Johnny Meijer

One late July evening in 1982, Archie Shepp, the famous tenor sax giant, was standing with his saxophone case at the bottom of the stairs of Johnny Meijer’s shabby little apartment in the Jordaan, Amsterdam’s famous working class neighborhood. Johnny’s son Cor had managed to talk to Shepp at the North Sea Jazz Festival, and Shepp’s curiosity had been aroused about this living legend all but unknown outside the Jordaan and a small circle of jazz-diehards, so much so that he took the train down to Amsterdam with Cor.

“Dad, I got Archie Shepp here! He came down all the way from the North Sea jazz festival to see you! He wants to jam with you! Let him come up!”
”Not now. I’m vacuuming.”
Shepp took the train back to The Hague.

Johnny Meijer should have been huge. The master accordionist of his time, he was a truly amazing jazz musician; American agents tried to bring him over, and Duke Ellington supposedly wanted him, Johnny Meijer from the Jordaan, in his band. He had it all, destined to become for the accordion what Django Reinhardt became for the guitar.

I saw Johnny Meijer once, in the fall of  1989 at the opening of a huge new music store in a dilapidated industrial part of Amsterdam. It was a chilly and damp, grey day with a constant drizzle. My glasses, cold and wet from the outside, fogged up instantly with a thick mist of cheap cigar smoke when I entered the storeroom. Over-brimmed ashtrays and squashed beer cans were lingering on top of brand new expensive keyboards. Middle-aged men in cheap suits with ties as wide as aircraft-carriers, their few remaining hairs carefully pomaded over their shiny skulls, roamed around the store holding beer cans in their heavily ringed chubby hands. Their wives, with a tan a lot deeper than their peroxides, and makeup more colorful than a baboon’s behind, stood in a corner chatting with each other. The few younger men sported permed hair reaching in their neck and wore gold chains over their white turtlenecks.  I had entered the world of the Jordaan, where Johnny Meijer was born, bred, where he lived and died.

Johnny listlessly played some loudly applauded Jordaan-schmaltz and cheesy Dixieland tunes. He kept them as short as possible. He looked bored and his gruff face spelled a decidedly foul mood. At his feet lay his dog, the one living being he reportedly still trusted. As his one non-Jordanese admirer, I watched him play from a distance, and did not work up the nerve to go up and talk to him.

The music store went belly-up within a year.

The Jordaan never was just a neighborhood- it was a world of its own. Nobody knows where the Jordanese come from-legends abound that they were Italian gypsies who settled down in the 18th century, in that particular neighborhood below the Anne Frank house, in the middle of the canal-section of Amsterdam. Quite unlike traditional Dutch mentality, this close-knit community was famous for volatile tempers, flickering knives, family vendetta’s spanning multiple generations, and endless rows of “cousins” who roughed up anybody who happened to look too closely at one of their girls with their loud hair and ditto make-up.

The Jordaan music scene, fed through a huge neighborhood bar circuit, had always been big. Mandolin-orchestra’s abounded and the accordion was the natural instrument of choice; accordion-players made a decent income playing tunes by themselves or accompanied Neapolitan opera-styled male vocalists, who sang tearful folk tunes in Amsterdam dialect of mothers having to prostitute themselves, orphaned children who long for their fathers who died at sea, or of the Amsterdam canals with a pathos as if they hadn’t seen them in 50 years, although most Jordanese typically never left the neighborhood. Some of those singers became national stars.

Johnny Meijer was born in 1912, and as it was decided that he should play a Jordaan instrument, he started playing ‘harmonica’ as the accordion is called in the Jordaan, from the age of six. For his exceptional talent he was rewarded with endless enforced practice –“I had no youth” he used to say in later years, and he became a virtuoso from a very young age on. With a child on the way when he was 20, he had to get married, and took any job he could get, playing every folk and classical style imaginable, with an astonishing virtuosity. To the audience left with their mouths wide-open he shrugged his shoulders and offered typically self-deprecatory explanation. “I am just screwing around”. In the middle 30-ties, around the same time as Django Reinhardt, he discovered swing music, lost his heart to jazz, and from then on played jazz on accordion with a vigour and virtuosity rarely seen before or since. But Holland wasn’t really the place to be a jazz great, and he took every job he could get.

During the Nazi occupation he kept playing begrudgingly-the Germans had outlawed jazz as “deranged music”- and he tried to stay from playing before German troops with the argument that he was “already under contract” with whatever café had hired him. When the Nazis forced him on a tour of Germany in 1943, he told his hosts,  that on crossing the border his accordion had “accidentally” dropped, and that it only could be repaired in Amsterdam. After that, the occupying forces left him alone.

Shortly he after the war, Decca let him make a few jazz recordings with a small combo that got him a name far beyond the Dutch border. For a while he started to get attention from a more serous music-minded crowd, but he never could get himself to make a choice for a career playing ‘real’ jazz, and kept picking up every engagement that came his way. Restless in nature, and playing music being the one thing in life he felt comfortable doing, he lived like a gypsy, but one who was homesick and never could be outside his beloved Jordaan for more than a few days. Agents from abroad who called him were he told “only if I can take the Jordaan with me”, and Johnny stayed put. “The Jordaan is much more cosy”.

As true big artists often do, his mood switched constantly between the two utmost extremes, a supreme confidence in his own qualities on one hand, and a humility bordering on defeatism towards his own art on the other. When interviewed in later years about his crowning achievement, being acclaimed “Roi d’accordeon” by his peers in 1953 in the Salle Pleyel in Paris, he first matter-of-factly stated  “And then I swept the floor with all of them”, and then consequently described in genuine awe how good those Musette guys actually were, and how they put the sweat in his hands.

