Remembering Esteban 'Steve' Jordan, Genius Of The Accordion

Esteban "Steve" Jordan also went by El Parche.

Jordan's nickname was El Parche, or The Eyepatch. hide caption

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One of the world’s greatest accordionists died on Aug. 13. Esteban "Steve" Jordan was a complete original, a boundary-breaking virtuoso who seemed to play anything in any musical style that came into his head: tejano, rock, country, blues or jazz.

"He's playing flat 5s and raised 11ths, and rhythmically he's so deep," said Joel Guzman, an acclaimed traditional accordionist from Austin, Texas. "From a musical standpoint, he’s a genius."

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Hear An Interview With Jordan

Hear John Burnett's 2009 interview with Steve Jordan here.

Jordan also pioneered the use of electronic effects like a fuzzbox and phase shifter on the squeezebox. But he hated it when admiring critics dubbed him the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.

A musical prodigy born the youngest of 15 children to migrant farmworkers, Jordan never learned to read or write, yet he went on to become a defining figure on his instrument. The Hohner company now sells a Steve Jordan Rockordion.

Steve Jordan was a musical genius, but he was notoriously cantankerous and reclusive. I learned this firsthand during my interview with him in May 2009.

Everyone knew that a diseased liver from a life of excess was killing Jordan. He performed less and less in public. By a stroke of luck, one Friday night he showed up at his favorite venue, the tiny Salute International Bar in San Antonio, to play with his sons in the band he named the River Jordan. He played with energy, brilliance and inventiveness, standing onstage with his eyepatch, shiny purple shirt and long black hair. I decided on the spot that NPR had to do a story on him before he left this world.

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A few weeks later, through an intermediary, Jordan agreed to a rare interview. I went to his place — a ramshackle rent house with peeling floor tile and a mean dog on a chain in the front yard on San Antonio’s west side. He was in fine form, telling stories from his early days learning the accordion in migrant labor camps from the legendary Valerio Longoria, and bragging.

"I was the one that started this s**t," he said. "Right now, I’m so far- advanced, nobody can catch up to me. That includes nobody, brother."

Jordan, who's nickname El Parche means "The Eyepatch," was famously distrustful of people he believed were exploiting him. He had grown bitter about how, after a lifetime making music but not attending to the business end of his career, record companies and his ex-wife owned all the rights to his songs.

"Once I start my own label, I’m going to sue the s**t out of 'em, bro. They won’t be able to whistle my songs," he promised.

Jordan said he wanted me to hear some unreleased material that he was mixing into a new CD that would be the first release on his family label. He wanted the label up and running before he died so his sons — Steve Jr., Richard and Alejandro — would have something to support them. We walked into a back room crammed with sound equipment and he played a catchy tejano tune on which he had, amazingly, played and overdubbed every single instrument. When I asked if I could record just a taste of his new music for my radio story his face darkened. I realized I had crossed an invisible line.

"I don’t want it here," he said, tapping my microphone forcefully. "Fine," I backpedaled, "I’m turning the recorder off."

But I had already set him off. He thought I was trying to steal from him. He watched while I put my mic and recorder back in my equipment bag. Then he squinted up at me with his good eye and said, "If you f**k me, I’ll kill you." I looked at his sons quizically, and they looked back at me gravely, as if to say, "He means it."

Needless to say, the interview never quite recovered. But I feel honored to have gotten one of the last with an accordion legend.

He never sued to get his royalties, but he did release the CD, titled <em>Carta Espiritual,</em> <em>Letter to God</em> — quite different from his earlier compositions like "Piedrecita" ("Little rock"), a tune about crack cocaine. Ever suspicious of the music business, Steve Jordan refused to work with a record company.

The album available only through his website.

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