Jazz accordionist Tommy Gumina, a Milwaukee native whose musical prowess earned him the nicknames “the incredible Mr. Fingers” and “Milwaukee’s accordion wizard,” died Monday of cancer at his Los Angeles-area home. He was 82.
“He was quite an artist. He had a God-given talent — that’s what it was,” his brother Manny Gumina said.
He recorded scores of albums and toured with Harry James when he was barely 20, and Tommy Gumina very nearly had a big screen career, too. He was cast to play the role of Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity,” but before it went into production, Frank Sinatra went to the studio and said he wanted the role, the Milwaukee Journal reported at the time. Gumina had “the kind of handsome but wistful look that the character called for,” the paper noted.
Gumina said he was disappointed but thought Sinatra was “wonderful in the role — probably better than I could have been, but it was a role that I wanted and think I could have done very well.”
He added, “I admit I would like to win the reputation of being a fine actor, but the accordion is my real love as a career.”
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Gumina recorded and performed with James, Buddy De Franco (forming the De Franco-Gumina Quartet), Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Gene Krupa, Joe Pass, Art Pepper and others. It was alto saxophonist Pepper who described him as “the incredible Mr. Fingers.”
Gumina was featured on the variety shows of the era, too — Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como, and another Milwaukee son, Liberace. By the time he was 20, Gumina had moved to the Los Angeles area, where he worked with Nelson Riddle and Billy May, making background music for the TV series “Route 66″ and “Naked City,” and was on the musical staff of ABC Television. He performed in Las Vegas and at many of the big night clubs in L.A. — the Cocoanut Grove, the Mocombo.
Gumina was discovered at Milwaukee’s Tic Toc Club on N. 5th St. in January 1952 by James, whose band was in town performing at George Devine’s ballroom.
James knew immediately that he wanted Gumina in his band.
“I don’t know how he does it, but Tommy Gumina gets a tone and has a style that I have never heard before from an accordion … a real jazz feeling,” James later told Downbeat magazine.
In the 1960s, Gumina performed and recorded with De Franco. He also was an innovator when it came to amplification and equipment, and in 1968 Gumina founded the Polytone Amplifier Co., with customers including such stars at guitarist George Benson.
“When it comes to the accordion, Gumina’s modifications and amplification development are on a par with Les Paul’s guitar inventions….,” according to writer Elliott Simon at allaboutjazz.com.
Gumina continued to perform and record, including a 1987 disc called “Sound Project” with guitarist Pass, and an acclaimed 1991 album called “Autumn Leaves” (Alfa Records) with Pass, drummer Jimmie Smith and clarinetist De Franco. On the latter, Gumina performed on the polychord, an instrument of his own design, which sounds like a combination of an accordion and an electric organ.
“Here we have a minor masterpiece,” the Milwaukee Sentinel wrote in a review.
Gumina, the oldest of three boys who grew up on Milwaukee’s south side, always said he knew by age 10 that he wanted to play the accordion.
He recalled in a 1955 interview with the Milwaukee Journal how he got his first accordion.
“I’ll never forget. When I was 10 years old, my dad, who had a job at International Harvester Co., had been very ill with pneumonia. I wanted an accordion so bad that I was busting, but I knew we didn’t have much money,” he said.
“I told my dad how I wanted an accordion and he said, ‘Son, I’ll rent one for you. I can’t buy one. I haven’t any money.’ Just renting seemed wonderful to me, but my dad, still too weak to go to work, went to a place to get an accordion — and he didn’t rent it. He bought it — on time. Gosh. That’s being fine to a kid….”
By Jan Uebelherr of the Journal Sentinel