The Pizzitola Strummers; Keeping the Mandolin (and other fretted instruments) alive in the jazz era

​A November 1941 article in Etude magazine by George C. Krick (“The Future of Fretted Instruments”) declared that interest in the mandolin, banjo, and guitar was alive and well despite the popular belief that those instruments were “dead” and “on their way out.” Krick cited the many urban areas that had instructors of fretted instruments. These instructors included Albert Bellson, Chester W. Gould, and A.E. Patton. He also cited a Holyoke, MA-based teacher and musician, Joseph Pizzitola, who he praised as directing “one of the best mandolin orchestras we have been privileged to hear, and he deserves great credit for keeping the mandolin before the public.”(1)

For the greater part of the 20th century, Pizzitola ran his own music school on the second floor of 81 Suffolk Street in Holyoke, which was above the former Victory Theater. Pizzitola taught mandolin, banjo, guitar, and accordion. He employed other instructors, who included luthier Frank Lucchesi, accordionist Marian Kelly, and bandleader Bob Ezold. Pizzitola was a licensed agent/instructor for Gibson, and he served as president (years unspecified) of the American Guild of Banjoists, Mandolinists, and Guitarists (AGBMG). 

Pizzitola formed a professional ensemble of his advanced students and named them the Pizzitola Strummers. The Strummers played concerts in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, including town halls and Masonic lodges. They appeared on Boston’s WBZ radio as far back as 1927 and 1928. Anywhere in the country where the radio signal could be picked up, the Pizzitola Strummers could be heard, as newspapers such as the Detroit Free Press and Reading (PA) Times listed long-distance radio station programming. The Strummers especially played the AGBMG conferences. For two years in a row (1930-31), the banjo-heavy ensemble won first prize for Best Banjo Group. (2)

By the 1940’s, the accordion was incorporated into the ensemble, therefore, they were renamed the Pizzitola Plectro-Accordion Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra continued to perform throughout the Valley and upstate New York.  They made their television debut in 1957 on the defunct Springfield Channel 55 with their own bi-weekly program. (3)  Pizzitola’s reputation as an accordion instructor superseded that as a stringed instrument instructor, as more accordions joined the orchestra.  Interest inPizz stringed instruments resumed in the 1960’s, and Bob Ezold was one of the instructors to go to for guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  New Orleans-based musician Spider Murphy, who grew up in Holyoke and later graduated from the Berklee School of Music, studied all three instruments under Pizzitola and Ezold, beginning in 1963 when he was six years old.  Spider’s father and three of his aunts took lessons with Pizzitola 40 years earlier. (4)

The Pizzitola Music Studio became incorporated in 1963, and it opened studios in Springfield and Northampton. The incorporated status was dissolved in 1978, sometime after Pizzitola’s death. Ezold, after Pizzitola’s death, kept the strummer tradition going by forming the Valley Strummers. The Strummers are still performing to this day under the direction of Ezold’s son, Bob Jr., and regularly perform at the Holyoke Senior Center. 

(1) Krick, George C. “The Future of Fretted Instruments.” Etude, November 1941.

(2) http://www.mandoisland.de

(3) Berkshire Eagle Tribune, January 30, 1957.

(4) http://www.spidermurphy.net

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