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Squeezing out sparks

'I don't wanna wake up until I die': The gospel accordion to Steve Jordan

Michael Corcoran

Originally published June 7, 2001

When he walked onstage at the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio May 11, Steve Jordan was resplendent in a purple jumpsuit with gold buccaneer sleeves. But what stood out most was how frail the 62-year-old accordion legend looked. Like a skeleton clinging to its last layer of skin, Jordan appeared so gaunt that his right eye patch seemed to cover half his face. A strand of his jet black mane, brushed back to shoulders which meet at the neck, stuck to his lips. His eyes darted around from band to audience as he strapped on a red diatonic button accordion bearing his name. He moved herky-jerky, this cholo pirate, as if controlled by a puppeteer.

Then came the smile, that ear-to-ear endorsement of the moment. To other entertainers, a grin is a given. But on the mouth of a pioneer prone to bitterness, who rarely plays in public these days, the upturned corners meant more. Jordan smiled like he knew something the audience didn't -- that they would soon be blown away.

It's not often that an enigma comes to life before your eyes, so when "Estay-bon Hor-don," as he was introduced, took off on a jazzy tangent to start his set, the audience of about 2,000 erupted. Fans of traditional conjunto and its schmaltzy stepchild, Tejano, haven't always followed Jordan's freaked- out musical explorations, but on this night they urged him to go wild. When he punctuated the perfect night with his trademark girlie yelp, the Tejano cowboys in their white straw hats raised their cans of light beer and the women swayed against the up beat.

"Voy a cantarles un corrido muy al albla" ("I'm going to sing you a great corrido") he vocalized on a traditional Mexican folk song that he would "Jordanize" with a skronking solo closer to be-bop than Tex-Mex. "Esta es la historia de un pachuco muy rocote," he sang in an unharnessed voice.

This is the story of one bad pachuco.

The way you interview Steve Jordan is to drive to San Antonio and just show up at his door in the smaller house behind another house on the far west side. Appointments don't mean much to the man who wears silver bracelets instead of watches. He's been known to take off on impromptu deep sea fishing and casino gambling vacations off South Padre Island.

But on this day you're lucky. It's four in the afternoon and Jordan's home, but he's still sleeping. "He was up all night recording," his 19-year-old son Steve says. "Give him another hour or two." A polite and soft-spoken kid, Steve III (he has an older half-brother also named Steve Jordan) gives a tour of the studio that dominates the living room. The only TV is tuned to a surveillance camera outside. The only stereo is a big wooden console, on top of which several Ampex reel-to-reel tapes are stacked. The famous red " Steve Jordan Tex-Mex Rockordeon" is on the floor next to a chair. There are musical instruments everywhere -- guitars, drums, saxophones, timbales and two or three other button accordions. Jordan can play them with the virtuoso skill another man named Jordan once displayed on the basketball court.

"How do you like my little set-up here?" Jordan asks sleepily, extending a hand. It's been less than half an hour since the knock on his front door. "You meet my 280 musicians? Right here, man, in my synthesizer. Best musicians I ever jammed with, bro, cause they all play like me." There's that exaggerated snicker and the slap on the back. He's wearing sunglasses instead of his patch.

You don't need to ask a question to get him to take off on any given subject in his hipster growl. "I hate digital, man," he says pointing to his ancient reel-to-reel decks. "Music is not this," he says chopping the air like the vertical coding on CDs. "It's like this," he says, rolling his hand in circles.

Steve Jordan doesn't do interviews, he holds court. He tells stories, recounts old gigs and goes off on riffs, jumping from an explanation of why he used to own a hearse ("I didn't want my first ride in one to be in the back") to his assessment of other accordion players ("That dumb cowboy's pretty good, but he can't play with me," he says when the name of a prominent Tejano musician comes up).

