Grieving and defiant, Azeneth Dominguez unlocked the doors to Saluté International Bar on Saturday evening just before the official opening hour. Faced with questions about her dear friend, accordionist Esteban “Steve” Jordan, just one day after he passed away at 71 due to liver cancer, she narrowed her eyes. “I don’t mean to be nasty,” said the Saluté proprietress, described as Jordan’s ex-girlfriend, caregiver, and main staff, “but why didn’t you come here when he was still playing? If everyone really believes he was such a legend, why now?”
Those words still echo, even though Dominguez later apologized for sounding harsh. Of course, she’s right. Jordan, hailed as the world’s best accordionist, a swashbuckling pirate of a musician, complete with eyepatch, puffy sleeves, and Rolling Stone lifestyle, struggled in his later years to fill Dominguez’s tiny bar with a dozen paying customers. He lived in a modest rental house on the West Side for most of his stay in San Antonio, filled with reams and reams of unreleased reel-to-reel tape in a back bedroom. Though the man frequently recognized as a genius earned a Grammy nomination, jammed with fellow giants across the musical spectrum, and scored a major motion picture, friends say privately he felt frustrated with the small crowds he drew late in life.
Not frustrated enough to stop playing though. He last took the stage at Saluté on July 16, and had a tour scheduled for this month. Anyone who saw the man in concert, looking 90 pounds soaking wet even in his more hale days, witnessed mesmerizing, creative joy, no matter how many people attended. “He lived for his music,” said Dominguez. “He was a walking musical note.”
By most accounts, Jordan learned to play the accordion as a lonely child of migrant workers who traveled the Southwest in the 1940s. Born in the Texas valley town of Elsa, Jordan was the youngest and frailest of 15 children. To add to his unfortunate birth, a midwife treated him fresh out of the womb with faulty eye drops, resulting in near-total blindness and his iconic eye patch.
Unfit to work alongside his brothers, sisters and parents, his family left Jordan in the care of the camp elders. “He was so wise beyond his years because he grew up with old men,” said a close friend, the poet and artist Nephtali De Leon. At the camps, Jordan also learned harmonica and guitar at an early age. At around age 7, he picked up the diatonic accordion, inspired by none other than Valerio Longoria, the accordionist who popularized conjunto beyond its farming roots.
As a teenager, Jordan organized a trio with two brothers and by age 19 had scored his first record deal by winning a contest for “Best Conjunto Performer.” Despite his wandering musician’s life, first wife singer Virginia Martinez, with whom he recorded traditional duets, described Jordan as a sober straight arrow, but the more in-demand he became as a musician, the more he ascribed to a lifestyle that revolved around all-nighters, drinking, women, and drugs.
Wanderlust never quite left Jordan, who disappeared for months at a time, often at the beck of some musical calling. In the 1960s, he joined revered Latin percussionist Willie Bobo’s band as a guitarist, and immersed himself in New York’s innovative jazz scene. “The accordion isn’t his main thing,” said Dominguez. “He was a jazz musician, he played the Newport Jazz Festival on the guitar. What we saw here was awesome, but it wasn’t everything he was.” Jordan’s musical circle came to encompass Carlos Santana and other psychedelic rockers in the 1970s.
Already a renowned musician, with film cameos in Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (for which he also provided the original soundtrack) and David Byrne’s True Stories, Jordan made his way to San Antonio in the late 1980s, where Dominguez and her then husband saw him play at Joseph’s Foodliner (now the White Rabbit). She approached him to play her club across the street, Saluté. “He said he did not play small venues,” she smiled. “He had to really eat those words.”
Jordan did prove to be a major draw. “In the earlier days, it was always packed,” said Christina Ortega, who began going to Saluté regularly 20 years ago. Lines would form out the door, and hardly anyone could squeeze onto the tiny dance floor.
A flamboyant dresser and enchanting performer, Jordan attracted a following as “El Parche” (for his snake-skin eyepatch), as “the Accordion Wizard,” and “The Jimi Hendrix of the Accordion.” Emanating a supreme musical focus, he led his band through a set list fed by his voracious musical appetite, which always mixed with, not diverged from, traditional conjunto roots. “He took all your favorites and turned them into something wild. Every performance was so impromptu and alive; It was completely alive,” said Ortega. He covered tunes like Ray Charles’s “Georgia on My Mind,” The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” and Blood, Sweat, and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.” He turned traditional songs like “Las Corenlas,” the zydeco standard “My Toot Toot,” and the Mexican standard “El Corrido de Johnny el Pachuco” into completely different songs, thanks to his jazz mastery.
And then there was his use of electronics. “The thing that got him called the Jimi of the accordion,” says music critic Elijah Wald, former longtime roots-music writer for The Boston Globe and author of several books, “he was the first person to start playing around with things like phase shifters and pedals on accordion.” Wald attributes that inspiration to Jordan’s entrée into the rock-guitar world when electronic attachments were just beginning to take that instrument to new heights.
Jordan in turn became a major inspiration for Alvaro Del Norte, the accordionist for punk-rock conjunto group Piñata Protest. “To me, he was an example that there really are no barriers to what you can do with music,” Del Norte said by phone. “When I first started this band there were a lot of people that I would talk to and describe my idea, and I got a lot of mixed reviews,” he recalled. “Steve Jordan made it easier for me to want to go through with it. He made it seem more doable because that guy did crazy things with his accordion.”
