001 Jerry Romanowicz & The World's Oldest Polka Band?

Hello, and welcome to the first Accordion Line Podcast! I'm Elwood Bergman, and today we're going to be talking about Oktoberfest. We're going to be talking about polka, and we're going to be talking to Jerry Romanowicz of The Rymanowski Brothers Orchestra.

Now first, let's give you a little bit of background about Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest started in 1810, when the Crown Prince Ludwig got married to Therese. That was October 12th, and then for six days, they had this great, big party. There was music. There was dancing. There was beer, and there was a horse race at the end of it all.

After this great party, everyone said, "Let's do this again next year." It was a great idea, and so they've done it since -with 24 exceptions. Those exceptions were because of, you know, little things like cholera, world wars and inflation. They've done it since, but they decided to move it up a little bit into September, so it's the days up until the first Sunday in October. They did this because Munich, or Bavaria, is up in the German Alps. It's very high up, and it gets cold a lot earlier in the year, so in October, many years, the weather would be pretty lousy. They decided Oktoberfest... could be in September. Why not? They also stopped doing the horse races in 1960. They just weren't as popular, but they still have the agricultural fair, which I understand is a lot more interesting than it sounds, and that started only the year after the first Oktoberfest, in 1811. And this 205-year-old tradition was changed once again in 1994, when they made sure that it lasted at least until October 3rd to celebrate German reunification, because that was a great idea.

So it's a holiday that's not too strict about its origins, like most holidays are, really, and you can just relax and have some fun. Drink some beer. Enjoy some polka music.

Now some of you might say, "Polka music? Well, that's Polish, isn't it?" It's a form of oompah music. It's not Volkstümliche (I think that's how you say it. I'm not really sure.), but it's very similar.

So today, we're going to be talking to Jerry Romanowicz of the Rymanowski Brothers Orchestra, which is out of Amsterdam, New York, near where I live.

One word of caution before I get started, though. -To parents- There will be a section where we mention a few Polish curse words, and although this is, at worst, PG-13 in English, if you don't want your kids to learn how to curse in Polish, cut it off when you start to hear that, I'll put it at the end of the show [at 27 minutes] so that you won't be missing anything if you shut it off then.

That said, now, without further ado, I bring you Jerry...

Jerry Romanowicz: Romanowicz. That's the English version, or the Polish version is (row-ma-NO-vich).

Accordion Line: (row-ma-NO-vich)

JR: There you go.

AL: Now, you've been with the Rymanowski Brothers since 1999, right? [I then mispronounce "Rymanowski" throughout the interview.]

JR: Right, 16 years.

AL: Yeah. Do you know if- They've been around for a while, right?

JR: The band, I think, was formed in 1947. It was started by their father. The two brothers now are the drummer and the bass player, Gerry and Dennis, and their father started the band in '47 with his brother, Al, clarinet player. So it was an accordion and a clarinet player, and back then it was a big band. It was about nine pieces.

AL: Yeah, and that was 12 years before you were born, right?

JR: I was born in '59, so yeah.

AL: Did you ever see them play when you were growing up?

JR: Yeah, I remember a couple of times, seeing them at church festivals. Never figured I'd end up playing with them.

AL: I know! You know, they're one of the oldest bands in existence, that's still continually playing. I couldn't find anything. Do you know who else is up there in the rankings?

JR: Locally?

AL: I mean just, you know, anywhere.

JR: Well, nationally, Jimmy Sturr's been around probably since the 60's, mid 60's, early 70's... I'm trying to think... Eddie Blazonczyk, he passed away. Happy Louie's retired. He started in the late 50's, early 60's.

AL: So you could possibly be playing in the oldest polka band in the world.

JR: Could be. Yeah.

AL: That's a pretty cool distinction. Let's see... and before this, you were in the Checkmates, the Polka Rascals, and ...Don Nikowski?

JR: Donnie Nikolski, yup.

AL: Nikolski, yeah, OK. And the New Yorkers.

JR: Yeah, that was a short, short stint, only lasted two or three years.

AL: OK. I couldn't find much on any of these bands. Polka bands are kind of elusive on the internet. When did you start playing the accordion?

