|Joan Grauman, AAA Historian|
|This article was written in 2016 for the AAA Festival Journal. You can download the pdf of this AAA article.|
Once there was a young boy who wanted to play the trumpet. His father said, “You will learn the accordion, whether you like it or not!” The boy hated the accordion. Yet as he grew, his insatiable love for, and knowledge of, music grew along with him. Soon he was studying the trumpet and the piano accordion, and was playing both instruments at levels hard to match. The boy ultimately chose to express his incredible musical artistry through the accordion. Seven decades after making that life-altering decision, his love for the accordion continues to grow. The impact on the lives he has touched with his exquisite music and musical instruction is immeasurable.
It has been a total joy and an honor for me to write about this great and humble man whom I am so fortunate to also call my friend.
Special thanks to Jeanne Beaulieu for providing many of the photos used in this article.
The Early Years
Joseph Cerrito, Jr. was born during the Great Depression in 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island, one of two sons of Joseph and Argia Cerrito. His father, an immigrant from Monticello, Italy, worked hard in textile mills, coal mines and on the railroad to support his family. Although money was scarce, Joe’s father saw to it that his children took music lessons. A very strict man, Joe’s father monitored their practice sessions regularly. Joe did not want to study the accordion, as he was very interested in the music of the great trumpet player Harry James.
Then, at age 15, Joe and his close friends, guitar player Grimaldo Parravano (who was also on the high school wrestling team with Joe) and drummer John Ragosta discovered the music of Charlie Parker and Bebop Jazz. The boys went to see the greats including Dizzy Gillespie, they listened for hours to jazz recordings and tried to copy the music by ear. “That’s when my interest grew,” Joe said. “I practiced a lot, but mostly by ear, and I improvised. My father didn’t care for jazz and forced me to also practice my classical pieces.” The three boys would practice at John Ragosta’s house. John’s father was a well-liked professional percussionist and his musician friends were constantly at his home. These musicians would work with and encourage Joe and his friends, and often they would play along with them. Joe has never forgotten the tremendous role those men played in his young musical life.
In high school, Joe played in the concert band. His high school bandmaster taught him to play the trumpet and worked privately with Joe on theory and sight-reading during his free periods. During band practice, with his accordion at his side, Joe would play the trumpet parts, then switch to the accordion when other instrumental parts were needed, as the band was pretty small. He began to appreciate the accordion’s versatility. The accordion could replace a flute, a clarinet, strings, and it provided the perfect sound for the jazz that he loved so much. Soon Joe changed the focus of his studies from medicine to music.
(l to r) Picture right: Joe, Leroy Kettering, Martin Hale, 1951.
Hoping to avoid the draft, Joe auditioned for the Arthur Godfrey Show in New York City. He did very well and was asked to return when “discharged from the Army.” Joe received high recognition papers signed by Arthur Godfrey. These papers helped him get into Special Services with the 1st Army Band in New York City.
The Army Bands and the Korean War
Joe was accepted into the US Army Band training school as a performance major. It was a rigorous program and Joe applied his training to the accordion, trumpet and baritone horn. He entered a talent contest while in the training program playing “Hora Staccato” on his accordion, and he sang, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette”. Joe won first place and later realized that the person who came in second was Al Alberts who became the lead singer for “The Four Aces”. At the end of the training program, the students were informed that they would most likely be sent to Korea. They would be in the trenches, retrieving injured and dead soldiers. When there would be a lull in fighting, the musicians would entertain. This was a horribly frightening moment for these fine musicians. Thankfully, a cease fire in Korea was signed prior to their deployment. Joe was told to report to the 1st Army Band’s headquarters on Governors Island in New York City.
Governors Island was beautiful, and Joe was very grateful for the cease fire! On an island with breathtaking views of Manhattan, he had more intensive music training with the gifted soprano saxophone player Bob Wilber. The celebrated jazz pianist and bandleader Claude Thornhill led the 1st Army Band during performances for the USO, US Savings Bonds programs and Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. Joe was a member of the five-piece Jazz Combo, under the direction of Bob Wilber. This combo performed with such greats as Sarah Vaughan, Steve Allen, Harry Belafonte and many other singers who were popular at that time.
Several of the great accordionists of the time had studios in Manhattan, just minutes away from Governors Island by ferry. Joe contacted Pietro Deiro, who was no longer teaching. Deiro suggested that he get in touch with Charles Magnante. Magnante was not teaching either, but agreed to meet with Joe, analyze his skills, and find him an instructor. Impressed with Joe’s abilities, Magnante suggested that he study weekly with his brother-in-law, the distinguished accordionist Joe Biviano. The Biviano studio on 48th Street was an exciting place, always filled with students and fine musicians from as far as Canada. Joe Biviano was a strict, motivating teacher, a fine soloist and a “mover and shaker” in the accordion world. Biviano founded the first accordion orchestra, the “Accordion Symphony Society of New York”, was one of the founders of the American Accordionists’ Association in 1938, and was staff accordionist for several of the major broadcasting companies.
