Jerry González, Latin Jazz Heavyweight, RIP

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I first saw Jerry González and his Fort Apache Band in action at the Jazz Bakery in 1995, then at a small, short-lived club called The Ashgrove on the Santa Monica Pier in 1996. I had heard about them earlier—González, the leader, was a top-tier trumpet player and conguero who coaxed both rhythms and melodies from his array of five conga drums. Fort Apache, named after the Bronx area where the police station is located, ingeniously mixed African, Afro-Cuban, and jazz into a seamless, powerful, and combustible whole. González mastered the sacred rhythms of the orishas, as well as the spirit of duendethat ineffable element of flamenco. González moved to Spain in 2000 and formed Las Piratas del Flamenco, whose unique sound fused jazz and flamenco. González tragically passed away last month at the age of 69 from a heart attack caused by smoke inhalation during a fire in his Madrid home. His untimely death was widely mourned by fans and admirers.

I interviewed González twice on KCRW—in 1996 and 2000—and we hear excerpts from those Café LA visits in this special feature in remembrance. These interviews took place before his flamenco collaborations with his Las Piratas del Flamenco. González described growing up in Manhattan and then the Bronx. His dad was a singer in a mambo band, so music and musicians were part of the González household. He attended the prestigious Music and Performing Arts school, learning classical trumpet technique. But he was also a street-smart jazz cat who learned congas down the block.

González also talked about Afro-Cuban music heritage, his Bronx roots, and why black music in America differs from Cuban and Puerto Rico music. He was both a hipster and an eloquent spokesman for the music he loved. These excerpts feature music from González’s albums Ya Yo Me Curé and Fort Apache’s live CD Fire Dance. González was one of a kind and will be missed.

Many thanks to KCRW’s Mario Diaz for editing and condensing these two interviews from 1996 and 2000.

Here’s a clip of González and the Fort Apache Band in action, with González on both trumpet and congas: