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'A Walking Encyclopedia Of Rhythms': Remembering Steve Berrios

By Felix Contreras | NPR
Wednesday, July 31, 2013

It is not easy to play both jazz drum set and Afro-Caribbean percussion. Lots of drummers do it, but few have mastered it in a way that makes their sound in either style unmistakable from the first beat.

The music community lost one of those true innovators Wednesday with the death of percussionist Steve Berrios in New York at age 68. Berrios could move seamlessly from jazz to Afro-Cuban rhythms in a way that perfectly reflected his bicultural roots.

Berrios was a true Nuevoriqueño, born in New York in 1945 to parents who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico. His father was a percussionist who played with many of the top dance orchestras in New York during the height of the 1950s mambo craze. Berrios followed in his dad's footsteps and eventually landed an important gig with Mongo Santamaría, perhaps the greatest exponent of Afro-Cuban music in this country. He had a long list of album credits and even a Grammy nomination for one of his two solo albums.

But his most significant contribution was to the group he formed in 1982 with trumpeter and percussionist Jerry González: the Fort Apache Band. Just three weeks ago the band played a rare hometown gig, six triumphant nights at the Blue Note.

From Spain, Jerry González sent this note about his musical compadre of many years.

I'm in great pain over the loss of my brother Steve Berrios.

I met Steve in the '60s when I was still at 'Music & Art' High School. At that time, he was playing with Mongo Santamaría's band and I remember doing a few gigs opposite to them at the Village Gate and Bottom Line. We would bump into each other in rumbas in the parks, concerts and "toques de santo" [Santería drum circles], and we kept gravitating towards each other till the point that we started the Nuyorican Village, which was a cultural center for all Latino artists in New York City. We started workshops there and I started a band called Hand Drum Control (who would eventually turn into Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band) with Steve Berrios on drums.

Steve was a walking encyclopedia of rhythms. He knew how to adapt the Afro-Cuban to the jazz with such good taste, and how to translate the language of the batá drums into the American trap drum set. He was one of the few who could really swing and understand what the swing was about. He had the essence of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Julito Collazo (one of the real masters of the batá drums in America), Mongo Santamaría and Los Muñequitos de Matanzas. He was on the road with Art Blakey for many years and he was also in Max Roach's M'Boom, a percussion group that Max Roach created with so many great drummers and drumming concepts in it.

We both played trumpet and Afro-Cuban percussion, we thought alike, we had the same kind of taste and we knew what we wanted to do. When I started Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band I was looking for someone who could really combine the Afro-Cuban and the jazz essence to be able to switch gears effortlessly, without losing the beat or the feeling of swing. Steve was it, the perfect combination.

Just a couple of weeks ago Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band played for six days at the Blue Note. Steve played wonderfully. Who could have imagined that would be our last gig together. Steve was my brother, the loss is too great, and he'll be in my thoughts and my heart for the rest of my life. I will miss him terribly.

Berrios' unexpected passing was greeted with shock and disbelief in the Latin jazz community. On one Facebook forum, trumpeter Ray Vega, who played with Berrios in bands led by Tito Puente and Santamaría, offered this musical insight from the bandstand:

What put Steve Berrios in a class all his own was the fact that he understood the spiritual stuff about our music. The stuff that can NOT be easily explained ... the stuff that can NOT be dissected by academics ... the stuff that is too deep and goes over most people's heads. He understood the magic/essence of players like Willie Bobo, Art Blakey, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Patato, Totico, Max Roach, Julito Collazo, and Armando Peraza ... whether at The Blue Note playing drums or at a toque playing batas or at a rumba playing congas or at a master class playing chequere, his contribution was always as real as it gets. He knew he had something of great importance to share and yes, while always maintaining the highest level of honor and respect for those that came before him. No half stepping ... just fire and brimstone. He LIVED the music.

I have a lot of work ahead of me. The high standard that Steve helped to establish is most definitely a tall order.

One of the greatest has left the room.

Steve Berrios was certainly underappreciated beyond hardcore Latin jazz fans. But his some of his best work is in his recorded catalog, so you may hear for yourself the void that his passing leaves.

UPDATE: The Jazz Foundation of America has established a fund for people to donate to Steve Berrios' family. Visit jazzfoundation.org/SteveBerrios.

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