Home » Jazz Articles » Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator



Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator


Sign in to view read count
I think people that are playing the music we are trying to play are special people and if you don
Steve Berrios is an innovative drummer/percussionist well-known to aficionados of Latin jazz. His groundbreaking work with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, numerous sessions as a sideman, as well as his two solo albums—First World (Milestone, 1995) and the Grammy-nominated And Then Some (Milestone, 1996)—show a body of work that is a unique amalgam of hard bop, Latin jazz and Afro-Caribbean folkloric rhythms.

Berrios's first high profile gig was playing with Mongo Santamaria in the late 1960s, and since that time his credits as a sideman are indeed impressive. Berrios has worked with many top musicians including Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland, Randy Weston, Hilton Ruiz, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Max Roach's M'Boom, Tito Puente and Paquito D'Rivera.

But for reasons of bias among the music media, Berrios, as well as other musicians who came up in the 1970s including band mates Joe Ford, Carter Jefferson and Larry Willis and others such as Billy Harper, Charles Tolliver and Bunky Green, has remained somewhat under the radar of today's music scene.

It's well-known that when Wynton Marsalis and others of the so-called neo-classical movement emerged, record companies and the music media hyped almost every young player that came on the scene. Meanwhile, musicians such as Berrios—who had paid their dues and developed original voices on their respective instruments—continued to make brilliant, groundbreaking music in semi-obscurity.

With a swing feel as greasy as Elvin Jones, a vast knowledge of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, accomplished tympani and marimba work, and even the ability to kick a backbeat, you'd be hard pressed to find another drummer with a more thorough knowledge of the percussive arts. Hopefully many of the musicians such as Berrios, who were developing during the middle age of jazz, are too young to be in the pantheon of the founders of jazz and too old to be darlings of the critics, will ultimately get their due.

Musical Beginnings

All About Jazz: So Steve, let's start from the beginning. When and where were you born?

Steve Berrios: Well, I was born here in New York City in 1945 on the west side on 109th Street, but I spent a lot of time at my grandma's house in El Barrio on the east side on 112th Street. At that time a lot of good musicians were living there, Tito Puente, Mongo [Santamaria], Willie Bobo, Joe Cuba, everybody, you name it, Machito, they all lived in that area. You would see them going shopping, walking their kids in strollers. Plus my household was like a meeting ground where a lot of musicians would come by and hang.

AAJ: That was Spanish Harlem right?

SB: Exactly, there was music all over the place.

AAJ: And your parents, they were born in Puerto Rico?

SB: They were born in Puerto Rico and they came here at an early age, around two or three. So they were more like New Yorkers than Puerto Ricans. And my mom never went back, my dad went back to visit after becoming a grown man. I've been there more times than he went.

AAJ: Do you know anything about your relatives in Puerto Rico? Were any of them musical?

SB: I had an uncle that was a merchant seaman, he played guitar and stuff, he was very musical, and my godfather, whose name was Doroteo Garcia, he was a pretty famous singer in the '40s. And my mom had a cousin whose name was Tony Pizarro who was a pretty famous singer in Puerto Rico. All my aunts and uncles sang and danced, so there was always music around the house.

AAJ: So it was definitely in the DNA.

SB: Exactly. And not only Puerto Rican music or whatever you want to call it but it was all kinds of music.

AAJ: So tell me about that. Around the house when you were growing up what kind of stuff did you listen to?

SB: You name it, from European classical music to Machito, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Puerto Rican trios, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, all kinds of stuff.

AAJ: So your parents had a really hip record collection.

SB: Oh yeah, and I used to be the DJ. They would allow me to put the records on, at that time it was 78s. I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music. Also, every Monday my dad used to take us to the Apollo Theater and every week it was a different show. One week it would be Duke Ellington, next week it would Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or The Drifters, the next week it would be a gospel show.

AAJ: So you were hearing anything and everything.

SB: Anything and everything, yeah.

AAJ: So where did you go to school when you were growing up?

