The accordion has 233 buttons, 41 keys and 8,888 chords. George Rozwick won’t claim he knows all the chords off the top of his head. Pretty much everything else, though? He’s got it. Of course, he’s had 81 years of practice.
At age 94, the still-energetic Rozwick performs up to 15 times per month. He may well be the oldest active accordion player in Oregon—not that there are many active accordion players in Oregon to begin with. “If you were an accordionist who moved to this city and said, ‘I’d like to meet four or five good players,’ you’d have trouble finding them,” he says. “You’d even have trouble finding an accordion in Portland.”
Things were different when Rozwick was growing up. “It was the No. 1 thing in music,” he says. He remembers when he played his first accordion at age 13, a gift from his Lithuanian father: “I came home one day, and there was an accordion on the table. And my dad is foreign, of course, very proud. ‘We’ve got you an accordion.’ ‘Well I don’t want an accordion. I want to be a guitar player.’”
Guitar lessons didn’t work out. Instead, starting in 1932, Rozwick learned traditional German accordion music, often practicing at least two hours per day. By the time he was 19, he was teaching others how to play, and opened the first of five music studios he’s owned over the course of his life.
“It never stopped,” he says. “But I didn’t know if I was doing that great or anything. I knew what the finances were, but that’s not what I was there for. I just loved what I was doing.”
He loved it so much, he opted out of going to medical school and chose to continue as a teacher and performer. It was around that time he met Eldon Tichenor, then age 7. Rozwick taught Tichenor how to play the accordion, and the two ended up performing together for the next few decades. Rozwick, who never had children, classifies their relationship as practically father-son. In the early 2000s, after 20 years apart, the two randomly bumped into each other at an accordion event in Canby, rekindling their musical partnership, which has continued to this day.
In addition to being at the center of one of his closest friendships, the accordion may have once saved Rozwick’s life. At the beginning of his service in the Army during World War II, officials changed his orders after discovering his talent, keeping him off the front lines in Europe. “They said, ‘Well, could you play for the officers next Saturday for their party?’” Rozwick recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, well, I could, but I won’t be here.’ So they said, ‘Well, we could change your orders.’”
Following his time in the military, Rozwick moved to Oregon and then Alaska, opening more music shops, before finally settling in Canby. Though he no longer teaches, Rozwick, along with Tichenor, still performs with his 40-pound accordion at nursing homes around Portland, and occasionally plays at a restaurant or a Nike event, and at the Portland Marathon. While he might be getting up there in years, Rozwick has no intention of stopping
“I will [play] until I can’t,” he says. “When you get involved in your own music, your life is full.”
GO: The Rose City Accordion Club meets the third Saturday of every month at the Milwaukie Public Safety Building, 3200 SE Harrison St., 1-5 pm. Visit rosecityaccordionclub.org for more information.