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Esquivel, 1918–2002

Pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer Juan Garcia Esquivel died on January 3 at his home in Morelos, Mexico, following a severe stroke.

Esquivel’s music embodied the term “space-age bachelor-pad music,” and the 1994 Bar/None Records Esquivel anthology disc of the same title almost single-handedly launched the lounge-music boom of the mid-’90s. Typified by screaming brass, skittering steel guitars, background vocalists singing “Zu-zu-zu,” early electronic keyboards and pioneering use of stereo, his arrangements captured the intelligence, humor and technology-mindedness of the post-Eisenhower age.

Although a star in Mexico since the ’30s, Esquivel didn’t record for an American audience until the late ’50s, when he made his classic albums. While they didn’t sell, they established him, and by the mid-’60s he was a Vegas mainstay with a lounge act that attracted celebrity followers such as Frank Sinatra. In the ’80s, his innovative recordings largely forgotten, he returned to Mexico and scored the children’s show Burbujas, but his output ceased when he broke his hip and could no longer walk. New interest in his work, instigated by cartoonist Byron Werner, inspired outsider-music champion Irwin Chusid to compile the first CD releases of Esquivel’s groundbreaking work. This time out, it sold.

Esquivel’s last years were happy. His music found its way into films including The Big Lebowski, and his old records exercised profound influence on music from Stereolab to TV commercials. In addition, the Kronos Quartet recently performed a string transcription of his “Miniskirt.”

“My life has been money, clothes, cars and women,” he said in 1995, “and not necessarily in that order. I only regret that I waited too long to record. I was 40 when I started recording for RCA Victor. I could have used more time.”

He is survived by son Mario and wife Carlina.