SB: I went to elementary school here in New York and I graduated from George Washington High School. A lot of good people went to that school like Harry Belafonte and Betty Mabry, who used to be married to Miles, and Ronnie from Ronnettes.

AAJ: Did they have a good music program there?

SB: It was fair, and when I was freshman through a senior I was playing trumpet in the high school band.

AAJ: So you started on trumpet in high school or before that?

SB: I started on trumpet when I was in elementary school. My dad got me a bugle for my birthday, I was like in the 6th grade. And then after that he bought me a trumpet, so from elementary school through high school I was a trumpet player.

AAJ: Didn't you play at the Apollo in the talent shows?

SB: Yeah, I won the amateur contest I think three times in a row. Then they barred us [laughs]. And I can understand, give somebody else a chance.

AAJ: Do you remember what tunes you played?

SB: One time we played "It's Only A Paper Moon, a tune that Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers were doing at the time. And one time we did "A Night In Tunisia, I forgot the other one. It must have been a blues or something.

AAJ: So you were playing "A Night In Tunisia when you were just a kid. Did you solo at all or just play the melody?

SB: Yeah, I soloed. By ear, but I soloed. I kind of regret that I never took up keyboards, I could have learned much more. But most of my stuff was by ear.

AAJ: So when you soloed it was more off the melody of the tune as opposed to the chord changes?

SB: No, I could hear the chord changes, not as well as if I had known the keyboard. I was playing basically by ear. Listening to a lot of records and copying the solos.


Following His Father's Footsteps

AAJ: So how did you make the transition from trumpet to drums?

SB: To me it wasn't really a transition. My dad had his drums around the house and I used to set them up and mess around with them. So I learned by watching guys and playing along with records, I never took any drum lessons. As long I can remember I used to do that, I used to bang on my moms pots and pans. On the trumpet I had to do a little more study but the drum stuff always came naturally.

AAJ: I should mention that your father was a professional drummer.

SB: Right, and a very good one too. In the early '40s he played with a band led by Marcelino Guerra and made a lot of good records. And I'm proud of him, later on he opted to do those straight club date gigs just to feed his family. I don't think I could be that unselfish. He opted for doing a hip gig for no money to playing sad gigs for the rest of his career just to feed his family.

AAJ: Did your father play trap set or percussion?

SB: It was a mixture of trap set and timbales at the same time, which a lot of society bands where doing. You had to play a little bit of everything. You had to play a polka, then you'd play a cha-cha, a tango, a mixture of everything. I don't know if you've ever heard of Roseland or Arthur Murray or what they sometimes call a rhumba, which is a fast bolero.

AAJ: Yeah, rumba with an "H.

SB: There you go. That was the Fred Astaire era.

AAJ: So it was mainly a dance band?

SB: Yeah, yeah.

AAJ: I guess a lot of the bands were back then. The big bands were mainly for dancing.

SB: Back then there were a lot of bands doing that. That's like a dying art now. I caught the tail end of that so I learned a lot of stuff. I used to play the Catskills, the Concord and a place called Stevensville.

AAJ: Were your first gigs on trumpet?

SB: Yeah, that was with the guy we won the amateur hour with, his name was George Wheeler. He was trying to imitate Art Blakey and I was trying to imitate Lee Morgan on trumpet [laughs]. And after that I got the gig with Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers and I also got a gig playing with Joe Panama around the same time.

AAJ: Those were boogaloo bands, right?

SB: Yeah, it was boogaloo type stuff. Matter of fact, Joe Cuba's band comes out of Joe Panama's band. Joe Panama was a pianist and I think they all mutinied and Joe Cuba took it over.

AAJ: Didn't your father let you take over a steady gig that he had?

SB: Right. He had a steady gig not too far from here on 57th Street. It was a hotel called the Great Northern, and inside that hotel there was a club called the Alameda Room. It was a six night a week gig. There were two bands, a show band and a dance band, and my old man put me on the dance band. I did that gig for like four years straight without ever missing a day. So that was a real learning experience. Some of it I liked and some of it I really didn't like. So then, when my father left the show band to do another gig, he put me on the show band, and I learned a lot. I had to do some reading on that gig. It was a five-piece band, there would be a comedian, a singer, you'd have to cover all that stuff. It wasn't very hip but it was a good experience.

