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Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator

Mark Merella By

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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.

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