RIP: Jerry González, 1949-2018
By Dr. José E. Cruz
Jerry González, a giant of Puerto Rican, Cuban, AfroCuban jazz and jazz, is no more. He was born in Manhattan on June 5, 1949, the son of Puerto Rican parents, grew up in the Bronx, and left us on October 1, 2018, the victim of smoke inhalation leading to cardiac arrest as a fire engulfed the first floor of the building in the neighborhood of Lavapiés, Madrid where he lived.
His given name was Geraldo Antonio but everyone knew him as Jerry. He was a trumpet player and accidental conguero who loved and was strongly influenced by Miles Davis, who once described his style of conga playing rather immodestly but truthfully as a blend of Mongo Santamaría, Tata Güines and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. His father gave him his first trumpet and the trumpet was his first love. He took up the congas serendipitously, while looking for something to do when he had to spend most of his time sitting down through a convalescence forced upon him by a broken leg.
He played the Puerto Rican rhythm of plena on congas like no else before or after him has ever done it, after devising a technique that allowed him to play the parts played by the three requisite drummers in plena ensembles all by himself. While the Cuban drummer Candido is known for having created a melodic sound on the congas by playing three at a time, González took melodic conga playing to a higher level by using five of them, developing a distinctive sound along the way.
He crafted a unique voice on the trumpet as well, but he will forever be remembered first and foremost by his conga style. He made the guaguancó rhythm sound both as a call to arms and as a lullaby; it was a sound both fiery and sweet, easily recognizable as his, and like all masters he played with such swiftness, precision and grace that watching his hands glide over five congas made everyone think they could do it just as well.
González was the creative genius behind the Fort Apache Band, a musical group that revolutionized AfroCuban jazz and that was forged in the cauldron of a struggle by Puerto Ricans in New York to fight representations of themselves as a destitute people.
In March of 1980, the entertainment magazine Variety ran an advertisement that read: “A chilling and
tough movie about the South Bronx, a 40 block area with the highest crime rate in New York. Youth gangs, winos, junkies, pimps, hookers, maniacs, cop killers and the embattled 41st precinct, just hanging in there.” It was an ad for the movie “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” starring Paul Newman, which was scheduled for release in 1981.
This representation of the South Bronx prompted the formation of a coalition of groups that met for the first time on March 5, 1980 at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. They named their coalition the Committee Against Fort Apache (CAFA) and got to work to stop production of the movie. CAFA also tried to stop the release of the picture. The movie was produced nevertheless and CAFA organized rallies and demonstrations calling for a boycott of the film.
In his response to CAFA’s protests, the film’s director, Dan Petrie, claimed that “The film does not insist that the people of the South Bronx have learned to live with inhumane conditions they created themselves… The film does not lie about the reality of the Puerto Rican and Black communities… The script does not rewrite history… The picture does not excuse police brutality.” If anyone was blamed in the film, said Petrie, it was politicians. The movie did not suggest that Puerto Ricans were animals who deserved to be treated like animals, he added. Some Puerto Ricans and blacks were shown as victims, not as villains. The only villain in the film was an Irish policeman who was denounced by a fellow Irishman. “It is our hope,” Petrie concluded, “that the picture will mobilize public opinion so that positive steps will be taken both within and outside the community to alleviate the ‘inhumane conditions’ which exist there.”
As a result of the protests against the movie, the producers decided to apologize on screen. The first thing viewers of the film saw was the following disclaimer: “The picture you are about to see is a portrayal of the lives of two policemen working out of a precinct in the South Bronx, New York. Because the story involves police work it does not deal with the law-abiding members of the community nor does it dramatize the efforts of the
individuals and groups who are struggling to turn the Bronx around.”
“Fort Apache, The Bronx” led to the creation of the Fort Apache Band. According to Francisco Reyes II, who took photos of the band’s early performances, the core group of Fort Apache was composed of members of Manny Oquendo’s Libre with alternating participants, expanding and contracting in size, depending on the blend of jazz and típico that Libre might be looking to achieve for a given gathering. The ensemble of Libre and its circle of talent included the late Mario Rivera on sax, the late Armando “Chocolate” Armenteros on trumpet, the late Jorge D’Alto on piano and Nicky Marrero on timbales. But the triumvirate that defined Libre was Manny Oquendo, Jerry González and his brother Andy Gonzalez. The ensemble quickly became recognized as the official band of CAFA and the musicians performed in school auditoriums and at street rallies where CAFA organizers were mobilizing communities to disrupt the production of Petrie’s film.