JR: Well, I started twice, which is funny. I had a cousin, an older cousin, when I was about five years old. He was getting into his teens, and he was taking accordion lessons. He was quite good, and I was amazed by the instrument, just to watch, a little kid, and the instrument was so big, and, you know, the right hand going, the left hand going...

My parents bought me a little twelve bass accordion, and I started playing by ear, and they thought, "We better get him some lessons." So they took me to the neighborhood accordion teacher. He was a guy - Well, I won't mention his name, but he was Italian, and he ran a catering service. So while I was taking accordion lessons, which was in the kitchen, his wife would be cooking trays of pasta, and getting ready for a catering job, and I was paying more attention to what was going on around me. I was five years old. So after two, three months of that, the teacher told my father -he says, "I don't think this kid's got it. You better take him home."

So we called it quits, but I kept playing. I kept playing the twelve bass, and when I was eleven years old, somebody recommended a Polish guy in Schenectady. Eddy Gurzynski ran an accordion studio, and from there I stuck with him for twelve years. I took lessons and started playing with bands when I was sixteen, seventeen years old. Eddy actually had an accordion symphony. They did competitions. It was starting to die out then, when I was getting into it, but I played bass accordion for a couple of years with his accordion band. And then he tried to get me into classical music. I remember one very hot, August day in that studio, I was trying to labor through Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, not doing too well, and I looked at him. I says, "Eddy, I think it's time we parted ways." I says, "This isn't for me. My goal was a polka band. I'm there. I'm playing polkas. I'm- you know, we're doing some pop music." And he goes, "Yeah, you're right." He goes, "I don't think classics are for you." And I stopped the lessons then, but I've been playing nonstop since I was five, six years old.

AL: Yeah... That's... Five or six years old... What was that first twelve bass accordion, anyway?

JR: I don't even remember the brand of it. I just remember... It might've been a Hohner. I just don't remember, but after taking lessons on that twelve bass for a couple of years, Eddy, my teacher, says, "I think it's time to upgrade." So I got a small Excelsior. Played that for probably ten years. Then, finally, when I was sixteen or seventeen I got a full-size Excelsior, and I played that thing (I still have it. I use it as a spare.) for about thirty years, thirty-five years, and then I- that thing started to get a little beat up. That's when I bought my Roland. It's a digital.

AL: Yeah, I saw that Excelsior in the pictures. ...So that's a V-Accordion? What is that, the FR... X8 or something?

JR: FR-7. No reeds in it. It's all digital samples.

[That FR-7 is what he played on the album, It's About Time.]

AL: Yeah? Cool. So when was the first time you played live? You started at 5...

JR: Live in front of an audience? A real audience? I think I was fifteen or fourteen years old. Somebody called up my teacher, and they needed an accordion player for a festival of nations. So they hooked me up with this woman who wanted to hire me, and it was to represent Scandinavia. So she gave me this piece of music. I studied the hell out of it, and the function was at RPI Field House, and I remember walking into that place. I mean, I don't know if you've been into the hockey rink. I think that's where it was. You know, no ice there, but the place was packed. We had to march in with the rest of the nations, and I had to play this Scandinavian tune. Scared the hell out of me, but that was my first public job.

AL: Oh, alright, and you took it like a champ at, like, fifteen?

JR: Yeah, it went well. It went well; I think I made twenty bucks for the gig. I was happy, and she was happy.

AL: Sweet! That's better than I did. My first gig, I think I got eight bucks. I wasn't playing the accordion, though. ...But that was a one-off gig. What was the first band you were with?

JR: It's another interesting story. You've heard of Tony, right? Tony's Polka Band? His grandmother, her name was Betty Banewicz. She lived in a farm, and she would get kids together and have them come over to the house and play Polish music. She played accordion, and she played trumpet. She was like, in her sixties back then, and we would play nursing homes and church festivals, and that's the first band I played in. It was with Tony's grandmother. Tony's father played drums, and his aunt, Mary, played clarinet.

AL: Oh, so it was his aunt who was "Mary's Polka Band."

JR: Right, but the grandmother actually ran the band, but they named it after her daughter, Mary.

