Sometimes referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, Esteban Jordan has in fact played that guitar master's "Purple Haze" on his accordion in the Texas clubs and festivals where Mexican-American roots music flourished. In the accordion-based tradition known as tejano conjunto, Jordan has been called, in the words of the Washington Post, "a second-generation, innovative virtuoso," and an inheritor of the basic style who has brilliantly incorporated outside influences and pushed the music to its limits. Los Lobos lead vocalist David Hidalgo has called Jordan the best accordionist in the world, and to many Texas listeners he is known simply as "the accordion wizard."
Born on February 23, 1939, in the farming community of Elsa, Texas, Jordan was partially blinded just after he was born in an accident involving a midwife who rinsed his eyes with a contaminated liquid. He would wear a black eye patch for the rest of his life, acquiring the nickname "El Parche," or "The Patch." For much of his career he used the Spanish and English forms of his first name, Esteban and Steve, more or less interchangeably. Jordan was one of 15 children born to parents who were migrant agricultural workers.
Unable to join the rest of his family in farm work, Jordan turned to music. He started playing the guitar at age seven and the accordion a year later, after hearing a performance by the conjunto accordion pioneer Valerio Longoria. Jordan later learned to play many other instruments (he has claimed a total of 35), including several obscure ones used in older Latin and Latin American folk music. Part of Jordan's youth was spent in California and it was there, in the late 1950s, that he won a prize in a contest for young conjunto performers and was given the chance to make a 78 rpm record. He didn't record officially until 1963, when he entered the studio with his wife, a singer named Virginia Martinez.
Jordan had some success on the conjunto circuit with a song called "Squeeze Box Man," and he recorded prolifically for a large array of record labels that served the Mexican-American communities of South Texas. By the late 1960s Jordan had become seized by the spirit of the age and was expanding his creative horizons. He played guitar in a band led by jazzman Willie Bobo, and it was during this period that he began to cultivate the mind-bending stylistic fusions that would make him famous. "With the accordion I felt I could do anything, I could create the sound of just about any instrument," Jordan was quoted as saying on the Caravan Music website. He experimented with rock, blues, and country sounds, but his most striking innovation was the incorporation of a large dose of Latin jazz into the rhythmically straightfoward tradition of conjunto, with its polkas, waltzes, and Mexican rancheras. His innovations were all the more striking because he devised them using the simple button accordion, seemingly more restricted in its capabilities than the keyboard "piano" accordion.
Indeed, Jordan became frustrated with the limited musical vocabulary of traditional conjunto styles. "They don't change it, bro—the same n-ta, n-ta, n-ta," he was quoted as saying by author Manuel Peña in The Texas-Mexican Conjunto, in a reference to the polka-based dance beats of conjunto music. Jordan himself might take the stage with a battery of Caribbean percussion instruments and, using music created by musicians like salsa bandleader Tito Puente, launch into a seven-minute jam session. He absorbed rock and blues styles, with an accordion rendering of the novelty 1950s hit "Yakety Yak" becoming one of his trademark numbers. His performances were always seasoned by a generous sampling of American country music, sung in either English or Spanish.
In the early 1970s Jordan spent time as a session musician in Los Angeles and New York, but he returned to tejano music in the late 1970s. He recorded for a variety of south Texas labels that included the regional labels Omega, Falcon, and RyN. He had little interest in the compilation of a discography, telling the Hacienda Records website that "the past is the past; what's important is the future." In 1982, at age 43, Jordan became one of the first musicians named to the Tejano Conjunto Hall of Fame.
At the time the conjunto scene was largely invisible to the wider American public, but that was to change. The Hall of Fame honor, along with praise from Hidalgo and from the iconoclastic Texas polka band Brave Combo, began to bring Jordan's playing to a larger audience. He recorded two albums for the Massachusetts folk label Rounder, The Return of El Parche (1986) and El Huracán (1987), and around 1985 the California-based roots music label Arhoolie acquired the rights to some of the music Jordan had recorded for smaller labels. Several Arhoolie releases followed, and in 1986 Jordan provided music for the Cheech Marin film Born in East L.A.
The following year Jordan was nominated for a Grammy Award for his Hacienda-label album Turn Me Loose, which was picked up by giant RCA. Though he lost the award to fellow tejano musician Flaco Jimenez, Jordan gained further exposure, and made a highly successful appearance in Europe at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1988. Then, seemingly on the verge of mass success, Jordan more or less dropped out of sight.
For the Record …
Born on February 23, 1939, in Elsa, Texas; married Virginia Martinez; at least two children.
Began recording in 1963; performed with jazz musician Willie Bobo and other jazz and rock musicians, late 1960s; recorded for many south Texas labels, 1970s and 1980s; recorded two albums for Rounder label, 1986-87; appeared at Berlin Jazz Festival, 1988; sporadic concerts and recordings, 1990s–.
Awards: Inducted into Tejano Conjunto Music Hall of Fame, 1982.
Addresses: Record company—Hacienda Records, 1236 S. Staples, Corpus Christi, TX 78404. Website—Esteban Jordan Official Website: http://www.estebanjordan.com.
Some speculated that he could afford to cut back on his activities because he was reaping profits from the Tex-Mex Rockordeon he had designed for the German musical instrument firm Hohner, a top-rated accordion manufacturer. But aversion to publicity may also have played a role. Jordan attended the 2001 Tejano Conjunto Festival—his first appearance there since 1996.
According to the San Antonio Express-News, he asked that festival organizers refrain from videotaping the show, even though the event had been organized with video documentation in mind. "Please, no photos," he asked, adding, "Please respect my laws."
Jordan has continued to perform and record occasionally, and his band includes his two sons Steve III and Richard. In the spring of 2004 Jordan appeared at San Antonio's Saluté club for a concert in honor of his 65th birthday. Feted by a local mariachi band and venerated by those who knew the tradition of tejano music well, Jordan had changed little in appearance as he achieved senior citizen status, with his long black wavy hair, eye patch, and glitzy outfits all intact. His creative musical output, accomplished within a notably conservative musical tradition, still awaits full appreciation by discographers and music historians.
El Corrido de Johnny El Pachuco, RyN, 1971; reissued as Las Coronelas, 1985.
That's My Boy, Omega, 1977.
The Many Sounds of Steve Jordan, Arhoolie, 1985.
The Return of El Parche, Rounder, 1986.
El Huracán, Rounder, 1987.
Turn Me Loose, Hacienda, 1988.
20 Golden Hits, Hacienda, 1992.
Steve Jordan, Falcon.
Burr, Ramiro, Billboard Guide to Tejano and Regional Mexican Music, Billboard Books, 1999.
Peña, Manuel, Texas-Mexican Conjunto, University of Texas Press, 1985.
San Antonio Express-News, May 12, 2001, p. B5.
St. Petersburg Times, October 2, 1988, p. F2.
Washington Post, October 28, 1988, p. N24; July 26, 1993, p. B7.
"Esteban Steve Jordan," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 21, 2004).
"Esteban 'Steve' Jordan," Reyes Accordions, http://www.reyesaccordions.com/steve.htm (April 21, 2004).
Hacienda Records, http://www.haciendarecords.com/artists/steve_jordan/main.html (April 21, 2004).
"Steve Jordan: 20 Golden Hits," Caravan Music, http://www.caravanmusic.com/cdpgs/JordanS_20GoldenHits.htm (April 21, 2004).
—James M. Manheim