AAJ: How old were you at that time?

SB: I think I was nineteen.

AAJ: That's not a bad gig for a young man.

SB: No, it was great. A six night a week gig wearing a tuxedo every night, I thought I was hot shit! [laughs]. And making decent bread at that time. At least it was steady bread. I only had one night off, it was a Monday. When I was on that gig, on my break I used to run down or take a cab to the Palladium or Birdland to see the real hip stuff, what I was really attracted to.

AAJ: That's a great opportunity. Only in New York, with some real straight-ahead jazz on one side of the street and then some hip Latin shit on the other.

SB: Right! Exactly. So I really ate all that stuff up.

AAJ: Who did you get to hear?

SB: Oh, name it. In one night, let's say I start off at the Palladium. I would see Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez and then I'd cross the street and I'd see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver's quintet or Miles Davis with Trane or Monk's quartet, all within one block, so that was an amazing time.

AAJ: Yeah, definitely. You can't replace that.

SB: No, and I used to see it live and there's no price for that.

AAJ: Did you realize at the time how special that was?

SB: No, not taking it for granted because I was engulfed in it. But I didn't know it was that special as now when it's not there anymore. I feel really blessed to have seen that. I mean its one thing to see that on You Tube but seeing it live, just the vibe of that. You know just seeing the cats hang out and walk into the club, or settin' up, just their body language, guys breakin' a sweat, the stuff gets pretty intense, there's no words to describe that.

AAJ: Do you remember your first record date?

SB: Wow. I think it was with Pucho, playing trumpet.

AAJ: Is there any session from the early days that stands out?

SB: Not really. I've done so many and some I've really forgotten about.


Gigging With Mongo

AAJ: What was the first record date that you remember where you really felt like you were doing something?

SB: I guess it would be with Mongo.

AAJ: Well, why don't we talk about that, how you got that gig and how that materialized.

SB: The reason I got that gig was because on my hotel gig there was a Sunday matinee. So there would be a hip band like Mongo, or a band like that, that would play the matinee. Mongo heard me play and he was having trouble with his drummer at that time. So he asked me would I be interested in doing the gig, and you know what my answer was [laughs]. So I didn't even give two weeks notice. I got somebody else to sub for me, I didn't even get paid my last weeks pay.

AAJ: Well, when opportunity knocks...

SB: Right, I had to jump at the chance. I did that week at the hotel but during the day I was rehearsing with Mongo's band. But I knew most of his stuff 'cause I was a fanatic. I was a big fan of that band, so it wasn't that hard for me to jump in the gig 'cause I knew all the material they were doing at that time. But we rehearsed for about a week at the same time I was doing the hotel gig at night and after that I just left everything there.

AAJ: Who else was in the band at that time?

SB: Well, me and Sonny Fortune joined at the same time, there was a trumpet player named Ray Maldonado, Rodgers Grant on piano and Victor Vanegas on bass. It was a good band. I forgot the other the other saxophone players name, I think it was Maurico Smith. When me, CJ [Carter Jefferson] and Moldonado were in the band that was the trio of doom [laughs].

AAJ: How long was Carter in the band?

SB: Maybe a year or two, then he went with the Jazz Messengers.

AAJ: Do you have any favorite recordings from your time with Mongo?

SB: Man, it's been so long and I haven't really listened to any of those records since that time but maybe Up From The Roots (Atlantic, 1972), Afro-Indio (Vaya, 1975) has a couple of things on there, maybe A La Carte (Vaya, 1976) but I haven't heard those things in so long I can't really judge them. But I dug those records more than the commercial stuff he did.

AAJ: Did you meet Willie Bobo at that time or was it before that?