By the time CAFA’s campaign got off the ground some of Libre’s musicians had already recorded with Jerry González on his first album Ya Yo Me Curé (American Clavé, 1980). Ya Yo Me Curé was originally released as a vinyl LP and was then released by the label Pangaea, created by Sting, in digital CD format also in 1980. The recording is now available as a CD from the Sunnyside label, released in 1995.
Although the recorded sound of Fort Apache begins with Ya Yo Me Curé, it was not until 1982 that the band made its official debut with The River Is Deep (Enja, 1992). As González explained it, even
though the band evolved from the campaign against Petrie’s movie, its name came about almost as an afterthought. He was asked during a performance in Europe what the name of the band was, and he decided on the spot to name it Fort Apache.
Afterwards, González always made reference to the campaign against the movie as the reason behind the name. He claimed that he chose Fort Apache to show the world that, contrary to the representation offered in the film, good things came out of the Bronx. That was an understatement because the Fort Apache Band was great and a precedent setter.
After The River Is Deep the band went through critical personnel changes prompted by the deaths of vocalist and conguero Frankie Hernández and pianist Jorge D’Alto, who had taken Hilton Ruiz’s chair after Ya Yo Me Curé. Willie Colon’s original conguero Milton Cardona replaced Hernández briefly, and pianist Larry Willis replaced D’Alto and remained with the band until González left the United States in 2000. For many years after González took residency in Spain the band would reunite for specific performances with pianist Zaccai Curtis subbing for Larry Willis on piano and his brother Lucques Curtis subbing for Andy González on bass. By then an original Apache, Carter Jefferson, had passed, and John Stubblefield had replaced him. Stubblefield can be heard playing along with saxophonist Joe Ford in all the Apache recordings since 1994 and until González left the United States.
Between 1982 and 1996 Fort Apache recorded seven albums with what by 1989 had become the standard configuration of the group: congas, trumpet, sax, bass and piano. After moving to Spain in 2000, González fronted four projects: Jerry González & Federico Lechner: A Primera Vista (Federico Francisco Lechner Loubet, 2002) a record that is not widely available; Jerry González y Los Piratas del Flamenco (LOLA!, 2002); Music for Big Band with Catalonian musician Miguel Blanco, which came out in 2006 but was released by Youkali Music in 2012; and Jerry González y Los Comandos de la Clave (Cigala Music, 2010). Los Comandos (aka El Comando) was a quartet that echoed the original Fort Apache Band. In 2014, Miguel Blanco worked again with González in a big band project called A Tribute to the Fort Apache Band (Youkali Music).
For González, Los Comandos de la Clave was a return to the essence of the Fort Apache Band after years of quiet frustration in Spain because he allegedly could not find Spanish musicians who truly understood the clave nor the AfroCuban/Puerto Rican canon. When he met Cuban bassist Alain Pérez, he found a musical soulmate and then with Cuban pianist Javier Massó (aka Caramelo) and Cuban drummer Kiki Ferrer, he felt he regained his AfroCuban musical stride as Los Comandos de la Clave helped him return to his Fort Apache roots.
After Music for Big Band was released, I remember González telling me at the club Le Pousson Rouge in
New York (located on Bleecker Street in the space where the old Village Gate used to be) that the album “could have been better,” but when Miguel Blanco came to him with the arrangements for A Tribute to the Fort Apache Band he had no concerns. In a promotional video for the record on YouTube, González admitted that this time around the work Blanco had done with a selection of Fort Apache’s recorded songs had “brought him to tears.” This was González’s last recording before his untimely death, and it stands as a gem in his musical treasure trove, as a fitting and lasting tribute by a distinguished roster of Spanish and Cuban musicians that includes bassist Javier Colina and saxophonist Ariel Bringuez, as well as his buddy from Libre times, trombonist Norman Hogue, to a truly innovative and fantastic group and its founder. It is great that González received this homage while he was still alive, in other words, que se lo dieron en vida, even if for the rest of us the joy of that tribute is now small consolation.
What more can one say by way of praise about a Puerto Rican musician who launched his career with Dizzy Gillespie, moved on to play with Eddie Palmieri (“my university education,” González called that stint), then joined forces with brother Andy and Manny Oquendo to form Libre, a revolutionary group in the salsa genre, before creating the Fort Apache Band? González used to say: “I am bilingual. I speak Spanish and English. I can play the blues, and I can play the rumba.” And this is the feature of the Fort Apache Band that was its most compelling: its musical bilingualism. No other band on the scene has ever mastered the intricacies of the jazz and AfroCuban tradition like Fort Apache did.