AL: OK, that makes sense. I was always wondering that. Cool. Have you played with anybody you were excited to meet, to play with?

JR: At the Amsterdam Polka Festival I was playing with the Checkmates, and I was watching Happy Louie play, and he looked down. He goes, "You got your accordion?" I said, "Yeah, it's in the car." He goes, "Go get it." Then I sat in for a couple of numbers and that was - That was a big deal.

AL: Nice. You've recorded with the Rymanowski Brothers. You record anything else before that?

JR: Oh yeah, I did a 45 with the Polka Rascals. Then we did an album. We recorded that down in Ellenville [NY].

AL: Yeah? What label was that on?

JR: It was... I think LPR. John Sagan, the leader of the band, he created his own label.

I recorded with Rudy Felczak with the Checkmates. That was recorded on the Lemans label. That was a big polka label back in the 70's and 80's. I don't know if you heard of Bernie Goydish? He just died, passed away, had a studio in Somerville, New Jersey, and we did the album there. Let's see, who the heck else did I record with?

[A slow waltz begins playing.]

AL: At this point, Jerry's wife came in, and I want to take advantage of this interruption to play a little sample of their song, Wishing Well Waltz, which was recorded in 1974 and then they re-released it, and spruced it up a little, on their It's About Time CD in 2010. It includes vocals from Uncle Al, one of the original Rymanowski brothers, and they added in some vocals by Gerry Rymanowski later on -his nephew. So enjoy just a little sample of this very unusual song.

[Lyrics are in Polish.]

AL: I noticed - I was watching videos of you play. And, like, that bellows shake you do looks really fierce.

JR: Yeah... I don't really have to play that hard, but...

AL: You're not a small guy, and it looks like you're putting everything into it.

JR: Yeah, but with the bellows shake, once you start doing it, basically, it takes off on its own and goes by itself, pretty much.

AL: OK. Do you have any, for some of our newer guys, any tips on how to not hurt yourself?

JR: Let the amplifier do the work. Because you could kill yourself if you shake too hard. I try not to, with the Roland, work too hard with it, because you don't have to, you know?

AL: Yeah, can you adjust the, uh...

JR: The volume?

AL: and the way the bellows work?

JR: Right, yup.

AL: So that makes it easier with that one?

JR: Yeah, a lot easier.

AL: Alright. You know anything about Excelsior accordions that a person might not find?

JR: I know that years ago, they were all hand made in Italy, and I think they were assembled here, but now the parts are coming from all over, I think. As far as I know, they used to be one of the top accordions around. I don't want to knock Excelsior, but I don't think they're what they used to be anymore.

AL: Right, they used to be pretty prestigious.

JR: Yeah, in fact, the teacher that I had in Schenectady, the one I took lessons for twelve years, he was an authorized dealer. That's all he would deal with. He wouldn't even work on another accordion.

AL: I think Tony was playing one, too.

JR: He took lessons where I did, so if you took lessons there, you got an Excelsior. I don't know if he was getting kickbacks from the company, but that was his brand. He swore by it.

AL: It's the same thing with the American Accordionists' Association. They all play Titanos.

JR: See, there you go.

AL: You have any tips for how to find a teacher?

JR: I really don't know of any teachers around here. I know where I bought my Roland, there may be teachers, in Springfield. I got it from Falcetti Music.

AL: That's in Springfield, Massachusetts?

JR: Yup.

AL: OK. I'll look them up.

JR: And I think he may have a few teachers. Other than that, I have no idea.

AL: Is there anything you'd like to see in the accordion world or in the polka world?

JR: Hate to see it die out. Seems like it is, you know, especially around here. If you go out to Massachusetts, or you see the festivals in Pennsylvania, or out west, it seems like there's a lot more younger people. When you look at those videos that they show on cable, if it was taped here, you see a bunch of white heads bopping around. And then, it's sad to say, but you point and say, "That one's gone. That one's gone." They're all dying off, and there's not any younger people doing it. It's a shame.

AL: So you think there should be more of a new generation?

JR: Yeah. [It would] be nice.