SB: Willie Bobo met me before I was born. My grandmother and his mom were tight; they used to live on the east side like I told you. So I'm sure Willie saw me in my mom's stomach. And we were pretty tight. He used to come by the house and I used to see him around the neighborhood. He's one of my main influences.

AAJ: What did you find special about his playing?

SB: Just his flexibility, to play authentically in whatever style he was playing. He could play straight ahead jazz and he could play authentic "Latin music and I don't know too many cats like that.

AAJ: Well, there's you.

SB: [laughs]. Well, I got that from Willie. Even in speaking he was extremely bilingual, you couldn't tell if he was African-American, or if he was Afro-Cuban, or Puerto Rican, you know what I mean? I admire that in people, that they can switch and they don't speak with an accent or whatever.

AAJ: Again, I think coming up in New York...

SB: Yeah, that's unique to New York.


Julito Collazo, Going to Cuba, and the New York Batá Scene

AAJ: What about Julito Collazo? I know he was a big influence on you.

SB: Well, he got here I believe in '55. He and Franciso Aguabella came here from Cuba with Katherine Dunham's dance company and my parents took me to see that ballet, and I was extremely inspired by seeing that folkloric stuff. And again my dad knew him, so he used to come by the house, so he knew me since I was ten years old.

AAJ: When did you start hanging out with him and learning about batá drums? [Batá are a trio of drums that originated with the Yoruba of Nigeria and are played in Cuba, the US and elsewhere as part of ceremonies of Orisha worship].

SB: All through that time. Just coming up, we used to see each other, I was a late teenager and he was playing with Eddie Palmieri at the time. So in order for me to get in to dance I used to wait backstage and carry his timbales. And he was in Mongo's band playing percussion so we really got tight; we were roommates on the road.

AAJ: You mentioned the folkloric stuff. Was the first time you heard it with Katherine Dunham's dance company?

SB: No. I heard that before I saw the Katherine Dunham Ballet. I had already heard that music.

AAJ: Was that on records?

SB: On records, yeah. There's a record of Katherine Dunham's dance company on some obscure label and my dad had '78s of Los Munequitos de Matanzas. They started in '52, so I think their first record came out in '53. Back in the days before the blockade anything that was fresh out of Cuba was here in New York. Back in that time, from Miami, even with your car, you could take a ferry to Havana. But seeing it live, that was something else.

AAJ: You got to go to Cuba at one time. Was that with Dizzy?

SB: That was with Leon Thomas back in '85. That was a great experience. It was Leon's band and Dizzy's band. We were there for about ten days and I didn't sleep for ten days! [laughs] I caught as much music as I could. I saw Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, I even heard an Abakua ceremony but only from the outside. I heard a lot of different bands. When I first got there I hooked up with Changuito [drummer with Los Van Van] and he's a big influence on me, a great player. With Leon I think we did four different gigs, a couple of concerts for the people, and a show at a big opera house (I forget the name). It was a cultural exchange thing, it was really nice. Too bad the people down there don't have anything...just music and rum. You should go before Castro checks out, before it turns into McDonalds and all of that.

AAJ: As far as the folkloric scene in New York, who were some of the other guys learning the batá tradition from Julito?

SB: Well, Julito and Francisco are the first ones responsible for that instrument being in this country. After that, many years later during the Mariel era then it got even more intense. [Mariel refers to the boatlift in 1980 when many Cuban exiles arrived in the US ] Orlando "Puntilla Rios and Alfredo Calvo came here and later those cats brought the sacred Anya drums here. Before that there were no sacred drums. [Anya is a diety believed by devotees of Orisha worship to reside inside sets of consecrated bata drums]

AAJ: Do you have any thoughts on the drum as a spiritual entity?

SB: Oh, definitely. Any percussion instrument has a spiritual vibe to it and I treat them all the same way. Some more than others, but of course. Playing a tambor [religious ceremony] would be the extreme end of it but say someone comes into a club and they're down in the dumps, the music can lift up their spirit. Music is something else man.

