Walter Kuehr, the inspiration for the Main Squeeze Orchestra, died this past weekend after a long battle with cancer. Originally from Frankfurt, Germany, Kuehr opened an accordion shop at 19 Essex St. in 1996. In 2002, he created the orchestra, an all-female ensemble, the only one of its kind.
The idea for the orchestra came to him in a dream. “I thought that was like a sign from God,” Kuehr told NPR a few years ago. “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever dreamt of, and I immediately felt like this is what I have to do.” Here’s more about his professional life from Main Squeeze’s website:
Main Squeeze proprietor Walter Kuehr began wrestling with the unwieldy squeezebox as a six-year old in Germany under the tutelage of his mother. Later, he studied classical music in Frankfurt, and played piano in a jazz quartet, as well as performing polkas and tangos with his accordion in local clubs. In 1988 he received a scholarship to study at Jazzmobile in Harlem. He moved to America and has lived in NYC ever since. Since then, Kuehr has been a central figure to both the accordion and New York City music scenes. Kuehr and various partners have cranked out polkas and tangos in smaller clubs and nightspots. With his band The Last of the International Playboys, a nine-piece latin jazz and lounge act, he plays in the big clubs of New York and Florida.
Kuehr’s Facebook page is filling up with remembrances:
From ex-wife Claire Connors: It is with great sadness that I have to share that my ex-husband and dear friend, Walter Kuehr passed away yesterday, after a seven year battle with cancer. He was a talented musician, a true artist, and a lover of life. He had the ability to make everyone feel like they were the most special person in the world and he never failed to say that whatever meal he was eating was “the best I’ve ever had.” He will be missed by his family, his friends, and his many fans. Despite our ups and downs, we remained good friends, a testament to his tenacity. He strived to be a better person and succeeded spectacularly. I tip my hat to this European gentleman.
Pat Robinson: There are no words to measure up to what an amazing man he was. Good bye my brother of the bellows. I’m glad we got to laugh together for a time. Deepest sympathy for all who loved him. We all know there will never be another quite like Walter Kuehr.
Bu P. Scherf: It is with the crush of devastation that I must acknowledge the passing of Walter Kuehr . He lived an impressive life as an artist, musician , friend and colleague. Alas, the waves have taken him. He was a champion of my work and my musical visions, and I will greatly miss his support and sincere generosity. Gladly, I can write, that our friendship and endeavors have been immortalized through countless performances by The Main Squeeze Orchestra. This, I can relish, and never forget.
Robin Schatell: When I had this kooky idea about ten years ago to do an accordion festival in Riverside Park, everyone said speak to Walter Kuehr. Well I did and we worked together for three years putting together the Main Squeeze Accordion Festival. Walter was such a sweet man and a great musician. He picked all the bands….vowing to show the accordion in all its global splendor. Thanks Walter….!
Rachelle Garniez: We’ve lost a true-blue legend.One of NYC’s major champions of all things accordion, Walter was a game-changer, the real deal. His unique and beautifully twisted positive energy and enthusiasm helped carry me through some tough times. I remember when he first came to town – must have been the late mid ’80s. He’d go from club to club dressed to the nines with his little black doctor’s bag full of tools, introducing himself to all the accordion players on the scene. I met him at Gonzales y Gonzales and was instantaneously forever charmed. My Main Squeeze accordion was my main squeeze for many years. Many a happy and inspiring hour was spent kibitzing at the shop on Essex Street.
Note: a previous version of this story mentioned a memorial event. That event is private and not open to the public.