John Serry Sr. (born John Serrapica; January 29, 1915 – September 14, 2003) was an American concert accordionist, arranger, composer, organist, and educator. He performed on the CBS Radio and Television networks and contributed to Voice of America’s cultural diplomacy initiatives during the Golden Age of Radio. He also concertized on the accordion as a member of several orchestras and jazz ensembles for nearly forty years between the 1930s and 1960s.
Serry’s career spanned over seven decades. As a proponent of Latin American music and the free-bass accordion, he performed as the featured piano accordion soloist on the radio music program Viva América, which was broadcast live to South America under the United States Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs’ cultural diplomacy initiative for Voice of America during World War II. His performances with CBS’ Pan American Orchestra and Alfredo Antonini are credited for helping to introduce Latin American music and the Mexican bolero to large audiences in the United States in the 1940s.
He was a member of the CBS Pan American Orchestra (1940–1949) conducted by Alfredo Antonini and the Columbia Concert Orchestra (1940–1949). Several of his broadcasts with the CBS Orchestra (1949–1960) on the CBS network are included in the permanent archive collection of the Paley Center for Media in New York. Over the decades, he performed with many orchestral conductors and jazz band leaders, including Shep Fields, Erno Rapee, Lester Lanin, Alfredo Antonini, Howard Barlow, Alexander Smallens, Archie Bleyer, Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith, Ben Selvin, Miguel Sandoval, Guy Lombardo, and Robert Irving.
Serry performed with big bands, symphony orchestras, radio and television orchestras, and Broadway orchestras at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center (1935); the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel (1936–1937); Radio City Music Hall (1935); the Palmer House in Chicago (1938); the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles (1938); Carnegie Hall with Alfredo Antonini conducting (1946); the Plaza Hotel (1940s); The Town Hall (1941–1942); the Ed Sullivan Theater (1959) for CBS television; the Empire Theater (New York) (1953); the 54th Street Theatre(1965); The Broadway Theatre (1968); the Imperial Theater (1968); the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center (1968); and such New York cafe society nightspots as: El Morocco, El Chico and The Riviera in the 1930s.
As an organist, he performed for an additional thirty-five years during interfaith liturgical services at the Interfaith Chapel on the Long Island University C. W. Post Campus in Brookville, New York. He composed and arranged interfaith liturgical music and classical music for both organ and voice.
Serry was born John Serrapica in Brooklyn, New York to Italian-American parents Pasquale Serrapica and Anna Balestrieri of Castellammare di Stabia, Italy. He was the fourth sibling in a family of thirteen children. His first exposure to classical music occurred through the influence of his father, who entertained his children with performances on the mandolin and the piano. From the age of five, Serry was encouraged by his father to accompany him at the keyboard and to perform with phonographic recordings of classical music by such European composer as: Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Gioachino Antonio Rossini, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Serry attended Brooklyn Technical High School, preparing for a career in architecture. After a nearly fatal illness interrupted his work on the piano, Serry’s father encouraged him to learn to play the accordion. He studied with the accordionist Joseph Rossi from 1926 to 1929 at the Pietro Deiro School in New York, and at the age of 14 performed live on the Italian radio station WCDA. He undertook studies in piano and harmony with Albert Rizzi from 1929 to 1932 and in harmony and counterpoint with Gene Von Hallberg, founder of the American Accordionists Association, for two years. A lifelong friendship with the accordionist Louise Del Monte was established as a result of these studies. Del Monte awakened Serry’s interest in Latin American music. Advanced studies in harmony and orchestration were completed under the instruction of the composer Robert Strassburg in the 1940s.
With the help of Del Monte, in the 1930s Serry began his professional career by making appearances with the Ralph Gomez Tango Orchestra at The Rainbow Room at the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, leading to an extended engagement there in 1935.
During the big band era in New York City, he performed under Erno Rapee, conductor of the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, and was the ensemble’s first on-stage accordion soloist in 1933. He played with the Hugo Mariani Tango Orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the 1930s, with Alfred Brito, a Cuban orchestra leader in New York (1936), and Misha Borr, conductor of the Waldorf-Astoria Orchestra. He appeared as a soloist for society functions at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s Waldorf Towers and at its Starlight Roof with the Lester Lanin Orchestra. In addition, he performed regularly at clubs such as El Morocco, the Rainbow Room, El Chico, and the Riviera in New York City.
Serry performed with the jazz group Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm during a nationwide tour with live radio broadcasts from the Palmer House hotel in Chicago, Illinois, and the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California, over the NBC network (1937–1938). These big band remote broadcasts used Zenith’s Radiogran technology. His performances as a member of the orchestra and soloist are documented in the film The Big Broadcast of 1938 (“This Little Ripple Had Rhythm” and “Thanks for the Memory”), which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1939.
