Alice Hall, Squeezebox Goddess, 1917-2000
Alice Hall should be on every accordionists “listen to this!” list but what little she recorded has been unavailable for decades. It would help if playing jazz on accordion was an acceptable instrumental option – as if being a woman jazz musician didn’t offer additional obstacles. Nevertheless the time has come for every jazz fan and certainly every accordion fan to listen to Alice Hall, and perhaps mourn what we all missed by not recognizing her earlier.
Her lack of recognition is compounded by several factors: she played accordion (and most of popular-music history was written in the period when the accordion was severely out of fashion); she played jazz (where the accordion was never common or widely accepted); and she was a woman in a world where being male had advantages (to do: change this). Even now she is almost unknown. I finally tracked down a copy of her only known commercial record in a Swedish accordion museum, it may not have been aired in public in half a century.
Alice Hall was born Alice Marie Laquiere in June, 1917 in Brussels, Belgium. Her family emigrated to the US and she grew up on Detroit, Michigan. When she was five her father started her on drums so she could accompany him, and at eleven she followed in her dad’s footsteps and began playing chromatic button accordion. She carried on playing this instrument, unusual in the US, adopting the “finto-piano” (fake piano) keyboard that Pietro Frossini and other vaudevillians had used to hide their lack of “modern” piano skills.
Hall lacked no skills. She ended up one of the best jazz accordionists in history, and an astonishing musician regardless of instrument.
She got her first professional jobs at age 13 on Detroit radio. When her age made it hard to find club-dates her dad opened his own club, The Blue Star where he could watch over her. She had a group with her sister Rae (Rachel) on drums and later second accordion, and they got significant attention during the War when many women musicians got the opportunities when men were in the service. In Billboard Magazine’s Music Year Book in 1943, her quartette advertised its latest dates as, “2 Boys, 2 Girls, Sax, Piano, Accordion, drums.” After the war she continued with her small combo.
She admitted later that she wasn’t that interested in recording, “I was too busy gigging to record much.” According to a 1997 NPR interview – after she attracted attention from being featured on the Planet Squeezebox anthology – she told how Benny Goodman asked her to join him on tour, but the club owner where she was on contract wouldn’t release her. She also turned down Jack Teagarden’s invitation to join his band saying, “Playing with a big band, you know how many chances you get to play sixteen bars of something or eight bars of something and that’s it? You know, there’s nothing there…. I wanted to prove that something can be done on this instrument, other than playing just the ordinary, “Jolly Caballero” stuff, you know? So I proved it!” [Alice Hall NPR interview, Jan 6, 1997]
She stuck with her own group where she had control and could play freely what she wanted to play. She was “indy” before they figured out how to market that. As a result, she only made one known commercial recording. A single 78 rpm disk for Capital Records in about 1949. The two sides of this record, standards “Caravan,” and “Pennies from Heaven,” reveal a scorching soloist joyfully scatting along with herself on bop improvisations. Capitol had her on a year-long contract, but she never recorded with them again. [Billboard Apr 24, 1948 pg 37.] When she died in June of 2000, her record had been out of print for fifty years. [Queen of Jazz Accordion Passes Away]
The only other known recording of her classic groups is a self-produced cassette tape released in the 1980s containing recordings from the 50s and on. Her trio and quartets feature, but the recording quality is live and unpolished. We hunted for copies of this record for our radio show for six years, searching in archives and on-line auctions. It does not disappoint. Hall is a force of joyous energy having a good time. More’s the pity she didn’t get to record in a studio again.
She guested on the barrier-breaking Nat King Cole’s radio show prior to his short run challenging racial segregation on TV in 1956-57. She and Cole had the same manager and if she had been on Cole’s TV show, footage of her performing would be a great treat. She moved out west and played Los Vegas clubs for years.
And yet, in the 1970s, she disappeared from the music scene entirely. Talking with Dean Olsher on NPR she told how she’d fallen into a deep depression when she found out her husband was cheating on her, and eventually checked herself into an institution where she did not speak for almost ten years. In 1985 she emerged and returned to a changed world for the accordion. What had been a scrappy up-and-coming instrument in the 1950s had fallen into its own depression. She became an energetic booster of the instrument during perhaps its lowest ebb of popularity. Alice lived until June of 2000, long enough to watch the beginning of the revival of her instrument, and to perhaps inspire new generations, though we have yet to see anything like a replacement for her as queen of the jazz accordion.
She worked and played with Benny Goodman, Lena Horne, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Peggy Lee, and Nat Cole. Her list of admirers is impressive: Ellington, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Jack Teagarden. Louis Armstrong said, “Nobody teaches you to play that kind of music. You gotta feel it.”
Jazz virtuoso Leon Sash and his wife, bassist Lee Morgan were great friends of Hall’s. They later said that when she was sixty years old, she was attacked by a mugger when she already had a broken arm. She was having none of it and knocked the guy unconscious with her cast. Alice Hall was not to be trifled with.
Alice’s 1950’s performance of “What is this Thing Called Love?” was included on the Planet Squeezebox Anthology (and also a French anthology and I think a Russian “Women Accordionists” one). This cut is originally from Alice’s epic 26-track live recording self-released on cassette in the 1980s. (There is a historical compilation waiting to happen here.) Enough to show the tragedy that she didn’t get to do a “Buena Vista Accordion Club” thing with older musicians brought back to honour. That would have been a show to see. I miss her.
Acordeonisima.com‘s entry on Alice. (in Spanish)
Alice Hall article (undated) from the FOTA: Friends of the Accordion (Los Angeles) Newsletter. (Courtesy of Zeke Hand.)
“Alice Hall” notes from the 3-CD (or old-school cassette!) Planet Squeezebox anthology, Ellipsis Arts, 1995.