A Pearl Queen from the Patek Brother's Music Store, in the 1920s.

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Last updated 25 July 2004

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Copyright 2004 Polish American Journal

The Chemnitzer Concertina

Polka Music's Workhorse

by Steve Litwin & Mark Kohan

use of any portions of this article is strictly prohibited without expressed written consent of the authors.

It's not an accordion, although most people think they are one in the same. It's a Chemnitz concertina. And, most think they are associated only with polka music. That too, is not always the case. The Chemnitz concertina has establish a place in polka bands from the Midwest to the Northeast, adding rhythm and carrying the melody.

It all started with concertina inventor, Charles Wheatstone who patented his version in 1844. Wheatstone began with free-reeds in the 1820s, later creating the fully chromatic, six-sided, "English" Concertina. Relatively small, compared to the larger Chemnitz concertina, the English concertina plays the same note both pushing and pulling; with melody and harmony notes on each hand.

German, Carl Friedrich Uhlig from the town of Chemnitz, constructed the first "German" concertina in 1834. Uhlig manufactured a square diatonic design with five buttons on a side, yielding 20 tones. New Chemnitz "Conzertina" designs sounded up to 78 tones with buttons equally allocated to each hand. Although not fully chromatic as the smaller Wheatstone concertina, the Chemnitz instruments could be played in several keys, producing a rich, full sound.

A cousin to the Chemnitz concertina is the bandonion. Developed by the Heinrich Band in the 1840s, this version of the German Concertina was larger and offered a different fingering system. Popular in South America, especially Argentina, the bandonion is commonly used in playing the Tango.

It is however the German Chemnitz concertina that maintains an existence in the United States among people of Slavik, Polish and German origin. From Wisconsin to New England, you can find polka bands using one of these square-shaped, button concertinas. As Germans and Poles migrated to the United State, so did the Chemnitzer concertina. The Silberhorn Co. and the Peters Brothers were among the early distributors. Concertina clubs and bands were organized byt the distributors and manufacturers as a marketing technique. Importing, selling, and promoting concertinas, Silberhorn published music books with numbers and arrows indicating which buttons to use and whether the concertina player had to push or pull the bellows. This Silberhorn system of notation is still in use, though a great majority of players play without music.

Around 1900, Otto Schlicht came to America from Germany, bringing with him a vast knowledge of concertina repair and servicing. He began building Chemnitzer concertinas in 1917. Soon Schlicht was supplying concertinas to Patek's Music Store in Chicago, under the name Patek; the Vitak-Elsnic Music Company, as Pearl Queen, and Kosatkas House of Music in Berwyn, Illinois, with the name "Peerless."

Ernest Glass, another German, also came to the United States around the turn of the century and began building "boxes" in the early 1920s. With his sons Paul and Otto, continuing the art of concertina manufacturing, the Glass Brothers produced instruments until 1951. A distinctive reed block pattern resulted in a balanced button action which made the Glass concertinas an extremely popular instrument with polka musicians.

The International Accordion Company, at 1511 North Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, manufactured Chemnitzer concertinas under the name "International" from 1926 until 1930. Walter Kodlobuski, Sr. was a tuner for International Accordion. Concertinas bearing the name "Schukert, "Sitak," and "Silverhorn" were all products of International.

When International Accordion Company went out of business in 1930, employee Walter Mojsiewicz continued building concertinas using the "Star" name. Approximately 1960, Walter Kudlobuski, Jr. purchased the Star Concertina Company, operating it until 1973 when he sold the business to Pompillio Roscianni and his partners who were owners of the Imperial Accordion Company.

In April of 1989, John Bernhardt and Ed Cogana purchased Star Concertina from Pompillio, and Bernhardt became the sole owner in 1994 when he bought out Cogana. Star is the last full-time Chemnitzer concertina manufacturer in the United States and Bernhardt says, "It's a labor of love." "This is hardly a money-making business, but it is worth saving." Bernhardt revived the practice of providing a gathering place where concertina players can trade music, talk shop and jam. Saturdays will often find over a dozen "box players" on hand, continuing the tradition which dates back to the early days of the company. Maintaining a library of concertina music, preserving concertina history and promoting the classic free-reed sounds of these Chemnitzer boxes is an important part of the business at Star.