While touring with Shep Fields, he recorded several popular songs of the time for Bluebird, including “With a Smile and a Song”, “Whistle While You Work”, and “Now It Can Be Told”. He was Assistant Dean of Accordion and Harmony at the Biviano Accordion Center in Manhattan between 1939 and 1942, providing instruction on accordion and orchestral jazz.
Serry married his wife Julia in the 1940s and moved to Nassau County, New York on Long Island to raise a family of four children which included John Serry Jr. He simultaneously undertook private studies with: Joscha Zade in piano (1945–1946), Arthur Guttow an organist at the Radio City Music Hall (1946) and Robert Strassburg in Orchestration and Advanced Harmony (1948–1950). He specialized in the works of Gershwin, Debussy, and Ravel.
Building upon his concert experiences of the 1930s, Serry entered the golden age of radio performing on the CBS radio network and assisted several concert artists in New York City including: Marianne Oswald (aka Marianne Lorraine) in the poem Mr. Lincoln and His Gloves (by Carl Sandburg) and in Never Before (by Archibald MacLeish) at Town Hall (1942). This performance was praised in The Players Magazine – National Journal of Educational Dramatics. The New York Times described it as being skillfully presented. He also appeared at Town Hall under the baton of Alexander Smallens in a concert performance of Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts with the choral director Leonard De Paur in 1941. For ten years Serry performed as an original member of Alfredo Antonini’s CBS Pan American Orchestra (1940–1949) on the Viva América program for the Department of State’s Office of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) in support of its cultural diplomacy initiatives. He also worked with Antonini, Nestor Mesta Chayres and members of the New York Philharmonic in the Night of the Americas Concert gala at Carnegie Hall in 1946.
While on staff at CBS, Serry performed on several network shows including: The Gordon MacRae Show Star of Stars (from CBS’ Starline Roof, conductor Archie Bleyer, 1946); The Danny O’Neil Show (guest, 1946); The Coca-Cola Hour with the Percy Faith Orchestra (conductor Percy Faith, 1948); The Jack Smith Show (1947); The Jean Sablon Show (1947); and Studio One with cellist Bernard Greenhouse.
During this period, Serry also worked with a number of international concert musicians on Viva America including: Terig Tucci (1942) Juan Arvizu (1940s); Nestor Mesta Chayres (1940s); Eva Garza (1940s); Miguel Sandoval (1940s), Elsa Miranda (1940s) and Marlene Dietrich in a performance of “Lili Marlene” on CBS (1945). The performances with CBS’ Pan American Orchestra and Alfredo Antonini are credited for helping to introduce Latin American music and the Mexican bolero to large audiences in the United States in the 1940s.
He also recorded with several artists including: Victoria Cordova (vocalist) and Alfredo Antonini for Muzak (1949); his ensemble the BelCordions (four accordions, string bass and guitar) of his thirty arrangements for RCA Victor’s RCA Thesaurus at NBC (1946); and the Biviano Sextette (1946). His recordings with Cordova showcased several songs from Latin America including: “Verde Luna” (Vincente Gomez), “Amor” (Gabriel Ruiz), “Siboney” (Ernesto Lecuona), “You Belong to My Heart” (Agustin Lara), “Edelma – Pasillo” (Terig Tucci) and “What a Difference a Day Made” (Maria Grever). His recordings with the Viva America Orchestra under Alfredo Antonini for Alpha Records in 1946 featured several Latin American favorites including: “Tres Palabras” (Osvaldo Farres), “Caminito de Tu Casa” (Julio Alberto Hernández), “Chapinita” (Miguel Sandoval) and “Noche De Ronda” (Augustin Lara). Reviews in The New Records praised the orchestra’s performance and hailed the collection as among the best new albums of Latin American music.
As a member of CBS’ Pan American Orchestra he recorded boleros for Columbia Records with the Mexican vocalist Luis G. Roldan, including “Tres Palabras” and “Esta Noche Ha Pasado”. He collaborated as a member of Alfredo Antonini’s Viva America Orchestra with the romantic Latin trio Los Panchos to record “La Palma”, a Chilean cueca dance, and the conga “Rosa Negra” for Pilotone Records. Agustin Lara’s popular song “Granada” was recorded with the Mexican tenor Nestor Mesta Chayres and Alfredo Antonini for Decca Records in 1946.
Serry recorded his work “Leone Jump” as a member of the Biviano Accordion & Rhythm Sextette with Tony Mottola on guitar and Angelo Delleria on accordion for Sonora Records in 1945. The album includes performances of “Little Brown Jug”, “Golden Wedding”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, “That’s a Plenty”, and “The Jazz Me Blues”. Later in 1949, accordionist Joe Biviano collaborated with the RCA Victor Accordion Orchestra to record Serry’s composition “Manhattan Hop” for RCA Victor.
