Joan Grauman, AAA HistorianAs the organization’s historian, I have been writing historical articles on events that led up to the creation of the AAA and were important for the AAA. This includes some of its influential members, as well as special events throughout the decades, and more.

AAA Historian, Joan Grauman.

Pioneer Women of the AAA

Alice "Essie" Bradshaw Armstrong (1917 - 2018) - considered the "Sweetheart of the Accordion" in the early years of the AAA

By Joan Grauman
AAA Historian

It is my pleasure to have the opportunity to write about this incredible woman who spent her entire life playing, selling, teaching and promoting the accordion. The most incredible thing is that, although Essie was very much involved when the AAA was founded in 1938, and worked closely with many of the founders of the AAA, we really did not know of her existence — until recently.

I am ever so grateful for Essie’s daughter Kathy Marcus’ persistence in locating me, telling me all about her mother, and sending me so many delightful and insightful papers and photos about her mother’s early years in the New York area accordion world.

Alice "Essie" Bradshaw was born in Chinook, Montana, May 8, 1917. The family moved to Spokane, Washington a few years later. Essie began studying the piano and the piano accordion as a young child in Spokane. After graduating from high school in 1935, she became well-known in Spokane as an accordion soloist, playing at many prestigious social events.


In 1936, Essie flew to New York City to study at Juilliard School of Music. She quickly became an accordionist on the the National Broadcasting Company (NBC radio) staff in NYC, and she worked at the H. Selmer and Excelsior Accordion Company. Soon, after meeting Joe Biviano at the radio station, Essie became an accordion instructor at the Joe Biviano School of Music on West 48th St., in NYC. Joe and his then partner Gene von Hallberg made Essie the Assistant Director of the school.

Joe Biviano business card

In the 1930s, women were not usually placed in the foreground in the world of the popular new instrument: the accordion. While you may never find old radio photos featuring Essie, which is surprising as she was a very beautiful young woman, Essie was very respected and loved by her colleagues. I now have a collection of wonderful promotional photos of the well-known accordionists who wrote to Essie on their photos. Johnny Serry referred to Essie as "Sweet Stuff". Joe Biviano wrote, "….our most capable and charming assistant". The excellent duo of brothers Anthony and Dominic Mecca wrote, "…our dear friend and 'Sweetheart of the accordion'". Brothers John and Charles Magnante each wrote: "The First Lady of the Accordion" (John), and "to a FINE accordionist and great teacher!" (Charles).

AAA Certificate

The first meeting of the AAA was held on March 9, 1938. At the second meeting, held on April 9, 1938, Essie was presented with the second Certificate of Membership in the AAA (see photograph of this certificate). It was signed by two of the founders, Sam Rowland and the first AAA President, Pietro Deiro, Sr.


Essie worked for Selmer/Excelsior and she may have been the person who who convinced many of the famous NY teachers and performers to buy the “rocker switch” Excelsiors (which she is also wearing in the above picture) in the late 1930s.

AAA pinLeft - Essie AAA pin. Not many AAA pins exist today and this AAA pin owned by Essie may be the earliest surviving AAA pin, gifted to her daughter Kathy.

In 1940, Essie performed at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall at the Joe Biviano School of Music’s student recital. Charles Magnante arranged the G Minor Fugue, by JS Bach, for four accordions so the four teachers could perform together: Joe Biviano, Gene von Hallberg, Alice "Essie" Bradshaw and John Magnante. Essie continued to teach at the Biviano studio until 1943 when she married and returned to Spokane, Washington.


Picture above with her twin children Kathy and Charles.

Upon her return to Spokane, Essie went back to her name Alice. Alice Bradshaw Armstrong never stopped playing or teaching music. In her later years, after retiring from the Hoffman Music Company in Spokane, Alice and her husband, John B. Armstrong moved to South Hill, Washington where she became involved in a choir.


This choir, a traveling ministry, performed in every state and made several trips to Europe. Alice "Essie" played her accordion all over the world with this choir. She was also a member of the Spokane Accordion Ensemble, under the direction of Ilmar Kuljus, during the 1990s.

Spokane Accordion Ensemble

Sadly, Alice developed Alzheimer’s and eventually had no memories of the beautiful life she had led. "She taught my brother and me to be strong and caring people", her proud daughter Kathy said. Alice "Essie" Bradshaw Armstrong died at the age of 100 1/2 in Kettle Falls, WA on February 19, 2018.

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