The 2018 death of Jerry González also marked the end of the Fort Apache Band, which took Latin jazz to new heights for more than 30 year. This is their story.
(This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of JazzTimes.)
By T.J. English
It’s an overflow crowd at St. Peter’s Church—“the jazz church”—on Lexington Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Part cathedral, part music hall, St. Peter’s has served as a final memorial place for some of the greatest musicians of all time. Duke Ellington was one of its original donors. Art Blakey was memorialized here, as were John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Carlos “Patato” Valdez, and many others who have gone on to assume their slots in that star-studded band in the sky.
On this particular evening, the crowd has an undeniable Latin flavor but is also wonderfully diverse. Brown, black, and white; male and female; old and young—classic New York. Before the night is over, some of these attendees will be up out of their seats dancing in memory of a native son. Jerry González, founder and leader of the Fort Apache Band, has died, and damned if that isn’t cause for both grief and adulation.
In the jazz world, death comes like a flatted fifth, a potentially unharmonious aside filled with trepidation. It can be a premature demise due to drugs, a wayward life, illness, or an unforeseen act of God; or it can be the peaceful passing of an octogenarian who remained musically vibrant well into his or her golden years. In the case of Jerry González, it’s complicated. Mercurial, charismatic, and uncompromising, he was, among other things, the best conguero of his generation. Together with his bass-playing brother Andy, he created and sustained what many believe to be not only a great Latin jazz band but one of the greatest bands, period, of the last 30 years. But Jerry could also be difficult. In addition to the congas, Jerry played flugelhorn and trumpet; he greatly admired Miles Davis and took on some of Miles’ more prickly personality traits—and, to an extent, his addictions.
González’s sudden passing was a surprise, though. He’d been living in Spain since 2002, where he ventured out on his own, performing live and creating a beautiful melding of Latin jazz and flamenco that lives on in numerous recordings. On Oct. 1, 2018, he died after inhaling smoke from a fire in his Madrid apartment. He was 69.
At the St. Peter’s memorial, it was noted by host Felipe Luciano, a radio personality, activist, and fellow Nuyorican who’d known González most of his adult life, that “Jerry’s music led us to a new paradigm.” Luciano was speaking of the full scope of the man’s career. González worked as a sideman for the Beach Boys, Paul Simon, Jaco Pastorius, Carlos Santana, and other musical luminaries. He achieved something many musicians secretly dream about: appearing with Big Bird on Sesame Street. But his crowning achievement was the Fort Apache Band, a group that, from the early 1980s into the 2000s, set a new standard in the cross-pollination of hard bop and Afro-Latin rhythms that transformed American music.
“That band was revolutionary,” says Arturo O’Farrill, who first became aware of Fort Apache in the early 1980s when he heard them and even (on occasion) played piano with them at Soundscape, a popular performance space in Hell’s Kitchen. “They brought equal respect to jazz and Latin, and they approached both with very dedicated seriousness. I can’t think of a more fluid, powerful, and amazing rhythm section. Those guys could stop on a dime and turn it around and do anything, float through space and gyrate and levitate. They really were the most important rhythm section in the history of Latin jazz.”
“They set the standard,” says Bobby Sanabria, who, like the González brothers, is a Nuyorican cured in the musical heritage of the South Bronx, where he was born and raised. “As a small combo playing this music, their contribution is unequaled. They demonstrated the possibilities of what you can do if you have that perfect synergy of good folkloric rhythmic knowledge and the knowledge of jazz harmony, improvisation, and arranging technique. They were the best; that is their legacy.”
Long before O’Farrill and Sanabria experienced the unique brilliance of the Gonzalez brothers, Jerry and Andy were acquiring the knowledge that would make it all possible in the basement of a small home on Gildersleeve Avenue in the Bronx. Jerry was born June 5, 1949, Andy eighteen months later on Jan. 1, 1951. Their father, Jerry González, Sr., was an M.C. and occasional singer for bands during the era of the Palladium nightclub. Through him, they were exposed to the music and lifestyle of what became known as “salsa,” but it wasn’t until they came into the orbit of a Cuban music expert named Rene Lopez that they began to explore the vast repertoire of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican music.