In New Ulm, Minnesota, Christy Hengel has been making Chemnitzer concertina since 1955. Hengel's boxes are often referred to as an "industry standard" in the New Ulm polka scene. He began repairing concertinas in the 1940s and graduated to manufacturing complete instruments after purchasing the inventory of his parts supplier, who had gone out of business. The Hengel concertina is renowned, among players, for its impressive melodic voice and quick button action.

The concertina: recording and regionally

The first recording of either the concertina or accordion by a Polish artist is hard to trace as Columbia records did not begin a separate numbering system for their ethnic recordings series until 1908. Victor began theirs in 1912. Research to date has shown that the first known Polish artist to record the accordion was Jan Wanat on the Victor label in 1917. Wanat was a hot seller, and recorded accordion solos with a customized accordion to bring out the instrument's bass notes. Wanat's recordings, however, were mostly traditional Polish dances, played in conventional, formal style. Early Polish recordings can be classified in several categories: folk song; light and grand opera; patriotic and traditional song and dance; popular music played and sung by Poles; and dialogue, which were mainly comedy skits. At the time many of these recordings were being made, the polka was a very popular style, more so in the non-ethnic communities.

However, a majority of Polish folk songs (particularly songs of war, which were--for all practical purposes-marches and parades songs) were in cut time or the 2/4 "polka" tempo. Other Polish folk and dance songs--the mazurka, oberek, Krakowiak, polonaise, and kujawiak--were easily adapted as polkas, obereks and waltzes, which are the main dances popular today in the Polish community. While there is a noticeable difference--both in style and lyrics--between folk and dance songs, early recording companies sought Polish artists who would appeal to newcomers who yearned for music of the homeland.

An early artist who greatly influenced the hybrid Polish-American polka was a concertina player and singer from Chicago by the name of Bruno Rudzinski. His work was less formal--a mix of traditional Polish folk melodies influenced by American Jazz. Rudzniski's recordings made him the Polish Spike Jones of his day, as he would often repeat or forget lines and would start the vocal over again. His first recording, "Przyszed Chlop do Karczmy" (A Man Came to the Saloon), was on the Victor label, July 9, 1928.

It wasn't until the late 1940's that the concertina made its way into the mainstream polka music scene. The instrument was promoted by bandleader Eddie Zima from Chicago, who may be one of the most famous of all polka concertina players. His recording of "Circus" polka, which became number one song in the nation's Polish communities, introduced hundreds of thousands to both Zima and his Concertina.

Born in Chicago in 1923, Zima began playing the concertina by ear when he was 6 years old. His mother, noting his eagerness to play, signed him up for lessons. Zima, whose orchestra later formed the nucleus of the popular Ampol-Aires, influenced a multitude of musicians who found the instrument a natural for the polka. Having recorded for the Capitol, RCA, Dana, Chicago and Jay Jay labels, he is considered to be the godfather of Chicago-style polkas, which are slower and bouncier than the traditional "Eastern" style, named after the big bands from the East Coast that played these zesty polkas from the 1940s until the late 1960s. Zima, passed away in 1966, and had a profound influence on the son of Polish immigrants who would often sing with Zima's band at picnics in Chicago. Li'l Wally Jagiello would later become one of the greatest and most compelling polka musicians of all time.

While Jagiello's early recordings made use of the accordion, the bulk of his material was recorded with concertina. Jagiello is credited as being the main force behind promotion and national introduction of the "Chicago" style polka. His recording of "Zosia" (Sophie) polka was at first labeled "defective" by several disc jockies, but the popularity of the song gave the slower, more heartfelt tempo national exposure. Today, Chicago style polkas dominate the polka recording industry.

Jagiello's popularity influenced many musicians. Among them are the concertina players and other virtuosos including Wally Maduzia, Lenny Maynard, Rich Benkowski, Al Piatkowski, Richie Kurdziel, Scrubby Seweryniak, Joe Czerniak Sr., Bill Czerniak, Jr., Ron Marcusiuk, Tom Kula and Teddy Kiewicz, Mark Kohan, Jerry Darlak and Steve Litwin.