Much like the man himself, Jordan’s acolytes were a devoted, geographically diverse group. Wald became familiar with Jordan through a 1993 rerelease of two Jordan albums by the company Arhoolie, a trusted source for obscure and outsider Americana music. But Jordan’s name also kept cropping up in Wald’s research for a book on Mexican corridos. ”In Mexico, Jordan is the only player north of the border that I’ve ever heard the Mexican players speak of with admiration,” says Wald. “I thought that was interesting because his music was not issued south of the border.”
Jordan is also, as they say, “Big in Japan.” “The Japanese treasure him like a jewel,” says Janie Esparza of Janie’s Record Store on Bandera, which also maintains an active online presence. In Germany, home of the accordion, Hohner released a limited-edition Steve Jordan “rockordeon” in January. Over the years, the accordion-makers, also patronized by Flaco Jiminez and Sunny Saucedo, made four custom accordions to Jordan’s exacting specifications.
While accordion players and conjunto afficianados worshipped him, Jordan, like many other excellent instrumentalists, suffered a lack of name recognition. Wald believes the very genre Jordan is most associated with, conjunto and, in a larger sense, norteño, might be responsible. “This has always been an issue: The norteño market buys singers, not instrumentalists,” he said.
Still, Esparza claims she’s sold Jordan’s music every day since opening her store 25 years ago, from early regional recordings in the 1960s, to albums on superstar accordionist Ramon Ayala’s label, Freddie, to his one major label record with RCA in the 1980s, for which he received a Grammy nomination. Jordan remained bitter that he saw few royalties from his more than 50 recordings. In this decade, he founded Jordan Records and quit the label game all together. “He was cautious about getting his music out. He had a lot of trouble with the labels,” Esparza said.
And while Jordan’s innovative genius is not easily captured on any album, his limited tour schedule did him no favors, either. Though he pulled huge crowds at enthusiast concerts like the locally hosted conjunto or accordion festivals, his club-gig attendance could average in the 20s or sell out completely, depending on which market he played.
Greg Goodman, bassist for Sexto Sol, wrote via email, “I was lucky enough to be a part of jams with him at Saluté where only a handful of people would be watching. It frustrated me to no end that so few people were there.” Goodman didn’t put all the blame on SA, though. “Perhaps Jordan was guilty of playing too much during that time ... but still, someone of his talent should be drawing people not just from San Antonio, but surrounding areas … especially Austin.”
Jordan frequently claimed not to care about the audience. He rarely granted press interviews and refused to lower his ticket price at Saluté to attract more people. Night after night he climbed the stage, always arriving at 10 p.m. sharp, playing his heart out. In his later years, he took to mentoring younger players, including Juanito Castillo, a blind prodigy on both drums and accordion, to his own sons, Esteban Jr., Ricardo, and Esteban III; the latter two were dropped off as teenage strangers on their adoptive father’s doorstep. At just 14, Alex Valdez became the most recent Jordan acolyte. He and Jordan and the younger Jordan sons formed the Rio Jordan quartet.
As a very young musician Valdez heard through Castillo that Jordan might soon need a new drummer. He began religiously attending Jordan’s Friday-night gigs until one evening Jordan called Valdez onstage to fill the empty drum stool. After Valdez cautiously sat in, self-admittedly not his greatest performance, “`Jordan` smiled and laughed and said, ‘I’ll work with you.’” Later, Valdez, who calls Jordan ‘Dad,’ moved in with Jordan and his sons, and credits that residency with curbing him of his former “bad behavior.” He began seriously playing with Jordan at 18, though he first picked up the sticks with him four years earlier.
Learning from Jordan was often trial by fire, according to Valdez. Ricardo and Esteban III had to learn to play in one week. When jamming with Jordan, “once he goes, he’s gone,” said Valdez, now 22. “He says ‘you better be ready.’” If a player couldn’t keep up with Jordan, and few could, he’d get “the look,” a dreaded stare effected with just one eye, a reprimand stronger than words. Even with the harsh discipline, “Performing was more than fun,” Valdez said. “My heart desired it. He inspired me so much.”
Once a party animal with a musical ode to cocaine and imminent liver disease, in his downtime, Valdez said, Jordan had become a quieter person after the cancer diagnosis. “He always talked about the spiritual world and meditation,” said Valdez. He often went fishing on the Texas coast and enjoyed company to listen to his stories of his 50-year reign as the accordion wizard.
Even in decline, Jordan was always buzzing with new material. “It was non-stop learning at his house,” said Valdez. Toward the end, De Leon said, Jordan was cantankerous as ever and crippled by anxiety attacks, perhaps because he knew the end was near. “You could not put one on Steve. He would talk about it, saying he knew he would leave this place soon,” said De Leon. He wasn’t exactly at peace with the decision. During a recent visit to De Leon’s house, over nopalitos and chicharrones. Jordan talked about wanting to record his beloved jazz-guitar work, among many other projects. “My mind is tripping with new material, bro,” he told De Leon. “I still got so much to do.” •
A funeral service will be held 7pm Thu, Aug 19, at St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church, 1730 Dahlgreen Ave., (210) 432-5203.