comscore Jerry González, innovator of Latin jazz, is dead at 69

Jerry González, innovator of Latin jazz, is dead at 69

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    Jerry González, right, on fluegelhorn, and his brother Andy, on bass, performing with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra at Symphony Space in New York in 2011. Jerry González, a trumpeter and percussionist who was a central figure in Latin jazz, especially through the Fort Apache Band, died on Monday in Madrid. He was 69.

Jerry González, a trumpeter and percussionist who was a central figure in Latin jazz, especially through the Fort Apache Band, which he formed almost 40 years ago with his bass-playing brother, Andy González, died Monday in Madrid. He was 69.

The cause was smoke inhalation suffered during a fire in his home, his sister, Eileen González-Altomari, said. A product of New York City, he moved to Spain in 2000.

González spent time as a sideman for stars like the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the pianist Eddie Palmieri, but his greatest skill was weaving together musical styles and influences from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Africa and more to create his own music.

His explorations ranged far and wide. His 1989 album with Fort Apache, “Rumba Para Monk,” infused the compositions of Thelonious Monk with Afro-Cuban flavor. His album “Ya Yo Me Curé” (1979) includes a jazz riff on the theme from “I Love Lucy.” In Spain, he began playing a lot of flamenco, fronting a band called Los Pirates del Flamenco.

He was, in short, an innovator who, along with his brother, the drummer Steve Berrios and a few others, melded different strains of music into new sounds.

“More than almost anybody else,” Todd Barkan, a jazz presenter who produced several of González’s albums, said in a telephone interview, “they combined straight-ahead jazz and Latin music in an organic and progressive way that really pointed the way toward a lot of musical language to come.”

Gerald Antonio González was born June 5, 1949, in Manhattan into a family of Puerto Rican heritage and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Geraldo, was a vocalist who had his own band in the 1950s and ‘60s. His mother, Julia (Toyos) González, was a homemaker who also did secretarial work at New York University and, for a time, for the FBI.

González-Altomari said her father filled the house with music when his children were young. “He was the one who bought Jerry and Andy their first instruments,” she said in a telephone interview.

Jerry González recalled those early influences in a 1991 interview with The Boston Globe.

“We listened to everything — Machito, Tito Rodríguez, Cortijo y su Combo, Tito Puente,” he said. “So when I started,” he added, “I didn’t even think about what I was going to do. It was Latin jazz. That’s what was in my head.”

He began playing the trumpet in junior high school. His sister said that the congas came into his repertoire by accident: He broke his leg and could not get to school for a time, so he began hanging out with street-corner musicians and learning from them.

He attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, an experience that helped transform him from merely a kid who could play pretty well into someone with a real understanding of musical forms.

“It opened my head to classical music,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky. I was a street musician. I knew they existed, but I had never studied them.”

After graduating in 1967, González attended the New York College of Music, but he was soon working professionally. He joined Gillespie’s band at 21 and stayed with it for a year. He then spent time under Palmieri.

“Playing with Palmieri, you had to know Cuban music,” he told The Globe. “That band for me was like going to school.”

He would later play with Puente, the great Latin jazz percussionist and bandleader, as well as pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jaco Pastorius and others. His musicianship gave him unusual versatility.

“As an instrumentalist, he was that rare artist who played with equal dexterity conga drums, trumpet and fluegelhorn,” Raul Fernandez, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, who curated the Smithsonian Institution exhibition “Latin Jazz: La Combinación Perfecta” in 2002, said by email. “He moved easily between playing trumpet in harmonically complex Latin jazz tunes and performing superbly on the congas.”

As Joe Conzo Sr., archivist for Tito Puente, put it in a telephone interview: “To play with Tito, you had to be good, so Jerry was good. Tito didn’t just take any conga player or trumpet player. And Tito let him play both.”

But González and his brother were also carving their own musical trails. In Andy González’s basement in the Bronx in the mid-1970s, veteran Cuban musicians and younger New York-bred Puerto Rican players were jamming, eventually recording two albums as the Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino — the New York Folkloric and Experimental Group. Jerry González was also playing congas in the salsa ensemble Conjunto Libre.

Then, about 1980, the Fort Apache Band was formed (taking its name from a Bronx police precinct house). It has varied in size over the years, but whatever the lineup, it has always been adventurous.

“Where much of Latin jazz features a jazz musician soloing over a Latin rhythm section, the Fort Apache band has instead brought a jazz flexibility to the Latin rhythm section,” a 1995 article about the band in The New York Times said. “A tune may start out swinging, with the feel of the drummer Art Blakey, then move into a Cuban guaguancó, then take on a shuffle feel, then return to swing.”

Jerry González elaborated on the approach.

“This is New York music,” he told The Times. “We play music influenced by everything we’ve experienced here. We play Mongo Santamaria, John Coltrane and James Brown all at the same time.”

González’s first marriage, to Betty Luciano, ended in divorce. In addition to his sister, his brother, Andy, and another brother, Arthur, he is survived by his second wife, Andrea Zapata-Girau, whom he married five years ago; their daughter, Julia; a son from his first marriage, Agueybana Zemi; two daughters from his first marriage, Xiomara González and Marisol González; and several grandchildren.

Barkan said that as good as González was on the instruments he played, what made him something more was his ability to absorb and synthesize.

“That’s the mark of a lot of great musicians,” he said. “It’s as much about them being great listeners as it is about them being great players.”

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