Like the González brothers, Lopez was of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in the Bronx, and was steeped in the culture of Latin music. His uncle had been a musician and later a promoter during the glory years of the big Latin orchestras. Legendary bandleaders—Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and others—were personal friends of his uncle, with whom he lived from the age of 11. Young Rene eventually inherited his uncle’s record collection and added to it.
“I became known in New York Latin music circles as quite a collector,” Lopez says. “Eddie Palmieri was a dear friend of mine. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he used to have a standard rule. He used to tell people, ‘If you’re going to be in my band, go hang out with Rene.’ I had a huge collection of Cuban records.”
Andy González, and later Jerry, were members of Palmieri’s band. They came by Rene’s home, which was located in the Bronx neighborhood of Soundview. Other young musicians would hang out too, taking part in listening sessions that would shape the direction of Latin music in New York and the world for generations to come. “Among other things,” Lopez says, “they were hearing new rhythms they’d never heard before. The rumba, that was of great interest to the young percussionists. And the guaguanco, especially as practiced by Arsenio Rodriguez. The way he structured the music was a revelation.”
In the late ’60s and ’70s, the González brothers served apprenticeships in some of the best Latin bands of the era. Separately or together they played in the bands of Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Dizzy Gillespie, and Tito Puente. Says Sanabria, “This was the first generation of Latin musicians who got to distinguish themselves through solos, like a jazz band. Before that it was only large orchestras.”
Sanabria remembers seeing Andy González on the subway when he (Sanabria) was still in grammar school. A budding musician himself, he had become a fan of Andy’s after seeing him solo with the Ray Barretto band. “He was wearing an army jacket and reading Mao’s Little Red Book, I always remember that. I wanted to say something to him, like, ‘Hey, you’re Andy González, right?’ But I was too scared. Andy, Jerry—these guys were my heroes.”
In the early 1970s, some members of Eddie Palmieri’s band—many of them having taken part in those listening sessions at Rene Lopez’s house—quit to form a group called Conjunto Libre; later its name was changed to Manny Oquendo and Libre. Although the group had many stellar contributors, at its core were Oquendo on timbales, Jerry on congas, and Andy on bass. Some would later characterize Libre as a forerunner to Fort Apache, but in truth, Jerry was unhappy with the band. Manny Oquendo didn’t allow Jerry to play trumpet. Jerry tried to move the band in a more jazz-oriented direction, including having them play a version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee,” but Oquendo’s bread and butter was Latin dance music.
Jerry’s dissatisfaction manifested itself in a manner that would eventually become a pattern: He was perennially late for rehearsals and gigs. He also began devoting more and more time to a musical configuration known as Grupo Folklorico Experimental. In many ways, Grupo Folklorico was a workshop as much as a band. Rumba, as practiced by the legendary Cuban group Los Muñequitos de Matanzas (which is still active today), became the inspiration for the presentation of folkloric music—African, Cuban, and Puerto Rican—with a decidedly New York flavor.
To those who knew or worked with Jerry at the time, it was clear that he was driving toward something. He had passion and a vast knowledge of what was known commercially as Latin jazz, but he seemed restless. If he had a vision, it wasn’t fully formulated—yet. All that he needed was an inciting event.
As so often happens in life, that event was dramatic and in some ways unfortunate: Jerry was fired from Libre. The person who did the firing, at Manny Oquendo’s insistence, was Andy. (Jerry’s tardiness and frequent unavailability annoyed Oquendo, but he preferred to remain nonconfrontational.)
Jerry could be volatile, but he took the firing in stride. He’d mostly been making his money elsewhere anyway. And he’d been deriving inspiration elsewhere too, from a new group that was taking shape, at that point, mostly in his head—a culmination of everything he had learned up until then. This was the group for which he would later be hailed by the leading lights of jazz as a musical genius.
