Remembering Jerry Gonzalez: Photos, Videos

- in ARTISTS, BOOKS, VIDEOS

Not long ago, I was interviewing two important contributors to the world of American music and letters – Eddie Palmieri and the other was Joe Conzo Sr. – both of whom named the late Jerry González as the most important musician, along with Bobby Sanabria, in the realm of Latin-Jazz. Both of them said – in as many words – that being the youngest in the generational continuum, upon the shoulders of Mr González and Bobby Sanabria rested the future of this music.

Bobby Sanabria is still around and active in music to continue to make significant musical contributions. But the inimitable conguero and trumpet player Jerry González sadly passed away not yet a year ago in Madrid, on the 1st of October, 2018 when his stout heart gave out from inhaling toxic fumes after his home caught fire the night before.

Today is the 5th of June and had he lived, Mr Jerry González would have turned seventy years old, which for many musicians is often the prime of their existence. For Mr González, however, the proverbial “prime of his existence” began when he founded his seminal Fort Apache Band. The year was 1979 and Mr González had already paid his dues in venues that included dives and late-night bars around the United States as well as in the established ensembles of that of the great Dizzy Gillespie in the 1970’s. After his apprenticeship with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, where he played congas, Mr González was hired by Eddie Palmieri with whom he stayed until 1974, before moving on, with his brother, bassist Andy González, to Conjunto Libre, a band led by timbalero Manny Oquendo. Towards the end of the 1970’s Mr González and his brother founded the Conjunto Anabacoa.

Andy and Jerry González

This was followed by a larger ensemble – the charismatic Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino – that included musicians such as Frankie Rodríguez, Milton Cardona, Gene Golden, Carlos Mestre, Nelson González, Manny Oquendo, Oscar Hernández, José Rodríguez, Gonzalo Fernández, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, Willy García, Heny Álvarez, Virgilio Martí, Marcelino Guerra, Rubén Blades, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios and Julito Collazo. This group recorded just two albums, Concepts of Unity (1974) and Lo Dice Todo (1975). Mr González’s breakthough album as leader was entitled Ya Yo Me Curé (American Clavé/Sunnyside, 1979/1982).

Mr González’s real moment of glory came when he founded the Fort Apache Band, reputed to have been named after the place in the Bronx where their music was frequently heard. In its first incarnation, the Fort Apache band was a mid-to-large-sized ensemble that included alto saxophonist Wilfredo Velez and the late pianist Jorge Dalto. Also in this seminal band were Kenny Kirkland, Sonny Fortune, Nicky Marrero, Milton Cardona, Papo Vázquez, Steve Turre and others. Two albums: The River Runs Deep (ENJA Records 1982) and Obatalá (Enja, 1988) followed. Personnel changes were triggered by Jorge Dalto’s passing.

Those albums were followed by Rumba para Monk (1988). By now the Fort Apache Band was down to quintet, which included Larry Willis on piano, Steve Berrios on percussion, Carter Jefferson on tenor saxophone, Andy González on bass and Jerry González on congas, quinto, trumpet and flugelhorn. Sadly soon after this release, Carter Jefferson also passed away. He was replaced by John Stubblefield and tenor and soprano saxophonist Joe Ford was added. As much as the music of Rumba para Monk became the benchmark for the Fort Apache Band much more magnificent recordings were to follow. Among these was Moliendo Café(Sunnyside Records, 1991) and – seven other albums later – Rumba Buhainadedicated to the legendary Art Blakey.

It was music like that on recordings from The River Runs Deep to Rumba Buhaina that carved out that special niche for the Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band. It was one where the propulsion of the band’s Afro-Cuban rhythmic orientation provided by the deep rumble of Andy González’s bass and Steve Berrios’ drums and percussion intertwined itself with the inspiration of Jazz improvisation of the rest of the band members. The glue that held things together was forged by Larry Willis’ piano, the horns of Carter Jefferson’s as well as Joe Ford’s and John Stubblefield’s.

But nothing would be the same without the lead voice of Jerry González, who provided the kinetic thrust with his magnificent percussion colouring on congas and quinto, alternating between this and the wail of his horn that he used to pierce through the melodies of the band’s repertoire with his trumpet, often softened with various mutes or the flugelhorn. Mr González’s rippling percussive grooves shaped the sound of every band he fronted, most especially that of the Fort Apache Band. His masterful arrangements brought the full force and elegance of Afro-Cuban rhythmic forms such as the rumba and guaguancó to the music of the band. His performances on the horn – whether it was the trumpet or the flugelhorn – are strikingly expressionist, angsty hotchpotches of jazz idioms and flaming Latin techniques that he applied, in equal measure, into the music’s texture – sometimes obliquely and at other times with loud and direct reports.

Moreover, whether played muted or open horn the colours he produces in the music are extraordinary with muted parts seeming to go under the melody and then exploring other harmonic routes through almost imperceptible changes like watercolour washes. Almost always these magical variations make it seem as if Mr González’s musical lines have been created from a palette fashioned from real life. When this is heard with the music provided from the rest of the Band it always appears to be a most organic process that has an earthly beginning, but then rises to an utterly rarefied realm. It is this unique sound palette – a rare melding of aural language into which nuanced emotions were expressed with a poignant humaneness – without an ounce of guile that came to be recognised as the voice of one of the most unique musicians in all popular music; certainly in Latin-Jazz, a stream of American music that ran parallel to the great tradition of African-American music called Jazz.

