Steve "Esteban" Jordan was his own worse enemy and the squeezebox's best friend. The iconoclastic conjunto pioneer, called "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion" after he introduced psychedelic phase shifters to an instrument aligned with polka music, passed away Friday in San Antonio from complications of liver cancer. He was 71.
Austin fans got a chance to pay tribute to the mercurial musician in August 2008 during a benefit at the H&H Ballroom. Friends and fans such as Little Joe Hernandez, Rudy T. Gonzales, Dimas Garza, Los Texmaniacs, and Larry Lange and his Lonely Knights performed that day, but the proud Jordan wasn't going to let anybody steal his show. Expected to make just a token appearance, the frail "El Parche" (The Patch) and his Rio Jordan band of three sons played nearly an hour.
Jordan's longtime friend Azeneth Dominguez, who owns Salute International Bar, told the San Antonio Express-News that Jordan went into a coma Thursday. "It was his time," Dominguez said. "He looked so peaceful at the end."
Blinded in one eye as an infant, the eye-patch-wearing Jordan expressed bitterness throughout his career at not being accepted by the masses. But he made it that way by playing jazz on the accordion when the majority of fans wanted to hear more mainstream Tejano sounds. For the past 20 years, Jordan worked on an album of heavily layered music that was never released, refusing to put it out on a label.
"I don't give a damn about the audience," he said in a 2001 interview. "I could be playing for five people or 5,000 — it doesn't make a difference. I'm still gonna kick ass. And if you ain't gonna play because there's nobody there, then get the (heck) out of my band."
In that June 2001 profile in the American-Statesman (headline: "Steve Jordan doesn't care if you read this article"), Jordan said: "Society can't touch me, man. ... I never went to school, never been trained how to act. I'm an animal, bro. I'm not afraid to die. I've already been dead." He then lifted his shirt to show a scar that ran from his navel to just below his chest.
"Getting stabbed really turned me around," he said of the 1973 parking lot assault outside a bar in Roswell, N.M. "I realized that it was time to stop (messing) around and just get down all the sounds in my head. Don't hold back, because life is short."
Born in the Rio Grande Valley town of Elsa in 1939, Jordan was the smallest and sickliest of 15 children born to migrant worker parents. But he could play every instrument he got his little hands around. First was the harmonica, then a guitar. One night in a labor camp outside Lubbock, a 7-year-old Jordan was playing guitar and heard a sweet accordion sound coming from the lean-to next door. "I stuck my head out and he stuck his head out and we decided to play together," he said. And that's how Jordan met a teenage Valerio Longoria, who would go on to join Santiago Jimenez Sr. (Flaco's dad) and Narciso Martinez in the holy trinity of conjunto accordionistas.
As a teen in the early 1950s, Jordan saw a demand for dance bands, so he pulled four brothers out of the fields and taught them their instruments.
In 1958, Jordan settled in San Jose, Calif., and married singer Virginia Martinez, who would join him on vocals on several regional hits in the traditional ranchera and polka styles. But Jordan's hard-partying lifestyle led to a split. "The first 10 years we were together, Steve never had a drink, never smoked, never did drugs," Martinez said in 2001. "That's not the same man you'll find now. ... But his talent lets him get away with it."
For years Jordan had been retuning his accordions to go beyond the standard three-key range, but when he perfected his double echoplex effect, he took conjunto music, which peaked in popularity in Texas in the '40s and '50s, to a new level. The "invisible genius of Texas accordion music" he was called by New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff in 1992.
"He invented this whole new style and influenced just about every accordion player going today," said Austin's Ponty Bone, who was first knocked out by El Parche in the late '60s. Jordan had just left Willie Bobo's band, where his guitar playing impressed Carlos Santana, and got back into the accordion full time.
One of Jordan's proudest moments was when he was invited to visit the Hohner factory in West Germany to pick up his custom-made "Tex-Mex Rockordeon" 20 years ago. According to Jordan's specifications, the buttons were almost flat, which allowed for faster finger action. "I played for all the assembly line workers, and you could see their jaws drop," he said in 2001. "I showed 'em what they were making."
Funeral details are pending at Castillo Funeral Home in San Antonio.