Pete Jolly

Jazz pianist/accordionist

The famous definition of a gentleman is "someone who owns an accordion but doesn't play it". It didn't fit Pete Jolly, who learned to play the accordion when he was three and became its most gifted jazz exponent. Acknowledging that most musicians disliked the instrument, Jolly recognised that it was his light, swinging style on piano that had made him known throughout the world and the piano remained his main instrument.

Peter A. Ceragioli (Pete Jolly), pianist and accordionist: born New Haven, Connecticut 5 June 1932; twice married (three sons); died Pasadena, California 6 November 2004.

The famous definition of a gentleman is "someone who owns an accordion but doesn't play it". It didn't fit Pete Jolly, who learned to play the accordion when he was three and became its most gifted jazz exponent. Acknowledging that most musicians disliked the instrument, Jolly recognised that it was his light, swinging style on piano that had made him known throughout the world and the piano remained his main instrument.

Jolly made only one visit to Britain. He was flown there during the Fifties to appear on This is Your Life. The subject was a man who had been injured and spent time recuperating on the West Coast. During this period he had apparently listened often to Jolly, who was appearing at the Lighthouse, a legendary local jazz bar. Jolly was to play live on the programme. However, the Ministry of Labour had a ban on American musicians appearing in Britain. The Musicians' Union got wind of the visit and the ministry enforced the ban. Jolly appeared on the programme but only to mime to his own trio recording of "Younger than Springtime".

The event was made the more futile by the fact that the subject of the programme was bemused and obviously had no idea who Jolly was. Jolly had planned to make the best of it and to stay in Britain for a few days, but his father died during the visit and he had to return to Los Angeles.

Jolly, who had an unusually good sense of rhythm - an invaluable asset to a rhythm section player and soloist - led some of the best rhythm sections ever, often in conjunction with the drummer Shelly Manne. During his 50 years in Los Angeles he accompanied an amazing list of jazz giants and pop singers. He recorded with, amongst others, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Mel Tormé, Marty Paich, Red Norvo and Anita O'Day. He led a jazz trio of the same musicians for most of that time, spending his days working as a studio musician in films and television.

Jolly's father, Peter Ceragioli, was a virtuoso accordionist, and he made sure that his son would follow in his footsteps. For six years from 1939 the two made the two-hour train journey to New York City to study with the celebrated teacher Joe Biviano. Afterwards they would go to the Paramount Theatre to see the film and hear the top-line big band (led by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey) that played live for the audience.

Billed as "The Boy Wonder Accordionist", Jolly appeared on CBS Network radio in 1940. The announcer had difficulty with his name Ceragioli and presented him for the first time as "Pete Jolly". The name stuck.

The guitarist Howard Roberts, a good friend of Jolly's, had moved to Los Angeles in 1950 and he tried to persuade Jolly to follow him. The offer of a job in the city from another guitarist, Barney Kessel, convinced Jolly and he moved in 1954, linking up almost immediately with the trumpeter Shorty Rogers and appearing on three of the classic big-band albums that Rogers made that year. These were the first of innumerable recordings graced by Jolly's playing and Rogers also opened the doors to the Hollywood studios. The pianist was never again short of work.

Steve Voce



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