Just like any family lineage, the accordion clan in southeast Kansas has an interesting history and lots of thought-provoking stories.
Much of it originates with Italian immigrant, Prof. John Catanzaro, a musical virtuoso who gave lessons on all instruments, going back to the turn of the 19th century, with accordion training being first and foremost.
Bob Serra, who studied with Catanzaro as a boy, remembers the dapper professor (suit and fedora) getting off the Gordon Transit bus at the Rose Bowl stop in Frontenac and walking to his house for his private lessons carrying his baton.
After continuing his lessons with Jules Crosetto, Serra went on to form his own band as well as play with assorted bands at area venues — including at The Rendezvous in Skidmore with Mike Parise.
Musical prodigy and accordion master Jules Crosetto studied with both Catanzaro and one of his star pupils, Alfred ‘Freddy’ Vacca. Vacca went on to Kansas City where he was an early teacher of Don Lipovac, who became an international accordion star. As a young boy, Crosetto would stay with Vacca in Kansas City during summer breaks to take intensive training.
Crosetto, who was skilled enough to give lessons and begin performing at age 14, went on to get a music degree at Kansas State Teacher’s College. Other than a WW II stint in the navy, he played area clubs and halls as well as taught music and formed impressive high school marching bands in several area schools, including his alma mater, Frontenac.
One of the hundreds of area young men and women who learned accordion under Crosetto, thereby continuing the lineage, was Gene Corsini, who will present a program and lead an interactive discussion on Little Balkans accordion and polka at 2 p.m. today, January 26th, at Miners Hall Museum in Franklin as part of the Music of the Little Balkans quarterly.
I’ve been learning more and more about area music, musicians, bands, and the places they played as I continue setting up the special exhibit that accompanies the presentations. (You can check it out Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.)
This past week, Carol Bogotay Harryman set up a mannequin installation of a mother and son in period costumes playing accordions and Bob Zagonel brought in a working jukebox that was once in the lounge at Chicken Annie’s Original in Yale. It’s full of classic tunes by Elvis, Ray Price, Frankie Yankovic, Roger Miller and more; even has “Blues Eyes Crying In The Rain” by John Zibert & Joe Nepote.
I also acquired an old Conny and the Bellhops Hilltop poster, 45 rpm records by Gene Woods and the Seibrings, and a 1951 wedding photo of David and Kay Eichhorn dancing at Frontenac’s Rose Bowl.
Luella Zibert sent over whole box of memorabilia, including an essay titled ‘Accordion – The Peoples Instrument’ by Len Wallace. Here’s a quote that exemplifies the accordion’s significance in the coal camps of the Little Balkans: “The instrument spoke of past days, of fiery years and then of the comradeship of today, of the struggle and joy they were living through.”
Getting back to the lineage, the legendary John Zibert and Joe Nepote both studied with Catanzaro before going on be masters of the instrument who played not only here but all across the four states. And, at the presentation, Corsini will be joined by John Zibert’s son, Johnnie Joe, as well as George Barberich, who studied under Don Lipovac in Kansas City.
Franklin native Jim Karlinger, who retired in 2015, learned the instrument under the tutelage of Jules Crosetto and went on to play not only polka but also country, rock & roll and swing for generations of locals; a 49-year career that started at Barto’s Idle Hour playing with drummer, Oscar Curnutt, when he was a teenager.
Along with their wedding picture the Eichhorns sent along a business card that reads “Welcome To The Rose Bowl, Dancing Every Saturday Night, Music by Emil Bogotay and the Melody Boys, Geno Bualle, Prop.” Bogotay was another local accordion master who gave private lessons. I’m not sure if he studied under Professor Catanzaro … but there’s a good chance he did.
Then again, maybe not; lots of locals who were self taught passed their learning on to neighbors and family members as they were too poor to afford lessons. Which brings to mind another quote from the Wallace essay,” “Although making one took great skill, smaller versions were still affordable enough to working men and women. It was ‘the poor man’s piano.’”
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, email@example.com, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762