Remembering Jerry González

It is hardly surprising therefore that When Fernando Trueba was producing his celebrated documentary Calle 54 that Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band came to be one of the featured acts in the film. While touring with Director Trueba to promote the film Mr González landed in Madrid, Spain on balmy day in the year 2000. The single promotional date in that city was enough to seduce Mr González to make it his home. Dropping anchor must have been one of the easiest decisions for Mr González to make. Madrid welcomes him with open arms and Mr González was lionised by the musicians of every spectrum – especially the numerous Cuban émigrés, and other local and Flamenco who called Madrid home. His reputation as one of the great trumpet players and percussionists had already preceded him. It wasn’t hard to find work there and Mr González became a leading light of the Madrid scene. He also founded two ensembles comprising Spanish and other musicians.

The first of these was Los Piratas del Flamenco (2004). An eponymously titled album resulted in 2004 on Mr González’s old Sunnyside imprint. The album features music that puts a magical twist into Flamenco music featuring the incomparable guitarist Niño Josele playing opposite the high and lonesome trumpet voice of Mr González. The album also includes the flamenco, the percussionist Israel Suárez “Piraña” and the singer Diego El Cigala. One of the uniquely innovative aspects of the recording is that it was made without bass, drums or piano. The result is Flamenco music infused with the heart-breaking trumpet of Mr González’s take on Jazz and Latin-Jazz idioms. The album was nominated to the Grammy Awards in the Best Latin Jazz Album category and won the Critics Award in New York for Latin-Jazz Album of the Year.

While in Madrid everyone who was anyone wanted to play with Mr González including the legendary Paco de Lucía as well as Enrique Morente, Javier Limón and Jorge Pardo, and copla musicians like Martirio as well as and pop musicians living in Spain – the Argentinean Andrés Calamaro being among them. Mr González also formed a quartet – El Comando de la Clave – with the Cubans pianist Javier “ Caramelo” Massó, drummer Kiki Ferrer and the inimitable composer, bassist, vocalist and timbalero Alain Pérez. An album, Avísale a mi contrario que aquí estoy yo (Cigala Music, 2010) resulted and this album was released in the US in 2011 by Sunnyside Records to much critical acclaim including a nomination for a Latin Grammy Awards in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. It was also voted Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year 2011 in several polls. Meanwhile the album was given the “Latino of the Year Award” in the 100 Latinos Awards in Madrid.

Mr González made a triumphant return to New York’s Blue Note with his fabled Fort Apache Band in 2012. The resultant live album was released by the Half Note label. Meanwhile in Spain he focused on wonderfully new projects, one of which was a recording with the magnificent Spanish contrabass player Javier Colina, and a duet album with the flamenco guitarist Niño Josele. He continued to remain much in demand and extremely busy, performing with a number of local and visiting musicians. Among his new friends were the bandleader Miguel Blanco and the producer Thomas Schindowski who helms the Youkali Music label. For Youkali Music – and with Miguel Blanco arranging – Mr González made two magnificent big band recordings. The first was Music for Big Band (Youkali Music, 2012) largely with repertoire written by Mr Blanco who also arranged and conducted. This was followed up two years layer by A Tribute to the Fort Apache Band, another big band sojourn, this time with repertoire made famous by Mr González’s legendary band once again arranged for big band and conducted by Mr Blanco.

Although the two big band recordings including his last release (2014) with Miguel Blanco feature Mr González in a setting where the musical textures are considerably denser than what one is accustomed to listening to with the Fort Apache Band, it is impossible to miss the singular magic of Mr González’s horn gliding effortlessly like a proverbial swan through liquid phrases that occasionally dive and dart in and out of the viscous music. His phrases are elliptical with lines climbing in iridescent arcs filling the pregnant air with a mystical sound as he dissects and analyses Mr Blanco’s arrangements then puts them together as a whole and communicates in his own unique voice the stories that speak to him in a very personal way.

During the nearly two decades he spent in Madrid, Mr González was not only reincarnated musically and performed and recorded with great major Spanish musicians such as Paco de Lucía, Javier Limón and Federico Lechner, he also found love, marrying Andrea Zapata-Girau from Vigo, Spain. A filmmaker, editor and visual artist, as well as jazz and Afro-Caribbean music lover and collector Miss Zapata-Girau and Mr González had a daughter who featured prominently as a member of the audience at various concerts and club dates. Miss Zapata-Girau is the proud keeper of the flame that is Jerry González, iconic musician and legendary musician who helped shape Latin-Jazz in ways that we will be coming to terms with for years to come.

On the 6th of May, 2019 Mr González was honoured by the City of Madrid with a plaque to commemorate his monumental contribution to music. Miss Zapata-Girau and many of his friends – musicians and just plain admirers of the man they knew as neighbour and friend were there to celebrate his life. There can be little doubt that Mr González was there among them smiling his crocked smile as he acknowledged the honour as only he could: in all humility.

Reviewing his last album Jerry González & Miguel Blanco: A Tribute to the fort Apache Band I made the mistake of suggesting that the ensemble whose repertoire was being celebrated had been disbanded. I had not heard from them in a while and, while assuming that Mr González had relocated permanently to Spain, that was it, so to speak. Mr González was justifiably upset and made his anger known in no uncertain terms. My editor had to apologise on my behalf as I was too mortified to respond. He passed away on October 1, 2018 without my ever being able to make my peace with him. Here then, is what I should have done before that fateful day last year.

Remembering Jerry González

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