Looking sharp in a cobalt blue Western shirt, creased black pants and mirror-shiny Stacy Adams oxfords, Santiago Jiménez Jr. stares into the middle distance, smoke from his Marlboro curling around his head, and recalls his first encounter with the musical instrument that has been his most enduring love.
“When I was about 6 years old, I would hear my dad practice at home, hear him composing his melodies and songs, to release his recordings,” he said during an interview just before Christmas in his small recording studio at his West Side home.
“I would be next to him, just listening to him, and sometimes I would fall asleep with his music. When you are a kid, you don’t know too much about your dad’s business. All I could think about was having a dad who was an accordion player and musician. I always had in my mind that I wanted to be a musician myself, you know. Pero, I never thought at that age I was going to learn to play accordion. I just liked the sound of it.”
Santiago Jr., or Jimmy, as his dad called him, did learn to play the accordion. Mostly self-taught, Jiménez Jr. – son of conjunto pioneer Don Santiago Jiménez Sr. and little brother of the revolutionary accordionist Flaco Jiménez – has, for about 60 years, reproduced the strains of the accordion to which he once fell asleep.
Where his more famous brother has been more progressive, playing with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Texas Tornados, Santiago Jr. has stayed close to home, upholding the musical traditions of his father, still – at age 75 – playing many of his papa’s tunes, like Viva Seguin and La Piedrera.
He recently recorded 13 classic songs – traditional polkas, waltzes, rancheras – for a fledgling San Antonio label called Bull Calf Records, the mission of which is to document veteran local musicians while they are still active, still in “fighting form,” said Adam Ahrens, the label’s creative director.
“What we want to do is capture artists late in their careers while they are still viable,” said Ahrens, a producer and musician who has recorded his own work as well as touring and performing with Tish Hinojosa and Junior Brown. “And Santiago is still at the peak of his powers. His voice is strong, and he plays like nobody else seems to do anymore.”
Echoes the label’s founder, San Antonio entrepreneur Blair Davis: “We want to preserve San Antonio’s unique voices. We want to build what we hope will one day be an enormous collection of music unique to the city.”
The album, titled El Chief – Jiménez Jr.’s nickname – will be released in mid-February to outlets such as iTunes, Amazon, and the major streaming services through the independent music distributor CD Baby, Ahrens said.
The recording took place in the bedroom of Ahrens’ home on East Magnolia Avenue, near Trinity University. It features Jiménez Jr. on accordion, vocals, and vocal harmonies, and bajo sexto player Woody Rodriguez.
Jiménez Jr. selected the songs from his enormous catalogue – hundreds of song lyrics typed out meticulously on single, letter-sized sheets, under plastic protectors — with titles including his own compositions (Conjunto de San Antonio Tejas), his dad’s (Traigo un Recuerdo and El Brinquito) and arrangements of traditional hand-me-downs such as Vino Maldito. They represent a variety of traditional styles, from polkas, waltzes, and rancheras to the old German schottische.
The production is intimate, immediate, and upfront, as if the listener were sitting right there in the room with the players. Jiménez Jr.’s voice is big and bold, the harmonies soaring overhead, and his Hohner Erica two-row button accordion is lively and fluid. It’s a “live” album in the best possible sense.
“Yeah, he came in and spooled off 13 songs in 2 1/2 hours, no overdubs, except when he recorded the vocal harmonies,” Ahrens said. “I wanted it to be pure and clean. I just set up a couple of really good microphones and captured it as it happened. If it had been up to him, he would have brought in a drum kit, another singer, a bass, but I just wanted the traditional instrumentation, because he is such a true curator and custodian of the music. It’s a record of Santiago at his best.”
Jiménez Jr. estimates he’s recorded more than 100 albums. “I paid for my house with my music,” he said.
He started playing guitar at about 11 years old, accompanying his father at home when he was practicing for gigs, then picked up the accordion at around age 13.
“We would just mess around, jamming in the house,” he said. “I started playing a 12-string guitar, and I used to tune it bajo sexto style, playing the melody or whatever. But when my father wasn’t there, I would pick up his accordion and try to play it. He would have it tuned like he wanted it to play his gigs on the weekend, and my mother would tell me to leave his accordion alone because he had it the way he wanted it.
“But I would get it, and I would untune it. I would break my father’s accordion. He thought that Flaco was the one who did it, because Flaco was already a musician. One day, he caught me up. I had his accordion, and he was behind my back. I didn’t know he was behind me, until I felt his hand on my shoulder. I turned around, and I started crying because my father was very strict. The only thing he told me was if you’re going to play something, play it right or don’t play anything. That’s what he told me. He didn’t get mad because I had his accordion. He just wanted me to play it right.”
By 15, Jiménez Jr. was playing parties and weddings with his own little conjunto group, and at 17, he made his recording debut on accordion, with brother Flaco – on guitar! That was in 1960; Jiménez Jr. has a framed copy of the debut 45 single – Pajarito Prisionero on the Lira label – on the wall of his studio, right next to a photo of President Barack Obama presenting him with the 2015 National Medal of Arts at the White House, earned “for expanding the horizon of American music.”
“Conjunto is this border music, this fusion music, that developed in South Texas and Northern Mexico, much like jazz arose out of the various musical forms in New Orleans,” said Juan Tejeda, the musician who founded San Antonio’s Tejano Conjunto Festival and retired music professor at Palo Alto College. “And his father, his family, really developed the San Antonio sound. Santiago Jr. has believed all his life that it is really important to preserve and promote that traditional style. It’s what he loves, who he is, and we’re all richer as a result of it. I don’t think there will ever be another just like him.”
In an audio interview with roots music preservationist Chris Strachwitz not long before his death in 1984, Don Santiago Jiménez Sr. recalled how his father Patricio, also an accordionist, would take him to German dances in the 1920s when he was around 10 years old.
It made a deep impression, these swinging Bavarians, on this kid who grew up near the rock quarry where the San Antonio Zoo is today. Don Santiago, along with other accordionists such as Narciso Martinez and Valerio Longoria, crossbred the German polka with the Mexican ranchera, giving birth to a strikingly genuine art form.
“People would say,” Don Santiago told Strachwitz, “if they have an accordion at the dance, we go. If they don’t have an accordion, we stay home.”
“It’s a people’s music,” his younger son said, sitting in his studio amidst an organized clutter of framed clippings and photos, records, CDs, recording equipment, and two giant juke boxes (“… that one’s for sale, and I got some guys who can deliver it …”).
“If you play with no feeling, no gusto, no passion, it shows. But if you play with your heart, make it happy, it sounds happy. I play like my dad. I wanted to play in his style because I knew that someday he was going to be gone. And I was going to take over. Even Flaco told me: Don’t change your style, mijo; keep it the way you have it; nobody has your style; you play like Dad. That’s true. Every time I play my father’s music, an old-timer will come up and say, ‘I used to go to your father’s dances, and you are just like him.’ I can’t change that, never wanted to.”