Jim Rice was about 8 years old when a traveling salesman knocked on the front door of his family’s home in Northern Virginia. Instead of vacuums or encyclopedias, the man was peddling accordions. Without a moment’s hesitation, Rice’s father bought one of the instruments for his son. It was the late 1950s, and kids were expected to obey their parents, so young Jim accepted the small black and white accordion without complaint.
Under his father’s watchful eye, Jim practiced the accordion every day after he finished his homework. Quitting wasn’t an option, even when more enticing pursuits beckoned. “There was a park across the street from our house, and when I looked out the window, I could see my buddies playing baseball,” Rice recalls. “And there I was, pushing and pulling on that darned accordion.”
By the time Rice entered junior high, he had mastered playing the keyboard with his right hand and pressing the bass buttons with his left, all the while working the bellows to push and pull air through the instrument. The guys in school teased him, but the girls loved it when he played for them. “That was when I realized the accordion was a real chick magnet,” Rice says, laughing.
The accordion traveled with Rice to Blacksburg for four years at Virginia Tech, and after earning a degree in sociology in 1971, he joined the Army, accordion case at his side. When he retired from the military in 1992, he went into high school teaching Army JROTC, later working as a guidance counselor at an alternative school in Williamsburg. Music was a great way to connect with students, and Rice occasionally brought the accordion into the classroom. “Most of the kids were amazed by it,” he says. “Many of them had never seen an accordion before.”
In 2009 Jim suffered a stroke. His wife, Donna, was getting ready to leave for Germany, and Jim wouldn’t get out of bed, which was not like him at all. Donna issued him an ultimatum: “Get out of bed and put your pants on, or I’m calling the ambulance.” Rice managed to oblige, but when they arrived at the hospital, he wasn’t able to get out of the car.
While he didn’t suffer any physical impairments after his stroke, Rice did have trouble with his short-term memory. “I couldn’t complete the last word of a sentence,” he says. “It terrified me.”
Just as he had so many times before, Rice turned to the accordion for help. “I wanted to use as many of my senses together as possible,” he says. “I found songs with lots of limericks and riddles, strapped on the accordion and walked around the house playing and stomping my feet.” Within a few weeks the panic attacks he had been experiencing stopped, and Rice eventually regained the ability to finish his sentences.
Just before his stroke, Rice had purchased a motorcycle, but his wife wouldn’t let him keep it, so he placed an ad on Craigslist. The ad was answered by a retired sailor whose e-mail handle was Banjo Jack, and when he came to look at the motorcycle for his son, he brought along his four-string and five-string for a jam session that lasted two hours. When Rice and Banjo Jack met a tuba player and a drummer at a party shortly thereafter, it seemed like fate. However, the tuba player hadn’t played in years, and when they started practicing together he didn’t seem to have the lung power he used to. He went to the doctor and found out he had throat cancer. After six months of treatment, he was able to resume playing with the band, better than ever.
“We decided to name our band Stroke of Luck because I never would have had to sell the motorcycle if it hadn’t been for my stroke, and I never would have met Banjo Jack,” says Rice. “And if the tuba player hadn’t tried to play again, he might not have discovered his throat cancer in time.” Stroke of Luck plays for free all up and down the Virginia Peninsula, from nursing homes to the annual retirement ceremony at Fort Eustis.
Rice is also a member of Clan MacCool, part of Hysterically Correct Productions. Clan MacCool is an Irish/Celtic band that doubles as a pirate band during the Blackbeard Festival in Hampton, and Rice performs as Mr. Squeeze with the Bellowing Buccaneers. He takes part in numerous other festivals and events throughout Coastal Virginia, the Peninsula and Richmond. For the past 16 years he has serenaded diners on Friday evenings at Sal’s by Victor, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg. Rice teaches others how to play and repair the accordion and currently has seven music students, ranging in age from 8 to 75 years old.
In 2013 Rice formed Accordion Renaissance, a nonprofit organization that promotes the instrument through performance, education and training. The following year he organized the Accordion Renaissance Ensemble, which includes 10 players under the direction of a trained teacher.
“The accordion is a formidable, integral instrument in America and around the world,” Rice says. “It restored my life, and I want to be part of its rebirth. The accordion brings peace and joy to others, and that makes me happy. I want to leave this world better than I found it, and playing and promoting the accordion is my contribution.”