Not long ago, I was interviewing two important contributors to the world of American music and letters – Eddie Palmieri and the other was Joe Conzo Sr. – both of whom named the late Jerry González as the most important musician, along with Bobby Sanabria, in the realm of Latin Jazz. Both of them said – in as many words – that being the youngest in the generational continuum, upon the shoulders of Mr González and Bobby Sanabria rested the future of this music. Bobby Sanabria is still around and active in music to continue to make significant musical contributions. But the inimitable conguero and trumpet player Jerry González sadly passed away not yet a year ago in Madrid, on the 1st of October, 2018 when his stout heart gave out from inhaling toxic fumes after his home caught fire the night before.
Today is the 5th of June and had he lived, Mr Jerry González would have turned seventy years old, which for many musicians is often the prime of their existence. For Mr González, however, the proverbial “prime of his existence” began when he founded his seminal Fort Apache Band. The year was 1979 and Mr González had already paid his dues in venues that included dives and late-night bars around the United States as well as in the established ensembles of that of the great Dizzy Gillespie in the 1970’s. After his apprenticeship with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, where he played congas, Mr González was hired by Eddie Palmieri with whom he stayed until 1974, before moving on, with his brother, bassist Andy González, to Conjunto Libre, a band led by timbalero Manny Oquendo. Towards the end of the 1970’s Mr González and his brother founded the Conjunto Anabacoa.
This was followed by a larger ensemble – the charismatic Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino – that included musicians such as Frankie Rodríguez, Milton Cardona, Gene Golden, Carlos Mestre, Nelson González, Manny Oquendo, Oscar Hernández, José Rodríguez, Gonzalo Fernández, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, Willy García, Heny Álvarez, Virgilio Martí, Marcelino Guerra, Rubén Blades, Orlando “Puntilla” Rios and Julito Collazo. This group recorded just two albums, Concepts of Unity (1974) and Lo Dice Todo (1975). Mr González’s breakthough album as leader was entitled Ya Yo Me Curé (American Clavé/Sunnyside, 1979/1982).
Mr González’s real moment of glory came when he founded the Fort Apache Band, reputed to have been named after the place in the Bronx where their music was frequently heard. In its first incarnation, the Fort Apache band was a mid-to-large-sized ensemble that included alto saxophonist Wilfredo Velez and the late pianist Jorge Dalto. Also in this seminal band were Kenny Kirkland, Sonny Fortune, Nicky Marrero, Milton Cardona, Papo Vázquez, Steve Turre and others. Two albums: The River Runs Deep (ENJA Records 1982) and Obatalá (Enja, 1988) followed. Personnel changes were triggered by Jorge Dalto’s passing.