In the realm of live international radio broadcasts, Serry performed for audiences in both North and South America over CBS Radio. Several performances were enjoyed by Eleanor Roosevelt and South American diplomats during the opening ceremonies of Macy’s Latin-American Fair of 1942 in New York City. In Europe, members of America’s armed forces also enjoyed his artistry on the Viva America program which was broadcast over the Armed Forces Network during World War II every week By 1945 these performances were also broadcast by 114 stations affiliated with the CBS “La Cadena de las Americas” network and Voice of America for audiences in twenty Latin American nations in support of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and Pan-Americanism.
Serry founded and operated a music studio in Manhattan and Long Island, New York. Between 1945 and the late 1980s he provided instruction on accordion, piano, and organ. His pupils included Anthony Ettore, president of the American Accordionist’s Association, and Robert Davine, an accordionist and educator at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. He was invited to contribute to the annual series of Master Accordion Classes and seminars sponsored by the American Accordionists Association in New York City in August 2000.
As an educator, Serry also published several method books for his elementary, intermediate, and advanced grade students between 1945 and 1983. He took note of the limitations imposed by the Stradella bass system during performances of classical music. In an effort to circumvent these limitations, he designed and developed a working model of a free-bass system for the accordion during this decade. It incorporated dual keyboards for the soloist’s left hand while incorporating two sets of reeds which were tuned in octaves. This gave the soloist access to a range of tones which exceeded three and one-half octaves.
During the early days of network television in the 1950s, Serry performed at CBS as a staff member of the original CBS Orchestra (1949–1960) and an accompanist on several live network television programs including The Jackie Gleason Show in 1953, The Ed Sullivan Show in 1959, The Frank Sinatra Show (CBS TV series) in the 1950s, and with organist Billy Nalle, on the prime time drama I Remember Mama in 1953 with Peggy Wood.
Serry also performed with Mitch Miller at Columbia Records to produce an LP demonstration recording in 1951. In 1951 he also arranged his compositions La Culebra and African Bolero for solo flute. He dedicated the scores to his close friend Julius Baker (first flautist for the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra at CBS and for the New York Philharmonic) He appeared under Andre Kostelanetz, the conductor on the Eastman Kodak Kinescope broadcasts in 1951.
Performances on the radio also continued and included: appearances as a member of the Magnante Accordion Quartet, on The Lucky Strike Hour, Waltz Time, and The American Melody Hour (1940s). He occasionally substituted for the quartet’s founder Charles Magnante.
On the Broadway stage he performed under director Harold Clurman in a production of Arthur Laurents play The Time of the Cuckoo with Shirley Booth and Dino Di Luca. Serry served as soloist and musical director at the Empire Theatre on Broadway from 1952-1953. He later joined the orchestra in the premier of Can-Can at the Shubert Theatre in 1953.
Serry recorded for Decca during this time and also collaborated with RCA Victor’s Ben Selvin, producing an electrical transcription for RCA Thesaurus (1954). He composed, arranged and performed several compositions for Dot Records (#DLP3024) with Al Caiola and Bernie Leighton on his album Squeeze Play (1956). The production received a critical review as a new popular album in The Billboard in 1956 and was cited for establishing a beautiful soothing mood. The album was also critically reviewed in Cash Box magazine later that year. Serry was applauded for establishing a wide variety of musical moods with grace, while simultaneously emphasizing a relaxed performance style. In 1958 several songs from the album were released once again in France by Versailles records (# 90 M 178) as Chicago Musette – John Serry et son Accordéon. These activities led to Serry’s nomination to the “Who Is Who In Music International” in 1958.
His advanced grade composition for accordion, American Rhapsody was completed and published during 1955, and he created a comprehensive course of instruction for students of the accordion at the U.S. School of Music at the start of this decade.
Serry collaborated on the Voice of Firestone series with the conductor Howard Barlow (guest conductor for NBC Television in 1961) and on The Revlon Revue (1960) for CBS Television. He also appeared in several Broadway theatre productions including: Cabaret at the Imperial Theatre (1968);The Happy Time starring Robert Goulet at The Broadway Theatre (1968 Tony Award Best Musical), and Fiddler on the Roof starring Zero Mostel at the Majestic Theatre (1968).
In addition to entertaining audiences on Broadway, he was a member of the Seven-Up Continental Band, which performed at the 1964 New York World’s Fair in the Seven-Up International Gardens Pavilion.
On the Off Broadway stage, he emerged in the 1965 production of Gerard Calvi’s La Grosse Valise at the 54th Street Theatre starring Ronald Fraser (actor) & Victor Spinetti (1965) (composer Gerard Calvi, lyrics by Harold Rome, musical director Lehman Engel).
