All my life, I’ve been drawn to intelligent, talented people. Though I have no musical talent myself, I recognize it when I see it, both in the entertainment field and in my personal life.
My first partner was (and is) a great singer whose voice and showmanship often eclipsed his professional life as a lawyer. Michael Greenspan, my life partner since 1985, is also a great singer, an incredible performer, and a brilliant instrumentalist. I am obviously biased. What makes Michael different from most other singers or musicians is that he plays the accordion.
In his 1992 thesis, “Accordion: Historical and Personal Perspectives,” Michael divided all those who play the squeeze box between “the accordion player, who relegates the instrument’s occasional use to the most informal musical applications, and the accordionist, who recognizes the tremendous range and potential of the accordion and devotes a primary part of his/her musical life to understanding and perfecting the craft.”
Michael is definitely an accordionist. When I first met him, he was a full-time musician; performing with the folk group, the American Balalaika Company. Though Michael has since gone on to a stellar career in education, he never dropped the squeeze box.
He is the Cantorial Soloist for Congregation Etz Chaim, a spiritual home for LGBT Jews and their friends in South Florida. As “Misha,” Michael plays venues all over Florida, specializing in Jewish and international folk music. He has recorded two CD’s as a solo act and one – “Fire and Passion” -- with the American Balalaika Company.
All this makes me an accordion spouse, which is more time-consuming than being married to a freelance writer/journalist and community activist. Like many of you, I grew up with all the prejudices and misconceptions that surround accordions and those who play them: from “Lady of Spain” jokes to the popular view of the “typical” accordionist as an 80-year old Italian in a bad polyester suit and cap.
Michael, whose relationship with the accordion is more intimate, admits that “accordionists are sensitive to the stereo-typical attitudes about their instrument and they devote much of their musical energy to perfecting its expressive potential.” On the other hand, as the master of such an “unusual” instrument, Michael stands out the way that, say, pianists or guitarists don’t. How many synagogues have an accordion-playing cantor?
There is more to the accordion than polkas. In his liner notes to the CD compilation “Legends of Accordion” (Rhino Records), Eddie Gorodetsky, editor of “Accordion Player Magazine,” wrote that, “for non-accordion lovers it’s easy to find reasons to hate the instrument.
After all, much French music is played on it. But substitute ‘Cajun’ for ‘French,’ and suddenly it’s a different story. And fine Cajun stomps are just the tip of the musical iceberg that is accordion music.
Jazz, blues, country, and zydeco are all richer for the musical instrument that The Who paid tribute to in one of their later singles.” Two of our most dynamic musical genres, “Tejano” (Tex-Mex) and “norteño” music, thrive on accordions: In the words of Ramiro Burr, author of “The Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music” (Billboard Books), “the button accordion and the melodic hooks that it produces are indispensable to Tejano and norteño music,” as proved by artists like Emilio, La Fiebre, David Lee Garza, La Mafia, Mazz and the late Selena.
The “Legends of Accordion” CD features such artists as Dick Contino (of course); polka kings Myron Floren, Lawrence Welk and Frankie Yankovic; Cajun/ zydeco greats Clifton Chenier and Andrew Cormier; Tex-Mex mavens Flaco Jimenez and Steve Jordan; and accordion jazz-beaux Angelo DiPippo, Guy Klucevsek and the Art Van Damme Quintet.
As an accordion spouse, I accompany Michael to gigs all over Florida, often enough to make me more familiar with his repertoire than anyone else, except the artist of course. I also accompanied Misha to some of the Florida Accordionist Association’s annual SMASH conventions, weekend gatherings in Orlando devoted to all things accordion. Here accordionists and accordion players came out of their squeeze box closets to play their chosen instruments, listen to music and bask in an accordion-friendly environment.
There, Michael shared the stage with such greats as the “K” Trio (a family act), the one and only Tony Lovello (“the Liberace of the Accordion”), Jimmy Bubaloni (“Mr. Versatility”), Joe Zalewski (“Mr. Orlando”) and Mari Carmen Vasquez (“the Latin Diva of the Accordion”). Though the accordion SMASH is not my idea of a good time, I’ve learned to appreciate the instrument and its music to make those weekends enjoyable enough, even when the 80-year old Italian gentleman in a bad polyester suit and cap plays.
In his accordion thesis, Michael wrote “that people who remain committed to the accordion do so because of the addicting effect of feeling musical sound course through their bodies. No instrument has a more intimate relationship with the body than the accordion. Every reed sounded goes through not only the instrument itself, but also through the body cavity of the player as well.” As one who has had an intimate relationship with an accordionist for over 25 years, I can sympathize with that statement, even though I never squeezed a squeeze box myself. But I learned to accept the accordion as part of our life together, till death do us part.