Casey "Fingers" Siewierski, born 1921 in Chicago, Illinois, was also the son of Polish immigrants. Coming from a musical family he followed in the footsteps of his father, a maker of violins, and began learning to play the violin. The Concertina, however, was his real love and lessons from Patek's Music School soon had him playing the large button instrument.

Starting in the family orchestra, it was his return from the Air Corp that brought Siewierski to join forces with a young drummer named Li'l Wally Jagiello. Several years later Siewierski formed his own band, recording for Balkan, Rola, Bel-Aire, Jay-Jay and Chicago Records.

Casey Siewierski has composed over seven hundred tunes, all associated with the concertina. His musical identity is evident in every recording, the "magic" fingers of this concertina virtuoso smoothly gliding over the buttons of this squeeze box. Some of his originals like "Concertina Hop," "Kimmy's" polka and "Sunset" polka are well know to Chemnitz concertina players, while other tunes, such as "My Tina" polka and "Snowball Hop" have been covered by other bands, adding lyrics to these instrumentals.

In 1981 Siewierski was elected to the International Polka Assocgiation Polka Music Hall of Fame. His originality, distinctive style and recognizable technique gained him the admiration of many concertina musicians. Casey Siewierski died in December of 1995, at 74 years of age but his music lives on in numerous recordings and in concertina music charts.

The concertina was introduced to the Buffalo, New York area by the late Matthew Pajakowski. A native of South Bend, Indiana, Pajakowski moved to Buffalo in 1919 at the age of 17. He was Buffalo's first concertina teacher, music arranger and recording star, according to the International Concertina Association, which is headquartered in Mosinee, Wisconsin. Pajakowski's twelve-piece orchestra played weekly on radio station WEBR for the "Rosinski Furniture Music Hour," and made records for Columbia General Records. He and his band were well known throughout Western New York and Pennsylvania. Tragedy struck when he was killed in an automobile accident in 1941.

Two of Pajakowski's students, Frank J Stanczewski and Al Tucholski, both of Buffalo, have been elected into the Concertina Hall of Fame in Allentown, Wisconsin. Stanczewski, nicknamed "Crazy Fingers," began studying concertina at age eight, and as a youth won various contests sponsored by Gene Krupa and other celebrities. During World War II, he played USO shows throughout the country. A teacher, arranger and composer, he organized the Alpine Village Concertina Club, Grand Rapids Concertina Club, Northwestern Concertina Club and the Pittsburgh Concertina Club. He was elected to the Concertina Hall of Fame in 1977. Al Tucholski, also known as Al Tucker, was elected into the Concertina Hall of Fame in 1990. Tucholski, who holds many certificates and distinctions earned at national concertina meets, was an original member of the Alpine Concertina Club.

Minnesota has given the polka world many great concertina players. In modern times, the Czerniak family, Joe and his son, Bill, have continued the concertina tradition into the third generation with Bill's son, Daniel now playing concertina. Joe along with his "Duluth Polka Dots" were the kindling that propelled Bill to eventually forming his own band, Polka Soul. Their recordings, Concertina Encore, and Crazy Polkas, produced some of the cleanest recorded concertina work on record. Whether it was "honky" style or "push" style polkas, Czerniak's classic button-runs and "fills" made this Minnesota band a well known name on the Eastcoast and throughout the polka world.

A few states west, the Czech community has embraced the Chemnitz concertina, mostly utilizing the "straight" tuned boxes as opposed to the "waved" reed sounds of Chicago and those east of the windy City. Straight tuned reeds are even frequency, with no tremolo sound to the note. Chicago, and most Polish boxmen, prefer the "waved" reeds, creating a warble-like tremelo sound in their concertinas.

Jerry Minar, of New Prague, Minnesota, was one of the organizers of the Czech Country Concertina Marching Band which performs in that State. Minar, a builder of concertinas and owner of a recording studio, gathered young players with older players to form this marching band. They all gather to enjoy the instrument and preserve the musical heritage of the community. Minar now manufactures Hengel concertinas under an special agreement with Christy Hengel.

In the past 30 years there are many individual concertina players, using a variety of styles, that have made names for themselves with polka bands. In the 1970s, Chet Lasik and His 47th Street Concertina Club graduated from being a "gathering of musicians at Eddie Slats' Tavern," to becoming a recording concertina band. With their numbers swelling to 32 at times, the club rooster contained names like Tadziu Kiewicz, Ed Nowak, and Stan Mikrut. They recorded several albums and performed at polka festivals throughout the country.