Before the Fort Apache Band, the mixing of Latin music and jazz was a somewhat formulaic affair. As far back as the 1930s, music critics referred to something known as “the Latin tinge,” which involved the introduction of bongos and conga drums and riffs borrowed from “El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor),” a Cuban son-pregón that was a surprise hit in the States when it was recorded by Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra in 1930 for Victor Records. In 1939 came Machito and His Afro-Cubans.
Says Rene Lopez, “Back then, and for decades to follow, you had jazz Latin, and Latin jazz, and they were distinct. Jazz Latin was Gene Ammons, Billy Taylor, even Dizzy Gillespie. If you listen to those records, they would do a straight jazz feel; the conga player is playing, and then when they go into the Latin part there is a complete change in tempo. So there was a clear split. And all of the groups played the same way. Then there was Latin jazz, with orchestras like Tito Puente’s and Sabu Martinez. They were always Latin. They used the repertoire of jazz, at least their interpretation of it, but the foundation was Latin.”
With his love of straight-ahead jazz, Jerry González had something else in mind, something closer to what was being done by Mongo Santamaría and his band. Mongo took Afro-Cuban folkloric music and turned it into jazz. But Jerry wanted to go even further. His intention was to demonstrate how clave—the rhythmic root of all Afro-Cuban music—was present in the music of Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and other practitioners of hard bop.
At first, Gonzalez flirted with calling his band Hand Drum Control. He got the idea from flyers he’d seen posted around town touting the city’s new handgun control initiative. Nobody liked that name. The group’s first album, Ya Yo Me Curé, was simply released under the name of Jerry González.
The name of the band may have been pro forma, but the music was certainly not. Ya Yo Me Curé harked back to the days of Grupo Folklorico Experimental, with batá drums, conch shells, chékere, and Yoruba chants, but the repertoire included jazz classics from Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. In González’s hands, the music sounded completely fresh and revelatory. “Every composition was a new arrangement,” Lopez says. “They followed the basic structure of the tune, but they created something original. It was a new marriage of Latin music and the jazz tradition. They didn’t want to standardize anything. They wanted to be free-form.”
In 1981, the group acquired its name, after González and his bandmates took part in a protest event revolving around the movie Fort Apache, the Bronx. For many who lived in the borough, the film was an insult, portraying the area solely as a cauldron of criminal activity. The protests grew, to the point where Jerry seized upon the name. “I think that was genius on the part of Jerry,” Lopez says. “The Fort Apache movie was really showing the Bronx at its worst. Jerry wanted to show people outside the Bronx that Fort Apache was not negative, that there was beauty in the Bronx and a lot of creativity.”
During an early Fort Apache gig at the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn, spectators called out from the dance area, “Mas salsa! Salsa!” To which Jerry shouted back, “Fuck salsa, this is a jazz band.”
Over a 30-year period, the Fort Apache Band transformed the definition of Latin jazz around the world. From an initial conglomeration of 12 musicians, the group was pared down to a core unit: Jerry on trumpet, flugelhorn, and congas; Andy on bass; Steve Berrios on drums; Larry Willis on piano; Carter Jefferson (who died in 1993) and later John Stubblefield on tenor saxophone; and Joe Ford on alto and soprano saxophone. Other musicians passed through over the years, but this sextet remained the nucleus.
Primarily recording for the Enja, Sunnyside, and Milestone labels, the band produced a series of superlative albums, culminating with Rumba Para Monk in 1989. This was perhaps the purest manifestation of its approach, a seamless melding of Afro-Latin rhythms and the quirkiest of bebop. Long gone were the abrupt transitions between the Latin and jazz sections of a tune, as performed by bands going back half a century. With Fort Apache, the music had become one.
As brilliant as the band often was in the studio during these years, Fort Apache’s true greatness could only be appreciated live. Latin jazz, perhaps more than any other derivation of jazz, is a communal experience. Especially the way Fort Apache approached it, in hyper-passionate, often transcendent shows that incorporated chants, incantations, and percussive elements deeply rooted in rumba and Afro-Cuban religions.
“It was electric,” says Russ Musto, who served off and on as a roadie, manager, and producer for the group. “The audiences were energized. And at the center of it all was Jerry. He stood out. He was a tall, handsome Latino, and he strutted himself. His conga playing was like a dance. It was just magic to watch. It was visually exciting as much as musically.”
