Jerry Gonzales & The Fort Apache Band
For nearly 15 years, the Fort Apache band has been one of the few authentic standard-bearers of what can rightfully be called Latin jazz. As demonstrated on Crossroads, the New York-based sextet’s Milestone debut, this band does not merely play both sides of the fence; it burns the fence down. As one of its founding members, Steve Berrios, explains, “Most bands that play so-called Latin jazz might play a ‘jazz’ tune the way a traditional salsa band might play it. To me that’s not the point. They haven’t really done their homework. We know both sides of the coin extremely well, which makes this band unique. I think it comes off in the music.” Peter Watrous, writing in the New York Times, has agreed, noting that “the band has come up with something immensely dramatic, music that constantly shifts angles and approaches,” and citing Fort Apache as possibly “the best Latin jazz group working.”
Latin jazz is more than 50 years old: In 1942, Mario Bauza wrote his classic composition "Tanga” and four years later he introduced Dizzy Gillespie to Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo, giving rise to a series of historic cross-cultural collaborations featuring Machito, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others. Afro-Cuban rhythms have been embedded in the pulse of jazz ever since, but rarely have the two traditions melded as fluidly as they do in the music of Fort Apache.
First organized in the early 1980s by the Bronx-bred brothers Jerry Gonzalez (trumpet, flugelhorn, congas) and Andy Gonzalez (bass), Fort Apache was initially a large, flexible ensemble, boasting as many as 10 or 15 pieces and featuring such players as Kenny Kirkland, Sonny Fortune, Steve Turre, the late Jorge Dalto, Frankie Rodriguez, Milton Cardona, Hector Hernandez, Angel Vazquez, and others. The band’s first two albums were recorded live at European jazz festivals: The River Is Deep, 1982 in Berlin; Obatala, 1988 in Zurich. But it was 1989’s Rumba Para Monk, a quintet recording of Thelonious Monk masterpieces arranged by Jerry Gonzalez and the entire band, that brought the Fort Apache concept into focus. Named Jazz Record of the Year by the French Académie du Jazz, the album also resulted in the Fort Apache Band being voted the number one World Beat Group in Down Beat’s 55th annual Readers Poll.
The quintet that recorded Rumba Para Monk—with Carter Jefferson on tenor saxophone, Larry Willis on piano, and Steve Berrios on drums—added saxophonist Joe Ford for 1991’s Earthdance and 1992’s Moliendo Cafe. Following the death of Jefferson, former Fort Apache member John Stubblefield returned to the fold on tenor sax. “When we first started,” Berrios explains, “we had more salsa players in the band, but since we’ve added more jazz players—more well-rounded players—the concept is much hipper. And we’ve gone from playing jazz tunes with Latin rhythms to playing much more original material.”
The Fort Apache vision has organically evolved from the backgrounds of its founding members. Born of Puerto Rican heritage in New York City, Jerry Gonzalez, Andy Gonzalez, and Steve Berrios all grew up with their ears and hearts open to both jazz and Latin music. “Whenever I heard jazz—Trane, Miles, or Monk—I heard the Cuban rhythms with it all along,” Jerry Gonzalez told Down Beat in 1990. In 1970, at the age of 21, he was given the chance to apply that understanding, working with Dizzy Gillespie for a year. “Dizzy proved that you can superimpose authentic bebop over a complex Latin rhythmic bass without watering either of them down,” Gonzalez has explained. “I don’t want to compromise the rhythm and I don’t want to compromise the jazz playing.”
In 1971, both Jerry and Andy Gonzalez joined pianist Eddie Palmieri in what many consider to have been the classic band of “El Son.” Not long after, they combined forces with master timbalero Manny Oquendo in Conjunto Libre, the exhilarating Latin band that continues to thrill audiences today. Jerry, who made his recording debut as a leader in 1980 with Ya Yo Me Cure, has also performed with Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Dorham, Anthony Braxton, Tito Rodriguez, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, and Machito.
Coming from a musical household in which his mother sang and his father was a professional drummer, Steve Berrios remembers that “it was just natural for me to hear both Machito and Duke Ellington.” Although he played jazz trumpet throughout elementary and high school, Berrios eventually turned to the drums, which had always been his “first love.” Self-taught but inspired by such masters as Art Blakey, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and Elvin Jones, Berrios filled in for his father in the Latin house band at Manhattan’s Hotel Alameda and found himself playing six nights a week for the next four years. In 1967, he was invited to join the band of Mongo Santamaria and performed on and off with the legendary conguero through 1980. Berrios’s credits also include long stints with Tito Rodriguez, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and more recently, Hilton Ruiz and Max Roach’s M’Boom ensemble.