyable and tells us so much about the man and his times.

Guido Deiro, Jr., and Mr. Doktorski are to be congratulated for beautifully and affectionately producing this album.

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Reprinted with permission from the Accordionists & Teachers Guild, International Bulletin, Vol. 2004, issue 1 (January 2004)

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