"You better not do me wrong, bro," Jordan says as he sits down in his producer chair behind the jury-rigged console. "The last guy who wrote a story in the paper about me really stabbed me in the back." Jordan is referring to a May 6 article in the San Antonio Express-News that portrayed Jordan's troubled life and "his own worst enemy" tag. "Where did he get all that bull-- about me badmouthing Carlos Santana and Tito Puente? Carlos is my good friend. Tito was my idol when I was coming up. And that stuff about my father beating me: My old man never laid a hand on me." (Express-News writer Hector Saldaa says he stands by his story, which also acknowledged Jordan's musical genius.)Thinking about the article, which includes allegations of drug use , brings out a trace of Jordan's notorious temper.

"I'll take a dude outside and whip his ass if he disrespects me," he says, standing to make the point even clearer. "Society can't touch me, man. Never has. 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 lifts his shirt to show a scar that runs from his navel to just below his breast plate.

Moments later, Jordan is back to telling funny stories about the early years on the road. If you're going to keep up with Steve Jordan, you can't dwell on anything he says. "I remember the first time I ever heard of acid, LSD. It was 1964, bro, and the stuff was legal," he says. "We had just finished playing -- it was somewhere in California -- and some dude asks the band if we want to do some acid. I said, 'Sure, I'll try anything,' and started rolling up my sleeve. But the dude said, 'You don't shoot it, you eat it.' " Jordan goes on to describe LSD hallucinations so horrifying that he says he swore off acid forever. "At one point, I asked my bass player, 'What's that funny-looking thing? What does it do?' and he said 'That's your accordion, man.' That was it for me. When I couldn't recognize my accordion, that was way too (messed) up for me."

He's been called "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion" since the late '60s, when he introduced psychedelic phase shifters to an instrument aligned with "The Lawrence Welk Show." He's also been compared to Charlie Parker -- in both talent and temperament, but Jordan doesn't agree. "Charlie Parker just played jazz. I play jazz, but I also play rock, salsa, mariachi, cumbias -- you name it."

These days, however, Jordan is more like Brian Wilson during his obsessive "Smile" days. During the past eight years, when he snipped his barfly wings and evolved into a studio parrot, Jordan has recorded more than 100 new tracks, stuff he says is 20 years ahead of its time. It's a heavily layered sound, with Jordan running his guitar notes through a pair of Roland synthesizers to create everything from cellos and violins to otherworldly horn sections. The music of Steve Jordan's mind is full and offbeat. But despite its inherent trippiness, there's an unmistakable melodic thrust to the new material, which sounds like '60s soul one minute and a loco polka the next. "I've always been way ahead of everybody else, but this stuff is in a whole other galaxy, man." He doesn't trust a record company to put it out, just as he doesn't let managers, booking agents or anybody else in the music industry touch his art. He hasn't released a new album in 12 years.

"The big man upstairs is teaching me patience," Jordan says. "That's something I've never had before. Back in my drinking days, I'd give a party about five minutes. If it wasn't happenin' -- boom, I'd be out the door to the next party. I've always been way ahead of the game. Maybe the plan now is for me to (lay low) and let everybody else catch up a little. But I tell ya, I'm not slowing down, bro."

Jordan gave up the bottle after he fell during his 53rd birthday party and broke his arm. When he turned 54, his friends surprised him with a $2,000 synthesizer he'd been pining for, but couldn't afford. "We created a monster," Efraim Palacios, one of several friends to drop in during a three-hour period, says of the synthesizer that led to Jordan's single-minded compulsion to record. Asked what makes him happy, besides working in the studio, Jordan says "me," then smiles broadly at how fast the answer came. "I make me happy. Life is just so simple, man, but we always try to make it so complicated. Not me, man. Not any more. That's why I'm never getting married again. Two times, 40 years. That's enough, man."

Release schedules and concert dates, not to mention wives, only confuse the muse. Jordan says he'll know when the time is right to start putting out this new stuff on his own El Parche label. "I just want to get this (expletive) on the streets, man. I wanna see everybody flip. Then I can die and head on to the next place."

