The death of drummer and percussionist Steve Berrios on Thursday, at age 68, came as shock—he died at home in New York City, no details were forthcoming as to the cause—and sent waves of sadness and gratitude through more than one music community.
Berrios played and recorded widely on more than 300 albums, beginning on traps and timbales with percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s band and, later on, with a long list that includes: Tito Puente, Art Blakey, Max Roach’s M’Boom, Randy Weston, Grover Washington Jr., Willie Colon and Miriam Makeba. With his own Son Bachéche band, playing music rooted in Yoruba tradition, he made two memorable recordings in the 1990s, one of which earned a Grammy nomination.
Yet Berrios is best known as a founding member of the Fort Apache Band. That group’s blend of Afro-Latin rhythms and the swinging pulses of American jazz is singular, and it was elevated mightily by Berrios’s precise skills, bilingual knowledge and graceful approach. I last heard Berrios perform with Fort Apache at Manhattan’s Blue Note, just three weeks ago. There, he locked into a rhythm section authoritatively (as befit a relationship spanning four decades) with bassist Andy Gonzalez, pianist Larry Willis, and the group’s leader, conguero Jerry Gonzalez, who also plays trumpet. As usual, from behind his trap set, Berrios projected both easeful humility and fierce focus; when he directed a shift from, say, a songo rhythm to a hard-dug bebop groove, the moment was often seamless enough as to be imperceptible. Gonzalez’s Fort Apache band is a wondrous machine of virtuoso parts; Berrios enabled its smooth gearshifts and quick acceleration, and kept its direction on track.
(These pictures were taken at that Blue Note gig, by Jerry Gonalez’s wife, Andrea Zapata-Girau.)
Berrios was born in Manhattan on February 24, 1945, to parents who had just arrived from Puerto Rico. Maybe he got on so well with Jerry Gonzalez because he first played trumpet—well enough to score first place at the Apollo Theater’s competitions five times. His father, Steve Sr., was a drummer with the major Latin bands of the era. Steve, Jr. soaked up jazz tradition from his father’s record collection and circle of musician friends. His early mentors in Afro-Cuban percussion were celebrated masters, Willie Bobo and Julio Collazo (the latter instructed him in the ritual traditions of the two-headed batá drums and became his spiritual mentor in Santería, the Yoruba-based tradition that is the wellspring of Afro-Cuban folkloric music). After settling on drums and percussion, Berrios began playing in local dance bands and, in the 1970s, joined Mongo Santamaria’s band. In 1981, he helped form Fort Apache, with which he recorded several albums, beginning with “The River Is Deep” (Enja, 1982) and through “Rumba Buhaina” (Sunnyside, 2005).
Jerry Gonzalez recalled the beginnings of his long collaboration with Berrios via email from his home in Spain:
I met Steve in the 1960s when I was still at Music & Art High School and my brother and I were playing with Monguito Santamaría’s band [Mongo's son]. Steve came to our rehearsal. At that time he was playing with Mongo Santamaría. I remember doing a few gigs opposite to Mongo Santamaria at the Village Gate and Bottom Line. We would bump into each other in rumbas in the parks, concerts and “toques de santo” [Santería ceremonies] and we kept gravitating towards each other until the point that we started the Nuyorican Village, which was a cultural center for all Latino artists. We started workshops there and, later, at the Soundscape, where we would perform once every week for two years with different musicians that we met.
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 Fort Apache, I was looking for someone who could really combine the Afro-Cuban and the jazz essence as one and Steve was it, the perfect combination. He was a walking encyclopedia of rhythms. He knew how to adapt the Afro-Cuban to the jazz with such a good taste—and 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) and the Muñequitos de Matanzas.
Gonzalez wrote that he is trying to organize a New York City memorial to Berrios—“Larry Willis, my brother Andy, [saxophonist] Joe Ford, me, and the whole Fort Apache extended music family together to pay tribute to Steve.”
Berrios’s subtle but bold influence spans musical communities and generations. Once, after sitting in on drums at the Blue Note with the Fort Apache band, Jeff “Tain” Watts described for me how Berrios was a source of “secrets you cannot find anywhere else.”
Berrios’s credits include work with Chico O’Farrill’s orchestra. He’s also worked with Chico’s son, pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill. “I played with Steve for 20-plus years, as recently as three months ago,” Arturo wrote in an email. “We were all in awe of him because he was the definitive master Latin-jazz drummer. He was the contradiction to the notions that Latinos couldn’t swing and Jazzers had no timba. With all due respect to all the other great drummers, this man invented modern Latin-jazz drumming, he defined the style, and played it better than anyone. Last of a kind, his pocket will never be duplicated.”
PLEASE NOTE: Berrios’ family has requested that anyone wishing to contribute to his funeral expenses please make a donation here. Donations can also be mailed to Jazz Foundation of America, 322 W. 48th St., New York, NY 10036.