Although his lessons were intense, Joe loved working with Biviano, whose guidance Joe still remembers with great fondness and appreciation. “Joe Biviano called me ‘Pepe’. He was a very thoughtful human being. ‘Want a coffee, Pepe? How about something to eat?’” When it was time to pay for his lesson, Biviano would say, “Oh, just give me five bucks”, which was a very generous gesture.
Picture left: Fundraiser for orphanage, Korea, 1954.
Joe Biviano took a special interest in Joe, even writing encouraging letters to him while he was stationed in Korea, something that meant more to his homesick student than Biviano could have ever imagined.
Back in the States
Joe was discharged from the Army in 1955. He went on the road again with the Martin Hale Trio, but this was short-lived as he missed home and missed his girlfriend Anna. Joe returned to Manhattan monthly to study with Joe Biviano, applying his military music training and Biviano’s rigorous exercises to his daily practice.
Shortly after returning to Rhode Island, Joe and Anna were married. After the birth of their first child, he realized that “playing five nights a week was not enough to support my family! Although I didn’t want to teach, the offers were too good to pass up. I enjoyed helping others and decided to teach in school.” Joe soon discovered that in order to make a decent living, he needed to teach music in (parochial) schools, open his own music school, and play out with his accordion several evenings a week.
Life at the Joe Cerrito School of Music, 1960 to 1997
(Special thanks to students: Ralph Corsi, Richard Dunn, Frank Castellone, Mark Yacovone, Mauricio Arruda and Renee Rondeau; and to Joe’s children: JoAnn Cerrito Chaves, Joseph Cerrito, III, Michelle Cerrito Spooner and Marie Cerrito.)
Ralph Corsi, one of Joe’s first students, beautifully stated what each and every one of Joe’s children and students expressed: “I wouldn’t be who I am today if it had not been for Joe. He is so dedicated to his craft and to his students. He touched everyone’s life – everyone he ever met.”
How could this one man, who worked three jobs each day, year in year out, give so much to so many? I interviewed six of Joe’s former students and all four of his grown children (all of Joe’s children studied the accordion with him and won competitions). After each of these phone interviews, I would sit, teary-eyed, and reflect upon the loving, monumental words of gratitude and respect -- expressed by all of them -- for their father, teacher and “second father”. This section of my article will be filled with quotes from these heartfelt interviews.
For someone who didn’t initially want to teach, Joe is a gifted, natural educator. It is my belief that all educators can benefit from reading the following words from Joe’s students and, hopefully, change some lives for the better, as Joe has done for so many.
As the demand for accordion instruction grew, Joe opened the “Joe Cerrito School of Music” in West Warwick, Rhode Island. The studio was always a bustling, happy gathering place for his many students and his children. Joe Biviano encouraged Joe to join the AAA where he could enter his students in the competitions. Joe’s students eagerly anticipated the many annual trips to the competitions, and the excitement when preparing for these events filled the air of the studio daily. Upon entering the studio door, one could find several students happily practicing their solo pieces in the same room – music stand against music stand – simply tuning out the sounds of the musicians nearby, and others would even practice in the bathroom! Parents would express concern for this noisy arrangement, but their children loved it and thrived in this warm, accepting, safe and nurturing environment. The whole studio became an extended family, and all of Joe’s students felt as though they were members of the Cerrito family. All were encouraged to spend weekends at the Cerritos’ house, where Joe, his wife Anna and their children hosted cookouts, ball games, and impromptu rehearsal sessions.
Soon Joe opened a second studio in Johnston. Mark Yacovone, a professional musician and owner of a software company, studied with Joe in the 1970s at the Johnston studio. “We were a tightknit group. Some of Joe’s students who were accordion champions taught there, such as Dave Chaves (JoAnn Cerrito Chaves’ husband) and Ralph Corsi (who graduated from the Berklee College of Music). All were superb musicians and teachers.” Like all of the others, Mark fondly remembers the trips to the AAA competitions and the studio camaraderie. But mostly, Mark remembers Joe. “His nurturing attitude was unwavering. He had a major effect on my life. Just about EVERYTHING I learned about music, practice, study, jazz, my passion for learning – I attribute it all to Joe.”
“He has always been a man way ahead of his time – as a dad, a musician and teacher.” Joe Cerrito, III
Joe Cerrito III (above) and on the right below, Michelle Cerrito competing in Tennessee, 1980.