AL: Now, the Rymanowski Brothers, speaking of keeping it alive for a long time, how far did you say they go?

JR: They'll travel about two, three hours. We had a big road trip last year. We went out to Rhode Island, and that was a three-hour drive. There's a soccer club out there that runs dances, and a lot of the more popular bands have been playing there, so they offered us a job and we said, "Yeah, we'd better take it." It wasn't a bad ride. You know, three hours isn't too bad. But those eight-hour drives, we won't do them.

AL: No more of that? Did you do any of that stuff when you were younger?

JR: With the [Polka] Rascals. We used to do that. I remember one night, we played in Syracuse, and we packed up and went to Baltimore, and got into Baltimore at, like, 6 a.m. Grabbed a few hours sleep in one motel room, you know?

AL: How many of you were there?

JR: Five with the band, and I think a couple of the girlfriends were with us.

AL: Seven people in that motel room?

JR: Yeah, and you know, you really can't sleep. Then you gotta play a four-hour job.

AL: That's crazy.

JR: And then going from Baltimore back to Albany. I actually went to work that morning, and I think I got home 6 a.m.

AL: You have any mishaps along the way?

JR: Nah, not really.

AL: That's a whole career of being a musician, and things pretty much went smoothly?

JR: Yeah. Pretty much.

AL: Gosh! I wish I could think of the right question to ask you for how you did it.

JR: No, I was pretty lucky. Equipment really didn't fail. Never missed a job. Never - not able to get to a job. So... pretty lucky.

AL: So that's not as much a problem with polka bands, people getting too wasted before the show?

JR: No. We have a few beers, but...

AL: That's interesting, because a lot of live musicians are known for not knowing when to say when, and here you have a genre that's known for beer.

JR: Nah, we just have a couple and...

AL: You gotta drink like a professional, too.

JR: Right, exactly.

AL: Who else do you think I should interview?

JR: Around here? I guess there's Tony...

AL: I mean, like, you know, I do the whole Northeast, pretty much.

JR: I know Jackie Gabryluk will talk your ear off.

AL: Jackie, uh?

JR: Gabryluk. He's in Amsterdam.

AL: I'm no good with my Polish spellings. You know...

JR: I think it's G A B R Y L U K. He played in every band before I joined.

AL: Oh, OK.

JR: Pretty much. The New Yorkers, he played with. He was with Don Nikolski for years. And he's like a walking encyclopedia with records. Who wrote a song. Who recorded it. Tell you what label it's on. He's a real font of information.

Are you familiar with any of the polka shows that are on the internet now? There's Polka Jammer...

AL: Nah, I haven't found them. I don't know where to tune in for that.

JR: They're on 24/7. Polka Jammer Network dot org, I think it is. But just if you Google "Polka Jammer," and you get on their website, and there's a "listen live" link. Then there's archived shows, and Jerry Rymanowski does one, every Friday, six to eight.

AL: I'll have to talk to them, maybe...

JR: It's fun. They do the live show, and then there's the chat room. You can go in and chat with them.

[A polka begins playing.]

AL: At this point, I'd like to take another little break to play the Drunkard's Lament Polka by the Rymanowski Brothers Orchestra. It's a classic from the 1950's, and it's on the It's About Time album, I believe re-recorded there.

I also wanted to speak for a moment about how everybody parties in this part of Europe. I'm just so impressed by how together they have it. I don't know. I'd have to go see it for myself, but as an American, I feel like we have so much to learn from that.

One thing I read about is that there is a... well, it's a long name in German. I don't even know how to say it, so, um, but they have a station, basically, an organization at Oktoberfest every year, and it offers multi-lingual assistance for women who feel sexually harassed or feel otherwise unsafe. It's like everything is thought about - to make the party go as good as it possibly can. Small children are not allowed in the tents after a certain time. Before a certain time, the music is kept down to a certain level, so the party doesn't get too wild and out of hand. And there's just this very responsible way that it's handled that makes the festival such a unique thing. That makes the German and the Polish seem like they could teach Americans a thing or two about how to party and not get yourself killed.

[SOURCE: Lonely Planet Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest (Travel Guide)]

So... with that being said, let's go back to the Drunkard's Lament Polka!