But those proved to be his heydays. Always having been a heavy drinker and rather snappy talker who wasn’t interested at all in how people took his acid remarks, Johnny developed a reputation for being stubborn, cranky and difficult to work with. Work tapered off and big time people lost interest.

Although he still could play a mean accordion, he found his options for work limited to the Amsterdam café’s in the neighborhood he had dedicated his life to, where the repertoire was not supposed to exceed the sentimental folk standards that bored him to tears. The closest he came to recording jazz were some run off the mill dixieland records. In the intro’s you can sometimes hear the old cranky man live up again, when he for instance adds a menacing bopintro before the faceless studio sessioneers dive into the next dixie-standard

In the Sixties he had a duo with his cousin, bassist/entertainer Limping Nelis that worked steadily in a few bars. But it annoyed him that he didn’t have much to say about what he played. Him and Nelis, both men with personality’s larger than life and drinking habits to match, had a huge fallout and Johnny walked out in the middle of a gig. The Jordaan being the Jordaan, the vendetta lasted the rest of their lives. Adding insult to injury, while Johnny withered away in his desolate apartment, Limping Nelis, more a singer/entertainer than a bass player to speak off, in 1987 quite surprisingly scored a huge hit with “Oh little Yodel-boy”, a bastardization of the Jordaan-classic “Oh little Jewboy”.

The Jordaan, meanwhile hadn’t been the same either. In the seventies most Jordanese  moved out to the suburbs, cursing college students and foreign immigrants alike. They might come down once every two weekends, to keep ties with what was left of the neighboorhood, which over the years turned more and more into a yuppie paradise, with house prices to match.

Johnny’s drinking got the better of him, especially after his second wife died in 1980, and the neighborhood gossip also pointed towards the drug-related problems of his son Cor, himself a talented musician, and the one relative he had not completely estranged himself from. He failed to show up for gigs, and lost his last contracts, which he needed to maintain his self-respect, and he fell into a downward spiral, of no work, and more drinking.

In the late 80ties and early nineties, a goodhearted couple from the neighborhood took him under their wing, and he started to do a bit better. The husband, a plumber, took Johnny to the few gigs left around town, and accompanied him on bass as well as he could.  They would play “Sweet Georgia Brown” in an old folks home before a drowsy collection of octogenarians, and  Johnny would yell out the chords: “F!…D7!…A7!….Cocksucker!” When fans from the old days asked him why he kept playing with somebody so far beyond his standard of musicianship he used to answer: “Yes, but he has a car.”

The visit of Archie Shepp did eventually lead to the two of them playing together-and Shepp organized a gig in 1982. But Johnny couldn’t handle the stress and got drunk beforehand. The promising clash between two masters of totally different jazz generations and backgrounds reportedly ended in a disaster, and nothing came of plans for a record.

Sometimes something happened that broke the monotony of his lonely and miserable existence somewhat; a concert in the BIM-huis, Amsterdam’s prestigious jazz-venue to celebrate his 75th birthday in 1997, or a concert with a respected classical ensemble in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s Carnegie Hall in 1991, accompanied by a feature documentary.

In the documentary there is a telling scene where the plumber’s wife drags him down from his apartment to buy him a decent suit for his gig in the Concertgebouw. This he begrudgingly allows to happen, showering her non-stop with mean-spirited bickering: how much money did all this nonsense cost, and why didn’t she just mind her own business, and could that prick from the clothing store keep his hands off him?

He took the applause in the sold-out Concertgebouw solemnly; it was nice and all, but he knew that the next day he would be by himself again, bored, spiteful and miserable in his 1 room apartment. In the aftermath of the Concertgebouw concert, Dutch PBS radio interviewed him, and Johnny permitted himself to look back in quiet despair on a life and career irreparably gone down the drain. He also commented on what actually had been hiding behind his being so glued to the Jordaan.  “You know, I always had a bit of an inferiority complex…I never dared to go up there with the big guys.” Even when your peers made you  Roi d’Accordeon.? “Oh, but that meant anything to me, what they say, I couldn’t care less. Never did. … That famous guy wanted to hire me, he’s dead….Jacques Brel….I just thought I couldn’t do it and went back home….oh well, I could have done it like nothing…but what’s done is done.” In his voice acquiescence was mixed with a deep and painful remorse. “You know, what I find such a pity. That the years go by so fast.” A short silence fell. “And now I don’t know what to say anymore. It’s over. I wish you many happy years.”

A few weeks later Johnny collapsed in his aprtment and passed away at the age of 79. After his death, stories kept doing the rounds in the as ever gossipy Jordaan. What happened with the money the neighborhood had collected for a grave monument? They stole it! Where was Johnny’s beloved accordion, mysteriously disappeared from his apartment? His son had squandered it for drugs money! Some people remembered him as a great Jordanese musician, though more with admiration than with affection. Others spoke bitterly about how the neighborhood had laughed and partied on his music, but nobody had reached out when he went down the gutter. Look at all of them shedding crocodile tears at his funeral! Where were they when he needed them most?

Johnny Meijer is buried in the space reserved for the major music stars of Jordaan music next to famous singers Johnny Jordaan and Aunt Leen. On the grave is a simple marble monument -the collected money did surface in the end-, with a sculpted accordion and a gilded inscription: “The world’s greatest accordionist-I just screwed around.”