'I showed 'em what they were making'

By his own estimation, Steve Jordan is 125 years old. "When I was a little kid, I couldn't work in the fields because of my eyes. I couldn't pick cotton, so I stayed behind in the camp with all the people who were too old to work. They taught me about life. I couldn't read or write, but I was getting the best education," he says. "When I was 7 years old, I was 70 in my mind."

Born in the Rio Grande Valley town of Elsa in 1938, Jordan lost all his sight in his right eye and most of it in the left when a midwife mistakenly gave him contaminated eye drops. While he was the smallest and sickliest of 15 children born to migrant worker parents, Steve could play every instrument he got his little hands around. First was the harmonica, then a guitar. Then, one night in a labor camp outside of Lubbock, 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 says. And that's how Jordan met a teen-aged Valerio Longoria, who would go on to join Santiago Jimenez Sr. (Flaco's dad) and Narciso Martinez in the holy trinity of conjunto acordeonistas. "I had seen people playing the accordion before, but never so close or so good."

Jordan took to the instrument instantly, and in just three weeks he was accomplished enough to play for tips in the cantinas. Asked when he started really taking the instrument seriously, Jordan says it was from day one. He started thinking about making a living as a musician, he says, as soon as he made his first dollar. "School didn't make sense to me," says the first-grade dropout. "The whole idea is to learn some way to make money, but I already knew how to make money, man." As a teen-ager in the early '50s, Jordan saw a demand for dance bands, so he pulled four brothers out of the fields and taught each one their instruments. "That's how I learned all those instruments," he says. "When I'd show someone in my band what to play, I was also teaching myself."

In 1958, Steve 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. It wasn't until 1973 when Jordan would open up, both literally and musically. "Getting stabbed really turned me around," he says of the parking lot assault outside a bar in Roswell, N.M., which was never solved. "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."

You can hear the innovations evolve on the essential "Many Sounds of Esteban ' Steve' Jordan" (Arhoolie), which opens with nine tracks recorded in 1963 with Martinez and ends with an assortment from the '70s. "The accordion has always had an image of wholesomeness," says Austin's Bradley Williams, who plays conjunto with Los Pinkys and zydeco with the Gulf Coast Playboys. "The instructional booklets still have corny pictures of, like, a guy playing for his wife on a picnic. But the first time I heard 'Midnight Blues' by Steve Jordan, it instantly expanded the idea of what you could play. Jazz? On an accordion? You've gotta be kidding me."

During his '73 hospitalization and year-long recuperation, Jordan often passed the time taking his equipment apart and putting it back together. For years he'd been retuning his accordions to go beyond the standard three-key range by filing the reeds. 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 in a 1992 Option magazine profile by Ben Ratliff, now a music critic for the New York Times. In the liner notes of "The Return of El Parche," Rounder's 1988 reissue of tracks Jordan recorded in Corpus Christi in the '70s, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos said "There's no doubt that he's the best."

"He invented this whole new style and influenced just about every accordion player going today," says Austin's Ponty Bone, who was first knocked out by "El Parche" in the late '60s, soon after Jordan quit playing guitar with Willie Bobo's popular Latin rock band. The gig with Bobo took Jordan to jazz festivals all over the world and brought him to the attention of a guitar-playing contemporary from the Bay Area named Carlos Santana. But Jordan bailed on Bobo after he felt he'd been disrespected by bandmates.

" Steve told me that when he went to Willie Bobo's hometown of New York, the band just split after the gig to go home with their families and left him all alone, this little Chicano with half of one good eye, in a city where he didn't know a soul," says Bone. "So he waited until the band came to San Antonio, and he made sure all his friends and family came out and took in Willie and the band. Treated 'em like royalty. Then, when they were ready to move on, Steve said 'I quit.' That's Steve. Dude's got a ton of pride."

