Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator
SB: That was another one of my learning experiences. When Freddie Waits passed away, Joe Chambers gave me a call. Ray Mantilla couldn't make a concert and they also needed to fill the space for Freddie Waits. So I got the call, made a couple of rehearsals and fell right in. Between playing percussion and playing the drum set I added a little more than what Freddie was doing because he didn't know anything about Latin hand percussion, so I was like two guys in one.
AAJ: With that band you were playing everything tympani, marimba...
SB: Glockenspiel. It gave me the opportunity to learn parts on all those different instruments. Every tune we had to rotate, that was part of the rules.
AAJ: Did Max write all of the music?
SB: He wrote some. He wrote a lot of the good stuff in the band but my favorite composer was Joe Chambers, and also Omar Clay had some interesting tunes.
AAJ: Joe Chambers is kind of underrated as a composer.
SB: Another underrated cat. He's a great composer and a great pianist. He's a good guy, we're pretty tight.
AAJ: That's one of your current gig right.
SB: Yeah, that's another great experience because when he's playing drums I'm playing percussion and when he plays vibes I play the drum set. So it gives me a lot of leeway to do what I like to do.
AAJ: In light of Max's recent passing why don't you talk his influence on jazz drumming and jazz music in general.
SB: Well Max was one of the most important drummers on the bebop scene. He invented most of that language. Again getting back to everybody gets something from somebody else, he got a lot from Klook [Kenny Clarke] and Papa Joe Jones. But he compiled it and made it his own and you can tell...there's certain licks that any drummer that plays jazz will have to know that came from Max Roach. Also, he put the drum set out in front.
Most people look at the drummer as an ignorant timekeeper that doesn't know anything about music or forms, but he dispelled that false rumor. A drummer has to be as intelligent as the horn players or more intelligent. I don't care who the leader of the band is once the tune is counted off the drummer is the leader of the band. The drummer controls the dynamics, the tempo, the feel of the music, everything, and that's a big responsibility. A horn player, they can play the head, play a solo, and then they can be off at the bar. But we have to stay there throughout and maintain that intensity. So Max had a lot of integrity and commanded respect.
I think people that are playing the music we are trying to play are special people, and if you don't respect yourself and carry yourself that way, no one else will. You know, "Oh yeah, just another drummer, a jazz cat. No, it's just the opposite, we're like royalty. We're blessed and that's how we should conduct ourselves and I learned that from Max and Art [Blakey]. We have to treat each other for what we are, because not everyone can do what we do.
AAJ: That's true. Unfortunately a lot of people look at us and say they "play they don't work.
SB: Right, if you call a plumber to fix your bathroom you gotta pay him. But with us we're just having fun and there's a lot of chicks around and drugs and drinking. So we're just playing, having fun and we have dispel that myth 'cause it's not true. We gotta pay our rent just like everybody else does. Send kids to college; pay the mortgage, car notes. Why should we get paid less than minimum wage 'cause people think we're having fun, you know what I mean?
AAJ: I couldn't agree more. Think of all the hours spent developing your craft.
SB: Right, and it's not like, well, I'm gonna study two hours a day. It's a non-stop learning process. I can relate anything I do to music. Think about watching a guy pitch in a baseball game, how he winds up, I can relate that to music. Or a good boxer, his body language, the way he moves. Or a good cook, I can relate that to the colors in a tune.
AAJ: Unfortunately, I think for the average person music is just something they put on to have in the back round.
SB: Right. But if you take music away from the average person, any kind of music, they'd go crazy. Take anything related to the arts, take it away from a person that's ignorant and they couldn't handle it. You know, "Can you play something? It's so quiet in here.
AAJ: Do you think the arts are what has kept us from blowing up this planet?
SB: Exactly. We keep those fools in check and basically it's not their fault. They don't realize they need it even though they do.
AAJ: Art Blakey was another big influence on you and another great drummer you got to work with.
SB: Well, God bless him. Before I met him, I heard him on records with a percussionist named Sabu Martinez who was good friend of my dads. They did a couple of '78s of drum stuff called Safari or something like that on Blue Note. So I heard that stuff as a young kid. Then when I was playing trumpet I met Art's son, Art Jr. (we used to call him Sonny) he played drums. And we got tight and I played trumpet with him for awhile. He would take me by his father's house and I was delighted and in awe just to be around him and checking him out. He was a sweetheart, a nice friendly guy. He dug the young cats and he would school you, but without sitting you down and saying, "This is the way you do it son, but just by assimilation.
He was one of the best band leaders I've ever met. He made you feel like you were needed but he also pushed you to be independent. He made his sidemen feel like they were just as important as the leader. He always used to tell the Messengers, "Don't get too comfortable, this is not the Post Office. Some of the cats would think, this is a good gig, I'm gonna be here for awhile. He never wanted that. There's a record he did Live At Birdland (Blue Note, 1954) with Clifford Brown, Horace Silver and Lou Donaldson and there's a quote where Bu says, "When these guys get too old I'm gonna get some younger ones. He was very intelligent, he knew about politics, all kinds of stuff.
AAJ: Then you hooked up him again later on.
SB: I wasn't working at the time, he didn't know that, but I went to see the band down in the Village, and he said, "Hey man, what are you doing, and I told him things were kind of light and I wasn't doing anything and he said, "Well come with me let's go to Paris. I said, "What? Okay. [laughs] He didn't ask me, he said, "You're coming with me. He was like a father figure, you can't say no, I'm not going. And a situation like that, how would you not go with Art Blakey to Paris? I didn't even ask if he was gonna pay me, it wasn't about that. He paid for everything just like a vacation. So that turned into me being the road manager for about a year. I had never done that before. I was responsible for paying all the cats, checking them into airports and hotels, giving them wake up calls. I really learned a lot.
AAJ: Did you run into any guys running you ragged, like being late all the time?
SB: No, 'cause that would be on them. I'd tell them it's a seven o'clock call, if not, it's on you. I didn't baby sit anybody.
AAJ: Who was on the band at that time?
SB: Mulgrew Miller, Donald Brown, and later Benny Green on piano. Peter Washington on bass. Terrance Blanchard and then Wallace Roney on trumpet. John Toussaint and Javon Jackson on tenor, Donald Harrison and Kenny Garrett on alto and Tim Williams on trombone.
AAJ: What time period was that?
SB: I think it was '84. Also, sometimes I'd play percussion on the gig and I'd play drums on "The Theme, when Art would introduce the band. I rehearsed the band sometimes too but when Art would play, they would sound like completely different tunes [laughs]. It was a great experience.