AAJ: Who was in Julito's crew, playing with him and learning from him.

SB: Well, almost everybody before 1980. But he only taught a select group of guys because he wanted to maintain the integrity of the religion and the instrument. After Mariel, everybody and their mother could get some inside info for a couple of dollars. Julito had more integrity than to be a sell out. And by the time Mariel came along he had already backed away from playing because in '79 he became a babalawo [priest of Ifa] so he was focusing more on that. But, in my particular crew it was me, "Flaco [Hector Herenandez], Frank Colon, Moreno Tejeda, and "Chachete [Angel Moldonado, leader of Batacumbele]. There were a few guys around...Milton Cardona.

AAJ: Speaking of Milton that reminds me of the Bembe (American Clave, 1987) recording. For me that's kind of a landmark of what was happening on that scene in New York at that time. Would you agree?

SB: Definitely. That was like the mid '80's I think.

AAJ: How did that recording come about? Were you guys playing ceremonies around New York or was it more of a performance ensemble?

SB: A little of both, cause Milton used to do college concerts. So basically the drum crew was me, Flaco and Jose Fernandez. So we just went into the studio and everything was basically one take, even the coro [background chorus]. What you hear on that record is the same group that played a lot of different colleges. I know we did that record in one day. I think it came out pretty good.

AAJ: Yeah, I'd agree. Definitely! So getting back to Mongo I guess you guys did a lot of traveling?


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.

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.

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.


Rise Of The Fort Apache Band

AAJ: Let's talk about that. How did the Fort Apache Band get started?

SB: Well, I first met Jerry and Andy [Gonzalez] when I was playing in Mongo's band. When I was out on the road, Monguito [Mongo's son] used to stay at my crib and Jerry and Andy would come by and hang and check out my record collection. It was definitely when I wasn't there 'cause a lot of my records got stolen! [laughs]. But, we didn't really start to hang together until I left Mongo's band in '80 -'81, somewhere around there. I wasn't doing that much and about two blocks away from here, where I live right now, there was a club called Soundscape. Jerry was having jam sessions I think on a Thursday night and whole bunch of cats started coming around, which was during the Mariel era so Puntilla, Daniel Ponce, Igancio Berroa, a lot of those cats were coming around. So that's how that developed. Then Jerry decided to form a band, a big band, and then we went to Berlin, I think it was, but it was a thousand guys [laughs].

AAJ: That was when you did The River Is Deep (Enja, 1982) and those records when you had vocals, trombone, a timbalero, guitar...

SB: Right, it was a million guys. So we huddled and said if we want to make some money we've got to cut this band down. So it turned into a quintet and eliminated a lot of unnecessary stuff, well not unnecessary, but we just dwindled it down to the core of what the band was trying to do. And it really worked out, the first record we did wasRumba Para Monk (Sunnyside, 1989) and I think that's a classic record. The group was Carter [Jefferson], Larry [Willis] Jerry, Andy and myself. Then we added Joe Ford, I wish he would've been on the first one. That was a good record. Since then it's always been five or six pieces.

AAJ: I know Jerry's name is on the band but you're an elder to Jerry and Andy and I've always felt that you've had as much influence on that band as the Gonzalez brothers.

SB: Oh, I know so, and not patting myself on the back but more influence then they have. It's just because of politics, either they take the credit or it's been heaped on them but if anybody knows anything about music, they know why certain things are the way they are in that band. I think I've been a major influence on that band. Not I think, I know.

AAJ: What would that be? What elements did you bring in?

SB: Well before I was in the band they made a record called Ya Yo Me Cure (Sunnyside, 1980) and they never went to 4/4 straight ahead jazz swing, so I brought that in.

AAJ: What about the folkloric rhythms? I think Fort Apache might be the first band, at least out of New York or North America, that utilized rumba and other Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms.

SB: Oh, I think so, yeah. But I can't take all the credit for that they were doing some of that before I joined the band but I just kept it up, so we're still doing that but there's only two of us playing percussion so it's a little different than if you have a whole rhythm section but we keep that element in there.

