Walter Kühr, Performer, Bandleader and Accordion Evangelist, Dies at 59
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“A gentleman,” a widely repeated anonymous quotation has it, “is a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t.”
By those lights, Walter Kühr was unequivocally no gentleman.
Mr. Kühr, who died in Manhattan on Jan. 2, at 59, was for decades an evangelist of the instrument, as a performer, bandleader and owner of the Main Squeeze, a shop on the Lower East Side that he founded, in the words of its website, to meet “all your accordion needs.”
That most of us have accordion needs — unrecognized, untapped and achingly unfulfilled — was Mr. Kühr’s self-appointed mission to impress upon the public. From his boyhood in Germany to the end of his life, he sought to prove that the accordion, long derided, was actually “the hippest instrument on the planet,” as he said in a 2011 interview.
As a performer, Mr. Kühr appeared with the Last of the International Playboys, the nine-piece Latin jazz ensemble he founded, which played in clubs across the country.
As a bandleader, he established the Main Squeeze Orchestra, an all-female, all-accordion ensemble of about 14 that has performed throughout New York City, playing everything from Strauss waltzes to Kinks covers.
As an entrepreneur, he opened the Main Squeeze, at 19 Essex Street, between Hester and Canal Streets, in 1996. Part emporium, part performance space, part conservatory and part hiring hall, the store teaches, tunes, repairs and sells the accordion — prices range from about $100 into the thousands — and has become a mecca for players from around the world.
Accordions can be heard in genres as diverse as jazz, rock, tango, klezmer and zydeco. But as Mr. Kühr well knew, the stigma of the wheezing polka box endures. He was quick to finger its source.
“Blame it on Lawrence Welk,” he told The Star-Ledger of Newark in 1999.
Walter Werner Kühr was born in Hanau, near Frankfurt, on Oct. 10, 1955, and began studying the accordion at about 6 years old. After earning a degree in piano and bassoon from the Musikakademie Frankfurt am Main, he was offered a position as a bassoonist with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.
He declined, preferring to make his way as a jazz bassoonist and pianist. Settling in Hamburg, he supported his musical life with a series of odd jobs, among them gravedigger, wine seller aboard a streetcar and janitor in a brothel.
Mr. Kühr moved to New York in the late 1980s to study jazz piano in Harlem, packing his accordion “almost as an afterthought,” his former wife, Claire Connors, said on Wednesday.
The instrument would give him his livelihood, first as a performer on subway platforms and later as a visible, and audible, public ambassador.
Mr. Kühr’s marriage to Ms. Connors ended in divorce. Survivors include his companion, Lauren Schwartz; his mother, Loni; and a brother, Gerhard. At his death — from lymphoma, Ms. Connors said — he lived in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
The Main Squeeze recently lost its lease and must close by Jan. 15. There are no plans to reopen it elsewhere, Ms. Connors said.
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