[More music with Polish lyrics.]

AL: What styles does the - do the Rymanowski Brothers play?

JR: It's kind of a cross between Eastern and a Push style. I wouldn't call it Honky. There's a couple of tunes we do that's definitely a Honky style where there's no bellows shaking, and the drum is more of a "street beat," they call it. You know, the drum fills in a lot more than- Eastern style is basically your, "boom chick boom chick boom chick boom chick." It's really straight and regimented, where Honky style is just everybody doing their own thing. Somebody once called it "Polish jazz," because you're just ad libbing everything. You don't play the same song the same way twice. Everything you do is different.

...in fact, we do an Oktoberfest in North Bennington [Vermont]. The Lion's Club runs it. I think we do that the second week in October. I think the second or third Sunday. That's a good Oktoberfest.

AL: Oh yeah, I was going to ask you about Oktoberfests. Are you doing any this year?

JR: For the last couple of years, we've been doing one at Uncle Marty's Adirondack Grill. It's in Averill Park, near West Sand Lake. I don't know if we got that this year, or even if he's gonna hold it, because usually that's around the end of September and we're getting close and I don't see the date on our calendar. So he might not be doing it, or he might've hired somebody else. Who knows? Can't hire the same band every year.

AL: Why not? I mean, c'mon. You gotta give people some consistency. Tell him that, you know, "C'mon, we're a thing!"

Have you done any tourism? Have you been to Oktoberfest in Germany?

JR: No. Just a few festivals here, in Hunter Mountain, that's about it.

AL: You ever go anywhere in Europe?

JR: No, I want to go. You know my father was born in Poland, so me and my wife were - it's on our bucket list. Maybe when I retire, when we retire, we'll go.

AL: Do you speak Polish?

JR: Yeah.

AL: You learned it from your parents?

JR: Growing up, and a lot through the music. Through polka music. I'd order a - there's a guy out in Massachusetts, soon as an album came out, he would write it. I mean, he'd transpose it onto paper, and the vocals would be written in Polish, so then, just looking at the words and then hearing it, you know. Then you associate, "Wow, that's how it's spelled," and, "That's how it sounds."

AL: Did you learn any slang?

JR: Oh, I know the swear words. You know, that's what you always learn first.

AL: Of course! I learned a half dozen swear words from a Polish guy I worked with, and it turned out - I don't think any of them were real.

JR: Really? What did he teach you?

AL: Ah, I don't know. I remember, I think the one that was real was, like, "dupa yash?"

JR: Yeah, that's "jackass." There's some, uh, psia krew.

AL: I said that to one guy, though, and he was like, "Who's Josh?" ...What was the other one?

JR: Psia krew.

AL: Psia krew?

JR: That's a really bad one. Supposedly, but literally, it translates to "dog's blood."

AL: Dog's blood? Really?

JR: Yup. I don't know what's so bad about dog's blood.

AL: I don't know. It's weird, but have you ever heard of Slovenian curse words?

JR: No, not really.

AL: The Slovenian language doesn't really have any. The only two they have that are kind of bad, and even in Slovenian, they're not really bad. I don't remember what they are, but one of them, it means, "300 hairy bears."

JR: Yeah, see when you literally translate it- In fact, the word in Polish for "hell" is "cholera," and it's spelled C H O L E R A. Which is cholera. So I think that's where it originated from, the disease.

AL: Well, that's a pretty ugly disease.

JR: If you have cholera, you're going through hell.

AL: Yeah, that covers the crap part of it, too. ...oh, the other one is, "May you be kicked by a chicken."

JR: Really?

AL: Yup.

[Interview ends, polka begins.]

Well, I hope none of you are kicked by chickens. That was Jerry Romanowicz. I'm Elwood Bergman. This wraps up our first show.

If you want to know more about anything in this show, we'll have links to everything in our show notes at Accordion Line Podcast dot com.

And if you like what you heard, please leave us a review on Stitcher or iTunes. As you know, those reviews can make or break a podcast.

Until the next time, we're going to leave you with the Saxo Polka.

Go out there, and shine, shake and laugh!

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