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I've been puzzled at why in some of our big band charts, the piano part is labelled "Piano (Conductor) & Accordion Guide". Our keyboardist tried, for a laugh, choosing an accordion patch on his keyboard one time and it sounded terrible. I've never heard of having an accordion in a big band.

(Examples include Stan Butcher's arrangement of Sunny, and Woodchopper's Ball.)

So is this a case of "it doesn't mean what you think it means"?

Why accordion? Did big bands/dance bands at one time sometimes have an accordion instead of a piano?

Update

My question was not so much about the virtues of including an accordion player in a big band, but about whether it was common practice at a certain time to label the piano part thus, and whether it literally meant the pianist could be subbed with an accordion player, or whether it actually indicated something else.

  • It's also possible that some big bands had an accordion in addition to a piano. – phoog Apr 14 '16 at 20:32
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The explanations I could think of:

  • The composer could have decided that the piano part can be played by an accordion as well to give it a different timbre (Experimenting with the instrument setup)
  • The charts are sort of universally written so accordion players can participate as well. This way it's the arranger's choice to include an accordion.

And here's the living proof of an accordion in a big band:

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Average "accordion patches" try to capture the look&feel of a "typical" accordion. Which lean a bit towards the awful side.

The accordion is really a portable harmonium with much more delicate pressure control (which is one reason harmoniums went out of fashion and accordions not). An "accordion patch" does not offer this minute continuous control, similar to how solo violin patches rarely crank out anything satisfactory.

Once you exit the folk music scene and take a look at jazz and tango accordionists (the original "Ole guapa!" has been composed and performed by a Dutch accordionist of great acclaim) as well as players specializing on baroque, romantic, classical music as well as a number of Latin American dance and art music, you'll find a lot of brilliant and sensual play. Nations like Finland, France, Russia have long and active accordion traditions, partly inspiring new classical compositions.

The bandonion has similarities in technique and sound and has become the Tango solo instrument of choice.

With regard to dance bands: many folk dance events make use of small diatonical accordions, and France made the chromatic button accordion large in its use for musette music. "Musette" is actually the name of a bagpipe, and for purely acoustic bands, the cutting power of an accordion rendered it a suitable replacement with nicer sound and the possibility for polyphonic play.

Accordions are still built for volume, but the use of detuned reed sets (particularly striking in "musette" tuning) with strong beating, very useful for making sound hearable above a brass band, has declined in its aggressiveness since nowadays amplification can be used for maintaining a suitable balance between instrument types.

A musette accordion without accompaniment and in original tuning is sort of an acquired taste. You really have to take it as the equivalent of bagpipes at home.

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According to the Wikipedia article on accordion music genres, many popular bands of the 1910s and 1920s employed an accordion player, including the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and the Horace Heidt Orchestra (though I'd not heard of the latter before reading the above article).

So it looks like the answer to my question is that accordions were used in dance/swing bands of that era, though they have fallen out of use since. So an arrangement with a Piano and Accordion Guide part probably harks back to that era.

(Incidentally, Stan Butcher was born in 1920, so perhaps it was a publisher with a longer memory who added the accordion label.)

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