All four of Joe’s children spoke of the “lessons and skills for life” taught to them and to the other accordion students by their father, who, in their eyes, lived his life as the perfect role model – always. JoAnn listed some of these skills: responsibility, how to reach for goals, it is always worth it to do the work and “you can do anything you put your mind to”. Son Joe, III spoke of his childhood. “My father was my best friend. He always had my back,” and if young Joe had rough spots, Joe would say, “We’ll get it next time.” That is a special word: “we”. No matter how busy Joe was, he made time for his family and let them know how important they were to him.
“We, as his children, had to set examples for the other students. The best times in my life were the years growing up in the studio”, said daughter Marie, “and we were all very successful in school, and in our chosen careers, because of our father’s influence and his guidance.” Joe’s youngest child, Michelle, remembered her years in the studio: “We never wanted to disappoint our father. He was the center of our world and we always wanted to be with him. We looked up to him so much.” Marie also spoke of amusing memories, such as Joe waking her and her sister Michelle up in the mornings with two metronomes, and strapping weights on their fingers when they practiced – things they didn’t enjoy then, but laugh about enow.
All of his children spoke of the blind boy, Andy, whom Joe taught for years. Joe would spend hours audiotaping music and exercises for Andy, and countless extra hours teaching him. Andy became a fine, accomplished musician. Michelle spoke of the many, many unpaid hours her father put in to help his students attain the goals he set for them, and of the accordions he would give to students who couldn’t afford to purchase their own.
Sadly, Joe’s wife Anna died young, leaving Joe to raise their two youngest girls, who were still at home on his own, while continuing to teach music in two parochial schools and in his studios. “He worked long and hard, but he was always there for us,” said daughter Marie.
Joe encouraged all of his top students to teach in his studio, which they all did, and each felt extreme pride in the accomplishments of their students. They learned from their teacher, who had always expressed such pride in each of their accomplishments. As the years went by and the accordion was becoming less popular, Joe still had amazingly dedicated and gifted students. One of them was Renee Rondeau. A three-time 1st place accordion champion, Renee remembers the special effort and time Joe put into her lessons, and the many hours of coaching. “His love for the instrument kept me going”, said Renee as she spoke of her two lessons weekly and band practice. The whole extended Cerrito family still treated Joe’s young students as part of the family, even as some were starting families of their own. Joe eventually remarried (Jeanne Beaulieu), and Jeanne assisted Joe with work that needed to be done in the studio. She also coordinated the many trips for the bands and for the competitions.
Every single one of Joe’s children and his students whom I interviewed considered their time spent at the Joe Cerrito School of Music the best years of their lives.
AAA Involvement and the Great Duo of Tony Dannon and Joe Cerrito
Picture left: Joe with Maddalena Belfiore and Carmen Carrozza, circa 1987.
Linda, who worked with Joe in orchestras and on AAA committees for many years said, “Joe was always kind, caring and very considerate. He finds goodness and humor in every situation.” Over the last several decades, Joe has been a featured performer at AAA functions and festivals, performing with his trio, as a strolling soloist, conducting the Youth Jazz Ensemble (at the 2013 AAA Festival), and as part of the celebrated and well-loved jazz duo, “Tony Dannon and Joe Cerrito”.
Tony Dannon, who began teaching the accordion in the early 1950s, co-owned the Modern Accordion Studio in Dearborn, Michigan with Ollie Petrini. He also entered many of his students in the AAA competitions. At one of these competitions, where he was adjudicating, Tony approached Joe to tell him how impressed he was with Joe’s classical and jazz students. A jazz great himself, Tony wanted to meet the teacher of these talented children. “We immediately became very close friends and, of course, we began to jam together,” Joe reminisced.
Soon they were performing as often as possible together. “All we needed was a good bass player and a drummer, and away we went. We took some crazy tempos and had a lot of fun on the stage.” They sure did have fun, and so did their appreciative audiences! “Tony and Joe made a perfect jazz duo,” said Linda Reed, “adorning the stage with their bright floral shirts – no traditional black and white for these two!” Their quick wit and incredible musical skills made for a perfect performance every time.
The young students would run to the front of the stage to listen intently to the beautiful “jazz conversations” between these two gifted musicians and great friends. Joe and Tony toured together, performing at various festivals and jazz concerts all over the world. “For us, it was always spontaneous joking around on stage, and we would change pieces -- and even arrangements while we were on stage”, Joe remembered fondly. They would always tell the audiences that they “rehearsed by phone”. Living 800 miles apart, this was no joke, yet when they were on the stage, it seemed as though they rehearsed together for hours daily. In 2000, Joe and Tony released a CD, “Jam Sessions”, a delightful recording showcasing the beautiful blending of Joe’s Bebop and Tony’s lyrical jazz styles.
