PLEASE NOTE: Berrios’ family has requested that anyone wishing to contribute to his funeral expenses please make a to Jazz Foundation of America, 322 W. 48th St., New York, NY 10036 naming the Berrios Family as the beneficiaries.
Notes by Larry Blumenfeld:
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.
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).
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