In 1991, pianist Larry Willis declared that “playing with the Fort Apache Band has changed my life. I was getting bored musically. This band has the freshest concept I’ve heard in a long time.” And the force pushing everything forward was Jerry González, whom Willis credited with being “at the hub” of the torrent of collective
creative expression that distinguished the group from just about everybody else playing jazz at the time. They played hard, fast, with subtlety and swing, articulating honeyed melodies and complex harmonies and polyrhythms con delicia y con ardor. You are apt to find all these things in every one of their recordings, sometimes within the same song. Just listen to their rendition of the Pedro Flores classic “Obsesión,” on the album Moliendo Café, to “The Vonce” on the album Crossroads, and to Monk’s “Nutty” on Rumba Para Monk, and you’ll fully understand what I mean.
On May 7, 1980 CAFA held a demonstration in New York outside Studio 54 during a dinner organized by the Mayor’s office in charge of film promotion. On May 15, the City Council’s Committee on General Welfare passed a resolution calling “Fort Apache, The Bronx” racist and heeding El Diario-La Prensa’s call for a boycott. The following day over 100 people mobilized by CAFA disrupted filming at 162nd street and Westchester Avenue. On May 20, over 100 people marched throughout the 41st precinct in the Bronx chanting “No se Necesita, Película Racista” (We don’t need this racist film). In a press conference held in front of the precinct, the late
Congressman Bob García condemned the film as a symbol of “everything that is wrong with this country” and called for its boycott. Four days later, CAFA organized a march from the offices of United Bronx Parents at 156th Street to Hunts Point Park on 163rd. Nineteen groups, as well as the Catholic Vicariate of the Bronx and Planning Boards 1, 2, 4 and 6, sponsored this event. The sponsors also included black, Dominican and Chicano organizations. If the film truly symbolized everything that is wrong with the United States, the music of the Fort Apache Band arguably represents everything that is good, noble, innovative, and exciting about this
Despite all its efforts CAFA did not stop “Fort Apache, the Bronx.” Yet, it did accomplish several important goals. As the late Puerto Rican activist Richie Perez put it, “CAFA was the spearhead of a mass community movement. It was a broad coalition, uniting different sectors of our community and different perspectives. This was its main strength.”
The Fort Apache campaign also created an opportunity for left-wing groups to advance a long-term political agenda. One organization that took the opportunity was the People Against White Supremacy. Another one was the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. Most important, the campaign unified the black and Puerto Rican communities like never before and enabled cooperation between Puerto Ricans, Gays, Native Americans and the Chinese community in New York. One observer concluded: “The fight against ‘Fort Apache’ has had a dynamic effect in Black and Puerto Rican communities as well as in the country as a whole. Perhaps it is a beginning for some of the struggles of the ’80s.”
In many ways it was. In addition, it was the beginning of the Fort Apache Band, a landmark event in U.S. musical history and a musical phenomenon that brought legions of people together beyond the United States. Listen to their music, and you’ll agree. Jerry González was the engine that could; with Fort Apache he had to go against the grain of existing commercial standards. His frustration with the impediments to recording and playing the music he wanted to play, especially in the cuchifrito circuit, acted as a source of motivation to do it anyway.
When Ya Yo Me Curé was released González said: “E ya era tiempo.” Now he is gone E no era
tiempo; may he rest in peace. This is a cliché, but nevertheless it is the pure truth: Fort Apache lives.
Ya Yo Me Curé (American Clavé, 1980)
The River Is Deep (Enja, 1982)
Obatalá (Enja, 1988)
Rumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1989)
Earthdance (Sunnyside, 1991)
Moliendo Café (Sunnyside, 1992)
Crossroads (Milestone, 1994)
Pensativo (Milestone, 1995)
Fire Dance (Milestone, 1996)
Jerry González & Federico Lechner’s A Primera Vista (Federico Francisco Lechner Loubet, 2002)
Jerry González y Los Piratas del Flamenco (LOLA!, 2004)
Rumba Buhaina (Random Chance, 2005)
Jerry González & Miguel Blanco’s Music for Big Band (Youkali, 2012)
Jerry González y Los Comandos de la Clave’s Avísale a mi contrario que aquí estoy yo (Cigala Music, 2010)
Jerry González & Miguel Blanco Big Band’s A Tribute to the Fort Apache Band (Youkali, 2014)