The popularity of the accordion was at full force from 1900 to 1960, but since then, the instrument has taken a second billing to more popular forms of music.
Not for the Veltri family, though.
Alfonso Veltri of Jersey City and his two sons, John, 26, and Frederick, 22, perform a gamut of accordion music around the area.
When not performing, the Veltris teach piano, guitar and accordion to local residents ages 6 to 70.
“You can play all types of music on the accordion,” Alfonso said.
The Veltris play polkas, waltzes, swing, cha cha, samba and tango, with a range of songs including Strangers in the Night, Give My Regards to Broadway, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Alfonso first picked up the accordion 48 years ago when he lived in Wierton, West Virginia. He moved to Jersey City in 1952 to study with Jersey City resident Joe Biviano, who along with Charles Magnate, dominated the scene at the time.
“I couldn’t make a living in West Virginia, because it’s a steel town,” said Alfonso. “I studied [with Joe] and we became great friends. I was best man at his wedding.”
In 1958, Alfonso played on the record Pietro Deivo Presents the Accordion Orchestra, which Biviano directed with accordions that were specially designed to simulate an orchestra.
“If you were to pick a date when accordions were at their peak, it would be 1958,” Alfonso said.
In 1957, Alfonso opened the National Conservatory of Music, offering guitar, piano and accordion lesions, in Kearny. He was so successful that he soon opened schools in Cliffside Park, Union City and Woodridge.
“We used to aggressively go into homes to encourage kids to take lessons,” he said.
A family affair
Having grown up surrounded by accordion music, Frederick and John were eager to join their father in entertaining.
“Growing up, I heard my father always playing and there were always records playing,” Frederick said. “Newer music never appealed to me,” added John.
Frederick is committed to music. He recently received a degree in business management from St. Peter’s University, and while he may pursue business part time, he will continue to spend the majority of the time to performing and teaching.
Although John received a degree in electrical engineering from New Jersey Institute of Technology, he has not entered that field yet.
“All the jobs I was offered involved traveling which would force me to give up teaching,” John said.
How does an accordion work?
The left side of an accordion has 120 bass buttons for accompaniment, including two rows of single notes, and four notes of triads, or chords. The right side resembles a piano, with 41 keys for melody. Additional keys called registers change the pitch, offering an additional octave on either end of the scale.
A player pushes and pulls on each side of the instruments, squeezing the middle, which is called the bellows, to blow air through internal reeds, enabling the accordion to maintain a sound that doesn’t diminish.
“It’s a wind instrument,” said John. “The sound on the guitar is it attacks and dies out.
The accordion, because of the bellows, does not die out. You can start soft and make it swell. On the piano, you need to keep hitting it to keep the sound going.”
The Veltris enjoy the accordion, because they are portable, unlike a piano.
Beginners start on a 12 bass accordion, which has 12 bass keys, including six single notes and six triads, until they get the hang of the instruments. Most students rent the 12-bass accordion, since they expect to move onto a full size instrument shortly.
Many music students are discouraged or unable to pursue the craft due to its cost. A typical practice model costs $1,500.
“A professional costs $5,000 to 7,000,” said Alfonso. “If you want a more robust sound, or want to perform out, you need a professional.”
The Veltris recently built a studio in an attic above their garage.
They encourage their students to record a CD of three or four tracks as an incentive. “For all their hard work,” John said.
When the Veltri Trio performs, they plug their instruments into a Cordovox amplifier, which can create an organ sound, and adds vibrato. It also includes amplifiers and a rhythm machine that simulates salsa, waltz, polka or o myriad of other rhythms. They can also play without the electric amplification for a more intimate sound.
“We’ll play for two to three hours, whatever it calls for,” Alfonso said.
Alfonso owns two of Charles Magnate’s accordions, some of the most famous in the world.
“We regard him as the all-around greatest,” said Alfonso. “Other people in the accordion business would agree. Everybody would love to have his accordions.” According to Alfonso, he is often approached by museums looking for a donation.
. “With the Beatles, everything changed,” said Alfonso. “They wrote their own music, the style was different, they sang their own songs, and it was done with guitars, and people loved it.”