Q: What's the definition of an optimist?
A: An accordion player with a beeper.
That and other squeeze box-insensitive jokes may have been common in years past, but the wheel has turned, to the point that now there are prospective employers who wish accordionist Flaco Jimenez would start sporting a beeper.
It would sure make things easier for people like producer Don Was, who had a tough time locating the hard-touring Norteno musician to appear on the new Rolling Stones album.
"I understand it took awhile for him to track me down," Jimenez said by phone recently from his home in San Antonio. "I was on tour playing in San Francisco three months ago while they were recording in Hollywood, and at the gig I get a message in the dressing room from Don Was.
"I said, 'Who in the hell is Don Was?' Then they said he was producing the Stones and they wanted me to go record with them. I almost flipped, man. Wowee, good news. The next day I was in the studio with them--didn't have time to listen to the song or do homework at all."
The track on "Voodoo Lounge" that resulted, "Sweethearts Together," has been getting played all over San Antonio radio, and stations have been calling Jimenez for interviews.
He's already one of the city's better-known citizens: He was one-fourth of the hit-making, genre-busting Texas Tornados (he and members Freddy Fender and Augie Meyers still do gigs, though Doug Sahm left to do other projects and took the band name with him).
He has recorded with Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Santana, Dwight Yoakam, Linda Ronstadt and a host of others; and before all that he was a dance-hall favorite at home, the pioneering son of conjunto music pioneer Santiago Jimenez Sr.
In 1937, Santiago Jimenez Sr. had been the first San Antonio accordionist to make a record of the gloriously celebratory border music. (Flaco's brother Santiago Jr. also follows their father's footsteps as an accordion-playing performer and recording artist.)
Flaco, who was born in 1939, took his father's style and updated it with rock and country influences, but still with a familial warmth and dignity, while maintaining the essential traditions and emotion of the music. Then he took it to the world.
He may be treated like royalty in London and Japan, but at home, "I'm just old Flaco Jimenez. I like to go to the 7-Eleven store like anyone," he said. "People do recognize me and ask what's up next or ask for autographs, but it's not a big star thing. I feel as human as anyone else. I like to be just me."
As much as he loves the music he plays on his three-row button accordion, he never expected it to find a global audience.
"I thought that it was always just going to be a local thing. I'd only hear my dad and other groups in San Antonio, or even here just in the barrio. I think that audience started changing when I began to 'bilingual' a lot of stuff and started playing rock 'n' roll and with a little country to it. Then the reaction of the people, not just the Chicanos but the Anglos, was stronger."
He went from local light to modest international recognition on the folk scene when musicologist Chris Strachwitz recorded him for his Arhoolie label and when he was featured in a 1974 Les Blank film on Texas-Mexican border music.
Then in 1976, Cooder tapped him to be a member of his Chicken Skin Revue, and he has since worked with Cooder on several projects, including the soundtrack to the 1982 film "The Border," which starred Jack Nicholson.
"I really have to credit Arhoolie and Ry with giving me the hand to get this music heard by a larger audience. I recorded for ages here, man, with local labels, and I was known around San Antonio, and that was it. It was like I was in a crater here. I was really surprised the first time I went to London and found that, because of their help, people there had heard of me," he said.
The outside attention he and his music have received has made the conjunto scene better in San Antonio, he said.
"Instead of someone just saying, 'Oh, there goes another Tex-Mex accordion player,' it has gained more respect because of the exposure it has gotten. This type of music and this instrument for years was just classified as a party joke. An accordion? Now it's a different story. Everyone wants an accordion.
"It took somebody to introduce it, and I'm lucky it was me who got to say, 'Listen to this blend with the Stones or Dwight Yoakam.' People say, 'I didn't know.' Well, now you know," Jimenez said with pride.
The music industry is among those who have showed tangible appreciation for Jimenez's brand of Tex-Mex music: He won the first of his two Grammy Awards for Best Mexican-American Performance in 1986 for his "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio" album. The second came in the same category in 1990 for "Soy de San Luis," a song written by his father that appeared on the Texas Tornados' debut album.
Though Jimenez developed his music playing in noisy neighborhood dirt-floor dance halls, he said he didn't experience any difficulty in translating it to the concert hall and recording studio.
"I can play for 50 people or 5,000, and it feels the same to me," he said. "People that know I've played this music with big stars say, 'Hey, how did you do it, recording with Linda Ronstadt and bla-bla-whoever with this music.' I say, 'It's just music.' There's nothing that different about any of it that you can't find a way for them to meet."
On his most recent solo album, 1992's "Partners" on Reprise, several stars he had played with over the years returned the favor, including Yoakam, Ronstadt, John Hiatt, Los Lobos and Emmylou Harris. He has a new album due in October on the new Arista Texas label, which will include country singers Lee Roy Parnell, Radney Foster and Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo. He says the songs will be done in a number of styles.
"I don't go away from my roots and tradition, but I like to versatize , put that tradition in new places." He'll be putting his tradition in a museum Wednesday as he plays in the summer concert series of the Long Beach Museum of Art. It's far from his weirdest gig; he says that honor goes to a European show he once played for workers at a nuclear power plant.
He actually prefers the gigs that aren't like his hometown dance-hall shows.
"I like doing those, but I think I like concerts better because you get more attention. In a dance like we do here, you can play from 8 at night till 2 in the morning, and as soon as you start playing-- poom !--they start dancing. They just want to dance to the music, not admire the guy that's playing or singing. You give them any conjunto and they're happy. In concerts you know that somebody is really listening to hear what you're doing."
If people are dancing, Jimenez has no one but himself to blame. When asked what he tries to communicate with his music, he responded, "I would say happiness. I hate to see a sad face in the audience. I like to cheer them up and make them dance."
He thinks that people need a release after a hard day of work, and he's glad to provide it.
"People need a boost, man, a good glass of beer and a real good happy tune. It'll do the job. I've tried it myself, and it works. Sometimes I take not just one beer, but three, and I feel even better," he said, laughing.
Jimenez currently spends six to eight months of the year on the road. He tries never to be gone for too long a stretch, explaining, "I've got a pretty good-sized family, so I do my best to stay home. I've got eight kids, three still at home and grandkids all over the place here. I've got a real understanding wife and she takes care of things, but still, papa's got to be home."
At a time when many regard racial and social differences as a divisive wall, Jimenez maintains that they can be a bridge.
"I like to share culture. The main thing for me is to share my music, my race, my culture, whatever it takes to gain a friend, man. Music and food, that's what I like, the basic things we have to agree on and communicate."
* Flaco Jimenez and Los Rock Angels play Wednesday at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 7 p.m. $8-$10. Under 12, free. (310) 439-2119.