Esteban Jordan, Carlos Santana, and Jerry Garcia
Jordan goes Mariachi
San Antonio, Conjunto music and accordion players lost one of the greats last night. After a long struggle with liver cancer, Esteban Jordan passed away at a friend's home. He was supposed to be playing a show in Illinois that night.
I saw Esteban Jordan play just once, and it was toward the end of his life. I was fairly new to San Antonio, and I remembered wondering who that thin old man with the eye-patch, beret and trench coat was walking on the curb outside Salute International Bar.
Then that frail gentleman entered the club, climbed the stage, assisted by his sons/bandmembers, and began to play. Very rarely does one witness the transformative power of music, but anyone who saw Jordan work that diatonic accordion in his later years saw the spirit conquer the body, even if the concert had to end early. His fingers still fluttered, his arms still pumped one of four custom-made accordions, he even flashed a smile at the audience as if he sensed their open-mouthed stares of amazement, or when they danced to his conjunto.
Perhaps itï¿½s not surprising that Jordan, battling cancer and cirhossis, chose to play rather than convalesce. As a partially-blinded youth, he couldn't work as a migrant laborer with his 14 siblings, but the camp environment introduced him to the accordion, which became his ticket off the farm and into the cannon of musical genius.
Jordan made more than 50 albums, which Janie Esparza of Janie's Record Store may help you track down if you're lucky. Jordan recorded mainly on very small labels before turning to self-production. "He was cautious about getting his music out,"said Esparza in her shop this afternoon, "he had a lot of trouble with the labels. He was so ahead of his time, he was more advanced, the Jimi Hendrix Mexicano" Esparza said.
Jordan's fondness for converting any song to the accordion, from "Georgia On My Mind," to Blood, Sweat and Tears' "Spinning Wheel" to Mariachi, and his multi-instrumentalist approach (he played 35 other instruments) to modifying his accordion and his rightful mistrust of record labels may not have helped him top the charts, but that didn't stop Jordan, a man known for going his own way in all aspects of life. He played through countless bouts of poverty and illness; he never learned to read or write so perhaps plying another trade was never an option.
Other hard-nosed preferences, like choosing tiny local joint Salute as his venue of choice since the 1980s, and refusing (sometime with aid of physical intimidation) interview requests helped make Esteban Jordan"the most famous and most unknown musician," as journalist Alex Avilla called him during a rare interview for radio program Latino USA last year.
Those in the know, like nuclear polka pioneers Brave Combo, fellow San Antonio accordion legend Flaco Jimenez, his adoring following in Japan, and of course, the gente of West Side San Antonio, marveled at Jordan's sheer innovation on the formerly-dumpy accordion, as he easily transitioned from jazz to rock to banda to whatever else piqued his interest. He was referred to as the best living accordion player, until last night. But it was the light I saw in his one shining eye that night at Salute that moved me most. As his fingers glided over the button keys, I caught a glimpse of a man who literally lived for his music.
Now I'm headed over to Salute, where people are already placing flowers of tribute to El Parche.