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Requiem For A Jazz Man: Jerry González, The Last Pirate Of The Caribbean

<em>Alt.Latino</em> host Felix Contreras interviews jazz musician Jerry González in 2015.
Suraya Mohamed
Alt.Latino host Felix Contreras interviews jazz musician Jerry González in 2015.

Musician Jerry Gonzálezhas cut a swashbuckling path in his over four decades of playing music. He was a double threat on both trumpet and congas who came of age in The Bronx learning to play in the time-honored tradition of wood shedding with albums of his heroes. In González's case, it was jazz men Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie as much as Latin bandleaders Machito and Tito Puente. Gillespie eventually called on González to play congas, as did Puente in his 1980's small group.

The music González made with Puente on record and in performance was straight-ahead Afro Cuban jazz, which leaned heavily on mambo, cha-cha-cha and boleros. But it was the music he made just before and after his time with Puente that he will be most remembered for.

In the 1970's, González was part of an ensemble with pianistEddie Palmierithat literally roared with young Nuyorican swagger. If there was ever a salsa jam band, this was it. Monster grooves that were anchored by González's brother, Andy, on bass that went way beyond the three- or four-minute dance track length.

Some of those Palmieri musicians were also part of the back-to-the-roots musical co-op that became known as Grupo Folkorico Y Exeperimental Nuevayorquino. These were serious folk rhythms, Cuban guaguanco, danzon and Santeria music along side Puerto Rican bomba and plena mixed with serious jazz. After two albums and a series of performances, the band became almost mythical, revered for their defiant stand in favor of tradition as an answer to what they considered the commercialism of the concurrent activity at Fania Records.

González, again along with his brother on bass, firmly planted his flag of defiant, uncompromising musical innovation with the Fort Apache Band, the multicultural quintet that made a series of ground breaking albums and left a trail of true believers in their wake after performances around the world.

Along the way Gonzalez became known as much for his trademark fedora and dark glasses as his double duty on congas and trumpet. His life and music were dedicated to the jazz life, rooted to what he called the sometimes mean streets of New York.

Then, all of a sudden, it wasn't. Which is where we catch up to González in this week's show.

I first interviewed González in the 1980's and over the years we did these catch-up interviews for the various radio programs or jazz publications I was working with. And the years of revelatory conversations created a warm and friendly connection between us that gave us both pause to reflect on our lives since we had last spoke.

When we sat down in his brother Andy's apartment in the spring of 2015, it was another catch-up session to talk about his years living in Madrid since 2000 as well as his new wife and young daughter. It was unfortunately to be the last interview. González died in Oct. 1 after a fire in his home in Madrid. His wife and daughter were not at home at the time.

Spanish filmmakerFernadno Trueba featured The Fort Apache Band in his 2000 film, Calle 54. That appearance sparked his rebirth but it also perfectly captured his musical history when Trueba referred to him as "la ultima pirata del Caribe", The Last Pirate of the Caribbean. It was a reference to the fierce streak of independence, a defiant dedication to those closest to him and a joy for life that was sometimes buried beneath the over coat of toughness it took to make a living as a Latin jazz musician in New York.

He will be memorialized in New York in November by a wide circle of family, friends and friends who became family, I offer up my own memorial with the last interview we did in which we laughed just about as much as we talked.

Thank you for the many conversations, Jerry. It breaks my hear there won't be more. And thanks for that one wild night hanging out in jazz clubs in New York. That will forever be a highlight of my life.

R.I.P, bro. Love to your family.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.