Sidemen & Sidewomen

Two concertina sidemen with Eddie Blazonczyk's Versatones, Jerry Darlak and Al Piatkowski, developed "cult-like" followings of concertina fans during their years with this Chicago-based polka icon. Each possessing a distinctive style, they combined forces, in 1987, on a Blazonczyk produced album called Squeeze Box Serenade which has become a "must-have" for box lovers.

Throughout the years numerous sidemen have become well-known names because of their distinctive styles. All concertina players fit into a few basic classifications. Some play a pure straight-line, melody, while others flirt around the melody with intricate button-runs and harmonies. Rhythm players "buttonpush," a concertina equivalent to the accordion bellow-shake. The "button-run" specialists, like Lenny Maynard of the now disbanded "Heavy Chicago" band, Rich Benkowski of "Bruno Mikos and the Harmony Stars" and "The Brass Connection", and Paul Fudala of "The Dynasticks" and "The Brass Connection, Greg Nowak of "The Keynotes" and "Downtown Sound," Frank Berendt, all make the box sing with inventive finger-work. Rippling button runs, using 16th and 32nd notes, are a discipline with these musicians and always gather a crowd of technical enthusiasts, stage front. Dave "Scrubby" Seweryniak of the "Dynatones," Peter Dardzinski formerly with "The Brass Connection," John Mikos of "Chicago Push." and Al Piatkowski of The Beat" can also be included in this troupe.

Not so unusual, these same musicians are strong rhythm players, button-pushing in time with the bellow-shake of an accordion. The combination of the accordion and Chemnitz concertina, which often duel musically on stage, has become a popular, if not key, format in many Chicago style polka bands. From the Versatones to The Brass Connection, to Chicago Push, to a dozen others, this association of bellow-pushers produced a drive that added to the success of these groups.

Wally Maduziu, of Chicago, is considered by many to be one of the finest Polish concertina players in the field. Working with the "Versatones" and "The Tones" orchestras back in the 60s and 70s, his classic box work has been admired by his peers. With basic note-lines, and "fills" that seem to slip into just the right place in the music, Maduziu developed a signature style on box.

The concertina and "honky" polka music is a true marriage of music in polkas. The dixieland-like character of honky polka music, with it's prominent drum beat, single trumpet, mating clarinet and grindy concertina, fosters a spirit that embodies the soul of this music. The Chemnitz concertina, rich and reedy, belongs with this style! The instrument reflects the personality of the player, showing their heart - their love for the music. John Filipczak of "The Classics" from Minnesota, Tom Kula of "The Ampolaires" from Chicago, and Ted Kiewicz of Chicago are just a few of the well-known names always associated with this basic-line honky style music. With roots buried deep within the old-country village sounds, this slower, spirit-filled, style uses the concertina as a lead melody instrument. The box and player become one, mirroring the personality of both.

The Chemnitz concertina has also been embraced by women throughout the polka industry. Renanta Romanek, of Minnesota, played lead concertina in her band Renata and Girls, Girls, Girls, an all-girl polka band. In the Buffalo, New York area, the Mother-Daughter team of Wanda & Stephanie Pietrzak played the festival circuit and recorded several albums and a recent compact disc. Stephanie, now with her own band, is unquestionably a "grinder" on the concertina playing some of the best honky style around. Mary Lou Czerniak, along with her husband Bill, would often switch to concertina from her rhythm keyboard, creating some fine dual concertina sounds with the "Polka Soul" band of Minnesota.

From a small village in Germany to the streets of Buffalo, Chicago and New Prague, the Chemnitz concertina is still alive and has developed a near "cult-like" following. Jam sessions at festivals like the "Polka Fireworks" at the Seven Springs Resort and back-porch events continue to protect and preserve the heritage of the music and this instrument.

Most concertina players know immediately, from the first push of a button, if they "are" concertina players. You seem to be born a concertina player, which means you die a concertina player. It's a love between player and instrument, a love that never ends!

A special thanks to John Bernhardt of Chicago and Dan Melander of Minnesota for help with some of the concertina history in this article.

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