Sgt. Major Manny Bobenrieth, accordionist for the US Army Strolling Strings and AAA governing board member shared these words about his friend Joe. “Joe Cerrito is a master of his instrument. He can adapt to so many scenarios. Not only is he one of the finest accordionists I’ve ever met, beyond that, he personifies everything I love about music. Joe is a great, great musician.”
Movies, Television and More
Picture right: Joe playing in the movie True Lies, 1994.
Joe has recorded several CDs and has written exercise books, as well as a book of his modern arrangements of popular songs (with CD). These can be found on his website: www.joecerrito.com
The Two Joes 1987 (Joe Pescatore).
For fifty years, Joe performed in the New England area with guitarist Joe Pescatore. The “Two Joes” were a popular duo performing at weddings, banquets, conventions and restaurants. Trumpet player Tom Rotundo and Joe have been friends for over thirty years. They still perform together weekly with a drummer for an afternoon dance in Fall River, Massachusetts. Tom describes Joe as, “Fantastic, accomplished – just the best! Nice man, and always has a joke.”
Winters in Florida
For the past several years, Joe has been spending winters on the west coast of Florida. For some, this is an opportunity to sit back and relax in the sun. Not so for Joe. He still practices diligently every morning and performs regularly in the Sarasota area. He has performed on stage with the great jazz pianist and composer Dick Hyman, with violinist Carlann Evans from the Sarasota Orchestra, with soprano Michelle Giglio, and in the celebrated 2012 production of “Yentl” at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. Joe plays and strolls from November to April on Thursday and Saturday evenings at a wonderful family-owned restaurant in Venice, “Angelo’s Italian Market”. On Friday evenings, he plays at another great restaurant in Punta Gorda called “Carmelo’s”. At both restaurants, there are many who regularly go to hear Joe’s beautiful music.
My husband Dan and I are now wintering in Venice, Florida. Our first night there this past winter was spent listening to Joe play at Angelo’s. It was pure joy for me! I had always loved Joe’s jazz concerts, but now I was hearing him play everything from my favorite Italian folk tunes to Cole Porter, and he was fantastic. His music was mesmerizing. Joe sat with us and told me stories. We shared sweet memories of accordion days gone by. I knew, that first night, that Joe would be “my next victim” for a feature article in the AAA Festival Journal. What I didn’t realize that night was what a huge, positive role Joe would end up playing in my life! I started studying the accordion with him (after being basically self-taught for close to forty years). I started teaching again, at Joe’s urging. And I, like all of his students, feel blessed just knowing him!
One Saturday night at Angelo’s:
It is 8:30 pm, the restaurant is packed with patrons, and Joe has been playing and strolling since 6 pm. Wearing his accordion, he sits next to me. “I’m tired,” he says. I remind him that it’s the third night in a row that he has played and strolled for three hours each night, so he has the right to be tired – I couldn’t do what he does! Just then, two adorable siblings come over to take a look at the accordion. Joe’s face lights up, he takes the little girl’s hand and plays, with her finger, “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” while he plays the bass part. He does the same with her brother. The kids are thrilled and cameras are clicking everywhere. Joe finishes the evening with a gorgeous medley of Italian songs that simply takes my breath away.
An example of Joe’s delightful sense of humor:
One of my major pet peeves is hearing “Oh, you play Beer Barrel Polka!” each time I tell someone that I play the accordion. “Everyone thinks that we just yank those bellows back and forth and hack out that polka chocked full of wrong notes and poor rhythm!”, I moaned to Joe one crowded Saturday evening at Angelo’s. A few minutes later, while enjoying our fabulous dinner, I suddenly feel bellows against my arm. I look up and see Joe’s face beaming. “You requested this, Ma’am?” asks dear Joe. He proceeds to BELT OUT “Beer Barrel Polka”, appropriately filled with lots of wrong notes, broken bellows and poorly executed bellows shakes. I look around the room, turn red, choke on my food and gasp, “Joe! You’re going to get FIRED!!” He was so pleased: mission accomplished!
Joe would never get fired, as there is simply no one who can engage, amuse and delight the patrons as he does -- and then bring them to tears with his masterful renditions of their musical favorites.
Joe is the proud grandfather of seven and has recently become a great-grandfather. A very appreciative man, Joe describes his life for me: “As time goes on, I realize how lucky I was to be involved with this wonderful instrument ‘the accordion’, and for all of the accordionists, teachers and friends that this instrument has brought to me. I am still very active performing and still making a decent living with my accordion. Looking back, I have four terrific children, and all of them played very well and were accordion teachers. I worked with well-known musicians and singers, did radio, TV, movies, accordion functions, and I just keep going! How lucky can one be? Not too bad for someone who has been 39 years old for 44 years!” And all who know Joe are very lucky too!
Daughter JoAnn: “I NEVER EVER get tired of hearing him play!”