AAJ: Do you feel like you found your voice within that context?

SB: I'm still looking for my voice.

AAJ: Yeah, but you definitely have a sound.

SB: Well, you can tell if it's me playing on record or not. But I'm still searching for different things. I don't play the way I did on the Monk record. I don't play like that anymore, thank God. You don't want to play the same way you did twenty years ago. I'm still searching and looking for different ways to do things but if you don't have a place where you can expound on things it's a drag. It's sad to say but there's not that much work for a band like Fort Apache.

AAJ: Why do you think that is?

SB: Because of the powers that be. And the music is too honest and raw. It can't be controlled. They'd rather have something a little more watered down and then they can dictate what to do and what to play and who should be on the record, stuff like that. It's a drag; it doesn't allow the music to grow. At one point, when we were really busy we influenced a lot of other groups to play in that vein but then it just dwindled out. I don't hear it anymore.

AAJ: Who were some of the bands you might have influenced.

SB: Lemme see. David Sanchez, Danilo Perez, the pianist that's with Wayne [Shorter] now, even Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente. I think Fort Apache are like the unsung heroes, though most people who are in the know, know who's who when it comes to talking about Latin jazz.

AAJ: What do you think is unique about Fort Apache?

SB: Well, the versatility and authenticity of our playing is pretty special. I haven't really heard anybody else do it.

AAJ: Yeah, a friend of mine here in [Washington] D.C. says, "Fort Apache doesn't play Latin jazz, they play jazz Latin.

SB: Okay, that's a good way of putting it. I understand what he's saying. Nobody can say, "Oh, these Spanish guys are trying to play some be-bop, or, "These American guys are trying to play some clavé stuff and I think that's exclusive to New York. I've heard some bands from the West Coast and it sounds like the West Coast, and it's cool, if you like that kind of stuff. I think we're a little more knowledgeable about the two languages, which are basically the same; it's just another way of making rice and beans.

AAJ: One thing about Fort Apache is you, Larry and Andy do a lot of unique turnarounds in the music. Was that something you consciously worked on, or was it just something that came out on the gig?

SB: It just happened from being on the gig. We never talked about it and we still don't talk about it, it just happens. We follow each other, whoever initiates where we wanna go, that's where we go. Sometimes we stumble but that's part of the music. It keeps it honest and it keeps it fresh. That's what's unique about that band; we can go in a lot of different places. A lot of cats say, "Man, you cats must rehearse cause you guys are so tight. We rehearsed once, for that Monk record, two days to make that record and that was it. Everything else is just on the gig.

AAJ: One thing that's unique about your style is that you've applied some batá rhythms onto the drum set.

SB: Right, sometime I apply some batá stuff and it makes it sound different on the drum set. Sometime when me and Jerry are doing drum solos we play a couple of batá rhythms, "Tui-Tui and "Sheshe Kururu, but people don't know what they are and especially on congas and drums it's sounds brand new but there's nothing new under the sun. Even when we're playing the rumba stuff, I'm playing gua-gua on the bells and Jerry's playing five drums and it sounds different from a regular rumba rhythm section, but we're playing basically the same parts with a little embellishment.

That's another thing with the Apaches, most Latin jazz bands are playing a mambo with jazz melodies on top of the rhythm. What we do is play rumba with jazz melodies, that makes it a little different. And mambo's cool for back then, but we've taken it where it should be taken, if not, we could stay back in 1955. It's cool, I still like some music from 1955. I like music from 1945. I'm sure if Bird or Trane were alive they wouldn't be playing the way that they played before they died. Even take Miles, a lot of people said he sold out but I can understand why he wouldn't play the way he played with Tony [Williams] and Wayne [Shorter] and them later in his career. He'd rather sacrifice himself in order for the music to grow, that's pretty romantic to me.

AAJ: Took a lot of courage too.

SB: Exactly. To sacrifice himself just for the sake of the music, that's so loving.


Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.




Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.