He also has a great love for the history of the accordion. One of his proudest moments was when he was invited to visit the Hohner factory in West Germany to pick up his custom-made "Tex Mex Rockordeon" 11 years ago. According to Jordan's specifications, the buttons are almost flat, which allows for faster finger action. "I played for all the assembly line workers, and you could see their jaws drop," he says. "I showed 'em what they were making."

Pieces of 'El Parche'

There are no wrong notes, only players who don't know how to use them, Jordan says. Sometimes he'll hit a "wonk" when you're expecting a "wink," but in his jazz player's consciousness, it all makes sense. He doesn't know where it comes from, this inspiration that makes him happy and drives him crazy. "I don't wanna wake up until I die," he says. Making music is putting yourself in a trance that tunes out any variables.

"I don't give a damn about the audience," he continues. "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."

Jordan's wicked perfectionist streak is such that he once hauled his own PA system to a taping of "Austin City Limits." Although he flatly stated that he wouldn't go on without his own speakers, he finally relented when it was pointed out that the "ACL" system was set up for television taping and not some Tejano bar. Jordan has also been known to be brutal with club sound engineers. "I'm sorry, but white guys just can't mix Mexican music. They always want to put the emphasis on the beat," he says, imitating a bass drum. "But we like the up beat."

Jordan says reports that he can be a fiery bandleader are justified, but there's no problem with his current band. "They're like little pieces of me," he says of 17-year-old bassist Richard Jordan and the 19-year-old guitarist he calls Steve 3. "We're on the same wavelength. They've been playing only 11 months, and they get what I'm saying the first time."

Uncle Bonnie (Hermanos Jordan drummer Bonificio Jordan) has just shown up to take Steve 3 fishing, so the kid asks his dad for money. Steve pulls a roll of bills from his pocket and holds it up about three inches from his left eye before peeling off a 20. Until then, you forget that Jordan, who wheels through the maze of equipment and handles the studio buttons and knobs with ease, is legally blind. "Bring home some stripers, man," he says, as Richard, off in the distance, answers, "Get that frying pan ready."

The father didn't really know his sons when they were growing up. There were occasional Christmas visits and a fishing trip here and there, but for the most part he wasn't an active participant in their upbringing. He didn't get along with their mother, his second wife. Then, one day about two years ago, she dropped them off with the near-stranger with the eye patch, saying she couldn't control them anymore. Suddenly, Jordan's simple life -- record, sleep, eat, record -- wasn't so simple.

At the time Jordan was without a band, and therefore without an income (he says he's never received a penny in royalties from the nearly 50 albums he's released in his career). When a lucrative gig was offered in Houston, Steve said he'd take it, then handed a bass to Richard and a guitar to Steve. He had three weeks to teach his sons, who were more into sports and Nintendo than music, how to play 30 songs, but they did the show and have barely stopped playing since. "These boys, they keep me young," the proud father says, as Richard snaps out a drum beat on synthesizer pads. "One time we played for 24 hours straight. They never complain. They never want to stop."

Gesturing for his son to remove the headphones, Steve says, "Richard, put on that 'Harlem Nocturne' thing. It's all set up to go."

The jazz standard, which Steve spent more than a week producing, starts with a lushly layered orchestra conjuring every shade of the night. "Can you dig it, man?" he asks when his accordion starts into the beautiful melody. "All that sound from this little brown box," he says, tapping an old Hohner on the floor with the pointed tip of his shoe. He touches his chest where the buttons would be, swaying his head as if he's lost in a dream. What a gift it is, the ability to blow your own mind.

"Man, what am I doing here, living in the back of some other dude's house, with my kids sleeping on the floor?" he asks, cutting into the ethereal moment. "Ask yourself that, bro. But this is why," he says, gesturing back to the speakers, where his accordion is flitting around the melody like a bouquet of fireflies. "This," he says tapping the air. "This."

The feeling of knowing you're the absolute best at what you do. For Esteban " Steve" Jordan that'll have to do for now.