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Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator

By Published: October 30, 2007
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Learning on the Bandstand

SB: Oh, yeah. The first time I got on a plane was with Mongo's band. We did a lot of traveling, that was great experience but it's not happening anymore like it was.

AAJ: Well, maybe we could talk about that for a minute. How do you see things being different from that era?

SB: Well, at that time for example let's say we'd go to L.A. and we'd play in a club for like two weeks. You'd get one day off a week and play a matinee or sometimes two matinees. So just to settle in a club for two weeks, you know it's a great feeling. It allows the band to grow, playing every night a couple of sets a night, that's no comparison to rehearsing.

AAJ: It's inspiring to know that there was enough demand for the music that you could have matinees and shows at night.

SB: Right. And what was great about matinees was that children that were underage could come and see the music. When I was a youngster my mother would take me to Birdland and we would sit in the "Peanut Gallery" which was a section specifically set aside for young people. Now everything is like concerts where you lose the vibe from the musician to the audience or vice versa.

AAJ: It feels kind of sterile?

SB: Yeah, in big concerts you play for an hour-and-a-half, you say 'bye and that's it. It doesn't have any meaning like it used to. It used to be someone sitting really close to the bandstand and feeling that vibe. It doesn't happen much anymore. That's why I like playing in clubs 'cause you get the vibe from the people. The youth now they never get to experience that feeling, it's a drag.

AAJ: I guess you could say that about the jam sessions too. They're not really around like they used to be.

SB: Right. Before, jam sessions were where you learned how to play your instrument. There was so much competition you had to be good or it would inspire you to be better.

AAJ: Those were the days before Berklee. The jam sessions were the Berklee.

SB: Right. Exactly. Or playing five or six nights in a club—that was the Berklee. Now everything is so homogenized in the classroom. To me you can't separate the living aspect or the social aspect from the music. You can't separate the music from the living part of the musician. Like right now, I'm talking to you on the phone but I'm still a musician, you know despite that we're doing an interview. You're a musician twenty four hours a day, not just when you're on the bandstand. So when you put it in a sterile classroom that gets lost.

Steve AAJ: Do you think that reflects on some of the younger musicians? A lot of them have come up through academic training.

SB: Sure, and you can hear it in the music. It's nice and proper and correct and the theory part of the music is fine and they're all great musicians; they can read fly shit and all of that, but there's something missing. It doesn't touch my heart. It's not real. It's like flippin' hamburgers or something. Playing music is like being married, you gotta fall in love or out of love and your old lady might to leave you; it's part of life.

AAJ: Right, and you can't replace that with a classroom.

SB: Yeah, there's certain things you have to really live and that make you mature. You have to go on a gig and not get paid, all that stuff builds character. You gotta pay some dues. If you just go to a big time music school and you graduate it doesn't mean anything without paying some dues.

AAJ: Well, that said are there any younger cats out there that you feel are saying something?

SB: There's a lot of talented musicians out there and now with all the new technology you can learn much faster but you can tell if a guy knows how to play the blues or if he's read the blues. I saw a Miles Davis interview where he was studying at Julliard and the teacher said, "Black people play the blues because they were downtrodden and sad and Miles said, "Look, my daddy's rich and my mother's good looking and I can play the blues. That made a lot of sense to me because he lived it. Miles was a little rich boy but he opted to cancel Julliard to go hang out with Bird; that makes all the sense in the world to me. Those clichés don't work, you know, all black people got rhythm, silly stuff like that, it's just stupid.

AAJ: I guess the real laboratory would be Minton's and 52nd Street.

SB: Sure. And all the jam sessions and stuff like that. That was the real school.

AAJ: I feel like the '70s was a vital time for jazz. A lot of people write it off as the "fusion era but guys like yourself, Billy Harper, Stanley Cowell and Charles Tolliver were making some great music.

Steve SB: Those are some great cats and they got wiped out. And it was done so deliberately. If you compare the young lions of that era with the young lions of today there's no comparison. Technically they're cool and they're all vegetarians now but in the music there's no butter in it, no gravy. I prefer a cat not having all the technical knowledge of music per se but if you touch me, if you move me, that's what counts, as opposed to a guy who can play a trumpet concerto on the first set and on the second set play a blues. That doesn't impress me. A lot of cats can't read a note but play with feeling. You can't buy that at a college, it's intangible, you have to be born with that.

AAJ: When you were with Mongo did you do other sessions and gigs when you weren't on the road?

SB: Yeah, when I was home I did a lot of sessions at that time when I was off from Mongo's band. It was a good era.

AAJ: Was any of that Fania stuff? Salsa records, those kind of session?

SB: Yeah, any time they needed a drummer I would be the cat with Fania records. I did a lot of those dates, with Larry Harlow, Willie Colon, you know things like that and with other smaller little groups.

AAJ: We talked about you being from New York City and the bilingual thing, being fluent in jazz and Afro-Caribbean music. Do you feel like you've been pigeonholed as the "Latin guy, or whatever, and you maybe could've gotten more straight-ahead jazz gigs but you do more in the Afro-Cuban idiom?

SB: You know, that's a good question. I get pigeonholed on both ends. The vibe I get from other people is either I'm not Latin enough or I'm not jazzy enough. So I'm really caught in the middle with a lot of stuff and sometimes it's cool, sometimes I can deal with it, sometimes I can't. It's a weird situation.

AAJ: They haven't heard Fort Apache? Obviously you're fluent in either idiom.

SB: Right, that's the only place where I feel super comfortable, where I can do whatever I want, just because of the nature of that music.

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