Eventually, Jerry’s persona—what some in the orbit of the band refer to as his “narcissism” —threatened to undermine the group. In 2000, Calle 54, a seminal documentary by Spanish director Fernando Trueba, showcased Jerry and Andy, among other luminaries of Latin jazz. The film opens with Jerry playing his trumpet outside El Morro Castle in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Jerry’s appearance and demeanor is dwelled upon and even fetishized in the movie. Afterward, photographers flocked to the charismatic bandleader. He became almost a Latino version of Chet Baker, who had been iconic to an earlier generation as much for the contours of his cheekbones as for his trumpet playing.
Managing the Fort Apache Band was not an easy task. “It’s like that expression about herding cats,” says Todd Barkan, who took on the task from 1988 to 1996. Barkan managed the group during some of its most productive years, with tours in Europe, Asia, South America, and all around the U.S. The band blew people away with the quality of its music but also burned many bridges with club owners and booking agents due to general tardiness, occasional insolence and, sometimes, lack of professionalism. Barkan, who worked in the jazz business for 40 years as a club owner, booking agent, and producer, says of his time with the band, “It was the most challenging experience that I’ve ever had in my life, or ever will have.”
Barkan was the owner and manager of Keystone Korner, the late great San Francisco jazz club that flourished in North Beach from 1973 to 1983, when he first met Jerry González in the late ’70s. The person who introduced them was Steve Berrios, at the time the drummer in Mongo Santamaría’s band. Eventually, Berrios would become a key player in the cosmology of Fort Apache. He was the one who brought a strong element of 4/4 swing into the band and also understood the role of the drum as a spiritual component (he played batá as well as trap drums); in some ways he was a more serious student of Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms than either Andy or Jerry. To some, it seemed as though Berrios was the one who gave the band its African soul. Jerry didn’t see it that way.
“Those two would go at it,” says Musto, who took over management of the band after Barkan. “One time they argued for hours about rhythm, and it turned out later on that they were actually agreeing with each other.
“In some ways, the tension fueled the band. I sometimes compare it to the Modern Jazz Quartet, the tension between John Lewis and Milt Jackson. Although in this band it wasn’t so much musical tension, it was personal tension. It was anger. Sometimes the anger would just make the shit explode.”
The tension also extended to the two González brothers. “I remember one time when Jerry and Andy were playing a Paul Simon date with Cachao and Libre,” Musto says. “They argued the whole time. I had to calm Paul down and tell him, ‘Don’t worry, they’re brothers, they’re not going to kill each other.’”
In a published interview, Jerry once compared his relationship with Andy to that of Cain and Abel. He accepted most of the responsibility for it, saying, “You can lay the Cain on me.” When asked what Jerry might have been getting at with this, Musto thinks about it and says, “I don’t know. Didn’t Cain kill Abel?”
For those who were fully aware of Jerry’s personal life, there was a nagging sense that his cocaine habit was having a detrimental effect on the group. “It did interfere,” Musto says. Jerry started having sinus problems, which affected his ability to hear. He complained that he needed coke because his hands became sore and tightened up right before a gig. To fix this, he would have to go cop, which made him late for the show, which alienated club owners and booking agents.
Despite the bad habits, no one remembers Jerry ever giving less than 100 percent on the bandstand. Musto, whose decades-long friendship with González became strained, likes to remember when Jerry was booked in 1982, along with Carlos Santana, to play on the sessions for McCoy Tyner’s Looking Out. At rehearsals, Jerry and Santana were having a “discussion” about how Santana wanted him to play, and Jerry eventually went off: Listen, you corny, non-Latin-jazz-playing motherfucker. You want a corny conga line on your song? Then go find a corny conga player in Central Park, because I’ve been waiting to play with McCoy Tyner my whole life and I’ll be goddamned if people are going to say that I played some corny shit when I’m dead.
“That kind of integrity,” Musto says, “I respect.”
