The Rise of Latin Jazz, From the Bronx to San Juan

PHOTO: Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is one of the countless musicians influenced by the Fort Apache Band.Arturo Conde/Univision
Saxophonist Miguel Zenón is one of the countless musicians influenced by the Fort Apache Band.

Back in 1967, Jerry Gonzalez was a student at New York's High School of Music and Art, splitting his time between studying the trumpet and playing the conga drum in parks and street corners all around the Bronx.

Like most visionary artists, he already had an idea of where this was all going. "Latin jazz was my flag since back then, man," said 63-year-old Gonzalez over the phone. "I wrote graffiti on every desk in my high school that said, 'Latin jazz, played by me! The future is coming.'"

Gonzalez's future included stints with countless salsa bands (Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri) and straight-ahead jazz combos. But his crowning achievement was assembling the Fort Apache Band with his brother, bass player Andy Gonzalez. Today, it stands as one of the most influential Latin jazz groups in history.

Earlier this year, Fort Apache celebrated their 30th anniversary at the Blue Note Club in New York's Greenwich Village, playing its usual array of jazz standards and Latin boleros spiced with bebop and Afro-Cuban rumba and guaguancó.

"I wanted to play everything at first," said Gonzalez, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "I played at weddings, funk bands, soul bands, imitating Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaría, Tito Puente, Machito — those were my father's bands. But I was also affected by Miles Davis and Horace Silver and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Art Blakey — he was a monster influence."

In the 1970s, a series of jam sessions in Andy's home in the Soundview section of the Bronx produced historic linkages between conventional jazz and salsa musicians that yielded the groundbreaking Grupo Folklorico Instrumental, which fused traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican folkloric music with jazz influences.

Later, some spirited gigging at avant-garde outposts like the short-lived New Rican Village, located in the heart of the Lower East Side, and the Upper West Side's Soundscape produced early versions of the Fort Apache Band, whose signature tunes drew from Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. At first the band enjoyed some success, especially in Europe. But as Jerry tells it, he had to cut the 15-piece band down to six so he could assure band members a living wage.

The band produced ten albums, not always under the Fort Apache Band name, while Jerry pursued session work with legendary bassist Jaco Pastorious and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, among others, and Andy became a stalwart in roots salsa band Conjunto Libre.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Gonzalez decided to move to Spain, where he found a new group of musicians connected to one of his ancestral roots.

"I was four blocks away from the Twin Towers when they fell and I said, 'it's time to get out,'" said Gonzalez. "I just walked right into the scene in Madrid and it was comfortable and I started to teach them some stuff about clave and guaguancó. They were scared to death at first but I said watch what happens when you play a bulería and I play this on top of it. And everybody went, 'Oh shit!' and I said, 'You dig?' "

But while Jerry's flamenco fusion albums have helped spur renewed interest in the Fort Apache Band, he and his brother have left a lasting legacy to younger generations of Puerto Rican and other Latino jazz artists. Guesting with the band during their Blue Note stand will be Miguel Zenón, a Puerto Rican-born saxophonist now living in New York who received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2008. Zenón, like contemporaries David Sánchez, Danilo Pérez, and Henry Cole, have been strongly influenced by Fort Apache.

"I was attracted to the band not only because it was led by musicians of Puerto Rican heritage," said 36-year-old Zenón, "but because but they think of jazz and Afro-Caribbean music as one single entity…they can go back and forth between swing, guagancó, columbia, mozambique, but they do it all in the same breath."

Zenón's playing can be described as a spectacular reinterpretation of mid-period Coltrane, but he has also released albums that focus on the folkloric Puerto Rican genre of plena and his last album, Alma Adentro, collects classic boleros from the island's famous composers.

"I'm a big admirer of what they do with [Thelonius] Monk's music, but what I'm really looking forward to is getting to play some of the slower songs they have on their repertoire from the Latin American songbook," said Zenón.

Playing two seemingly opposed roles is at the root of Fort Apache, and it all starts with Jerry's extraordinary ability to merge two cultures, literally by playing two instruments.

"In Spain they know me as a trumpet player, but here in the U.S., I'm known as a conga player," said Gonzalez.

His raspy, African-American inflected voice does not overwhelm his Puerto Rican soul. Last decade he found the time to return to the island to care for his ailing parents and made new connections with musicians.

Henry Cole, a Puerto Rican native who plays drums in Zenón's band but has recently released an Afro-beat inspired album called Roots Before Branches, met Jerry when he came to see him play at the Nuyorican Café in San Juan.

"He would come up onstage and play with us quite a bit," said Cole. "He would invite me to his mother's house and make me watch videos of straight-ahead jazz players for hours. Then, when I moved to New York I met [his brother] Andy playing in a big band at Birdland. Steve Berríos, who plays drums for them, had a big influence on a younger player named Adam Cruz."

"I'm glad to be in touch with young cats who are making a move in a direction that's identifiable to us," added Gonzalez, thinking about one nation spanning from the Bronx to San Juan. "We're part of this whole history of jazz here, going back to Machito. Just don't block us out—if you do, you're doing a disservice to history."