Later in the decade he appeared in a revival by the bandleader Guy Lombardo of Oscar Hammerstein II’s South Pacific at the Jones Beach Theater located in the Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, New York (1968). The production featured Jerome Hines and Kathleen Nolan in the starring roles and was directed by Oscar Hammerstein II’s son William Hammerstein.
Returning to the classical concert venue, Serry served as the lead concert accordionist in performances of the New Ballet staged to the music of Tchaikovsky (the Orchestral Suite No. 2 (Tchaikovsky)) at the New York State Theater (1969). The production was performed as part of the 20th anniversary season of the New York City Ballet. The performances included the choreography of Jacques d’Amboise in the premier of his Tchaikovsky Suite and the New York City Ballet Orchestra directed by Robert Irving. Principal dancers in the corps de ballet included Francisco Moncion, Gerard Ebitz, and Nina Fedorova.
His advanced grade composition Concerto For Free Bass Accordion was also completed during this decade in 1966. In the process, he contributed a definitive work for accordion which embraces both the classical music and symphonic jazz musical genres as expressed within the United States. (See Advanced compositions below & List of jazz-influenced classical compositions).
At the start of the 1970s, Serry continued his work as an accordionist in a limited revival production of Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island, New York. As the decade of the 1970s unfolded, however, the publics’ interest in the accordion began to diminish. With this in mind, Serry elected to devote more time to playing as a concert organist.
During the course of the next thirty-five years, he appeared as an independent freelance chapel organist at the Interfaith Chapel of the Long Island University C W Post Campus in Brookville, New York (1968–2002). In addition to performing liturgical music regularly during interfaith wedding ceremonies, he composed a “Processional for Organ” which was featured during the chapel’s dedication ceremony. Working in collaboration with Peg Larson (Assistant Director-Chapel Scheduling), Rabbi Nathaniel Schwartz (Independent Chaplain) and clergymen from the Catholic Church, Serry arranged and performed musical programs for hundreds of wedding parties and their invited guests. His performances featured the Interfaith Chapel’s Hammond organ utilizing a Leslie speaker, as well as its baroque Allen organ.
In accordance with the ecumenical and liturgical guidelines for interfaith marriage ceremonies, Serry performed sacred music reflecting a variety of religious traditions, including: Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and Eastern Orthodox. His brief concerts were presented prior to each wedding ceremony on both the organ and the piano. Musical accompaniment was often provided for vocal soloists, hazzans, as well as cantors. His concerts featured classical and contemporary works by such composers as: Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonard Bernstein, John Denver, Mendelssohn, Jean-Joseph Mouret, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Purcell, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Satie, Vivaldi, Wagner, Charles Widor, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Serry died after a brief illness on Long Island, New York in 2003, age 88. One of his surviving sons is John Serry Jr., a jazz pianist, composer, conductor, and arranger. John Serry was predeceased by his first son Robert J. Serry (1945-1993) who was an Assistant Professor of Architectural Design at the University of Texas San Antonio, an assistant to Peter Eisenman at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and a graduate of Pratt Institute and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.
Several of John Serry’s early live performances and recordings were reviewed by critics in such noted magazines as The Billboard, Cash Box and The Players Magazine – National Journal of Educational Dramatics. While accompanying a dramatic vocalist he was cited for contributing to an intriguing and nuanced performance. His recording with the Alfredo Antonini’s Viva America Orchestra was described as “exceptional” by critics at The New Records in 1946. His musical arrangements were also cited for using the accordion to convey a variety of musical moods with easy-going grace intended for low-pressure listening. Above all else, he was applauded for utilizing the accordion to establish a beautiful, relaxed and soothing mood while avoiding a more common type of “show-off” performance.
His compositions include:
Serry’s compositions in the symphonic jazz and classical music genres include:
In addition to his accomplishments as a professional musician, Serry also received recognition in 1966 from the United States Patent Office for his design of a protective shield for collapsible tooth past tubes which featured an aesthetically pleasing design (US Patent #US3269604, 1966).
Serry was an active member of the BMI, SESAC, American Federation of Musicians (Local #802) (1933–2003), and The American Guild of Organists. For a brief period he served as a charter member of the American Accordionists Association (1938). He pursued professional musical studies with: Joseph Rossi (accordion, 1926–1929); Albert Rizzi (piano and harmony, 1929–1932); Gene Von Hallberg (counterpoint and harmony, 1933–1934) (a founder of the American Accordionists Association); Jascha Zade (piano, 1945–1946); Arthur Guttow (organ, 1946), and Robert Strassburg (piano, advanced harmony, and orchestration, 1948–1950).
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