By the early 2000s, the Fort Apache Band had begun to fall apart. Jerry had moved his base of operation to Spain. Andy suffered a series of health setbacks; he was diagnosed with type-A diabetes, which led to him having part of his left foot amputated. The diabetes resulted in other complications: His kidneys failed, which required that he have weekly dialysis treatment. Later, he had a major heart attack that required open heart surgery.
In 2013, Larry Willis quit the band. He had been a stalwart since 1988, when he played with Jerry and Andy for the first time at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village. “The band changed,” Willis explains. “It was not the band I had started out with. Carter Jefferson, John Stubblefield, and Steve Berrios had all passed away. And the repertoire, to me, had become stagnant. I moved on.”
Despite the changes in personnel, the reputation of the Fort Apache Band was such that it remained in demand. As long as Jerry González was out front, the suave, brooding dark prince with his assortment of dapper fedoras, the band had a following. Right up until 2016, they sold out week-long engagements at the Blue Note in New York. A new generation of musicians who had grown up listening to Fort Apache were invited to sit in. Brilliant players such as drummer Dafnis Prieto and saxophonist Miguel Zenón injected new blood into the group.
The most significant of these 21st-century collaborations was the band’s relationship with the Curtis brothers, Zaccai and Luques. “They were the most amazing group we’d ever seen—easily,” says Zaccai Curtis, who first saw the band when he was a student at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School. An instructor at the school, the prodigious sax man Jackie McLean, introduced the brothers to the music of Fort Apache and also, specifically, to Andy González.
“Andy became a friend of the family. He kind of broke everything open for us. We were mostly straight jazz musicians. He would come by the house with a stack of records and CDs. Latin, mostly—Arsenio Rodriguez, Afro-Cuban music, stuff like that. We would ask questions. We had a rehearsal studio in the basement. That’s where we began to musically put the concepts together.”
By passing on their knowledge, Andy and (later) Jerry were doing what Rene Lopez had done for them a generation earlier. “It’s so important,” Curtis says. “You can learn the music in school, get out and play with your own band. But you don’t experience the culture of jazz that way. A lot of that culture comes outside of school, and outside the gig. That’s what Andy and Jerry were doing, passing down what they thought should be passed down, sharing the history and specific rhythms that represent what the culture is all about.”
Eventually, Zaccai Curtis took over for Larry Willis on piano, and Luques sat in for Andy on bass when he was sick. Jerry took Zaccai under his wing. “He had a lot of supportive things to say to me, and he pushed me based on that. When you have somebody that expects something from you, you rise to the occasion. That’s how Jerry stirred the waters of my own playing. After a while I would say, ‘Okay, he has high expectations. I need to deal with it.’”
After nearly 35 years as a force in the jazz universe, Jerry and Andy knew they had created something remarkable with the Fort Apache Band. Passing the legacy along to young players who had fallen under their spell represented a kind of immortality that only the greatest of artists will ever know.
At the memorial service at St. Peter’s, dozens of musicians came by to pay tribute to Jerry. Ad hoc bands were put together to represent the various configurations of his career: Grupo Folklorico, Libre, and of course the Fort Apache Band. The audience danced and cheered. Andy González, wheelchair-bound, sat up front. He was hardly able to speak or move. But he watched and listened intently, taking in the depth of the musical heritage left behind by him and his departed brother.
“There’s a school of thought that says Latin Afro-Cuban music was invented in America,” Arturo O’Farrill says, “and there’s a school of thought that it originated in Santiago de Cuba. I think that, either intuitively or even consciously, Jerry and Andy understood that neither theory is binding, that both musics have their roots in Africa. And so the way they connected this music was by having a very African concept of rhythm. If you understand the fluidity and flexibility of African rhythmic practice, then you understand that it’s not about finding the point at which you switch from Latin to jazz. The two have always been there. All you’re doing is changing the focus.”
Rene Lopez, enabler of Latin jazz musicians in New York going back half a century, puts it this way: “In the history of Latin jazz, there’s before Fort Apache and after Fort Apache. Because they changed it completely. And that’s really important. No group ever played Latin jazz like Fort Apache.”