Fans of traditional jazz who appreciated all of late trumpeter and band leader Dizzy Gillespie’s experiments with Cuban music in the 1960s and ’70s will appreciate Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band.
"It’s percussion-heavy, yes, but our music is also very jazz-oriented," says bassist Andy Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s older brother, trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, leads the Fort Apache Band, which the two formed in 1978.
"We are all very knowledgeable in two different worlds of music: Afro-Cuban and Latin music and also the more straight-ahead jazz approach," Gonzalez explains.
Gonzalez and the band perform in the intimacy of the 300-seat Crossroads Theater on Saturday, November 15, presented by the State Theater. Tickets are $25.
"It’s not Latin jazz and it’s not-jazz-Latin," Gonzalez explains. "We jump into it and mix them together. Our music is quite different from what most people think Latin jazz is. It’s much more improvised. We’re a jazz band that has extensive knowledge of rhythm, and Cuban rhythms in particular."
Gonzalez and his brother Jerry (older by two years) were brought up in the Bronx. Both began playing music while attending public school, getting serious about their art before they reached junior high school.
"Jerry started playing congas and I started out on violin and we formed one of our first bands when I was in the seventh grade," he says.
Today Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band have several critically acclaimed albums out, including "Firedance," a 1997 release on Milestone/Fantasy, "Rhumba Para Monk," a 1988 collection of pianist Thelonius Monk’s tunes for the Sunnyside label, and "Jerry Gonzalez Y Los Pyrates Del Flamenco" released in 2002 for the Lola Records label.
The Gonzalez Brothers were raised in the Bronx, where their father was a vocalist, "but in the early ’50s you couldn’t just sing for a living, you had to have a day job. He was a jack-of-all-trades who had a great voice. He was the first one to encourage our playing music. My mom sang in the choir as well."
"The first thing I ever asked for, for Christmas, was a record player, and so Jerry and I were on a path to professional music early on," he says.
While both brothers were born in Manhattan, they were raised in the Bronx in one of the borough’s largest low-income housing projects. "We spent 14 years growing up in the projects and then my parents decided to buy a house," he says. Recalling his youth, where there was always music in the house, Gonzalez says "our first gig was at the New York World’s Fair in Queens in 1964, as school kids. We were playing in a Latin jazz quintet that sounded a bit like Cal Tjader’s band."
From the beginning, he says, speaking for brother Jerry, who was traveling in Puerto Rico at the time of this interview, "we always had this thing about Latin jazz, but then, as the years progressed, we started studying the roots of Cuban music as well. That also became part of our musical upbringing." Gonzalez recalls an older friend who had a huge collection of old Cuban 78 rpm recordings, and he and his brother would listen to these records to learn new techniques.
"There were no books that you could study at that time," he says, adding he and his brother listened to these records all through high school.
"He put us on a path to learning the intricacies of Cuban music. Then I started working with percussionist Ray Baretto and began using my knowledge in a salsa setting, and later, we both got to play with Dizzy Gillespie," he adds, "because our knowledge and what we were studying fit his concept perfectly, and he was always looking for young talent."
Jerry Gonzalez graduated from New York City’s Music and Art High School, in upper Manhattan, in 1967 and Andy Gonzalez graduated in 1969.
Gonzalez says playing at the 1964 World’s Fair was a big break. but he adds, "we sort of had all of our breaks together, working with Dizzy’s band in 1970, that was a big break. I was 19 years old at the time and Jerry was 21."
After a number of years with Gillespie’s band, Jerry began working with Tony Williams’ Lifetime. Williams had played with Miles Davis, "and Miles was always one of our heroes, we were up on what was going on in jazz and studying our brains off in both worlds simultaneously."
The brothers founded the Fort Apache Band in 1978, Gonzalez explains, to further explore the Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz projects started by Gillespie and other bebop jazz players.
The Gonzalez brothers also worked with Manny Oquendo and Libre, Baretto, and Eddie Palmieri, all household names in the world of Latin jazz. They also formed their own group to explore the folk roots of Cuban and Puerto Rican music, Grupo Folklorico Experimental.
Originally the band started with a much larger percussion and rhythm section, Gonzalez explains, but the realities of the jazz business being what they are, they eventually trimmed their touring unit back to a quintet.
"We were able to play straight-ahead jazz and even in a solo to switch back and forth from Afro-Cuban rhythms to straight-ahead jazz, and then, for a variety of reasons, one of them being financial, we decided to make the group a quintet. Then it became even more of a challenge to do the kinds of rhythms we wanted with just a drummer and Jerry on congas," he explains.
The current lineup of the Fort Apache Band has been together since 1986, so they’re a well-oiled unit. Their recent performances at the Cape May Jazz Festival had the elder Gonzalez switching back and forth from standing at the mike, playing trumpet, to a seated position, playing congas.
Pressed to describe the music at Crossroads Theater on Saturday, Gonzalez says it’s foreground music for serious fans of traditional jazz and serious fans of Latin music.
"This is not commercial, it’s something serious and beautiful. It really communicates to the fan who is hungry to hear some great improvised music by people who are masters at it."
"Other bands don’t have the individuals in it who have the kind of experience we’ve had over the years," he argues.
Aside from himself on bass and his brother Jerry on trumpet and congas, the Fort Apache Band also includes Steve Berrios on drums, Joe Ford on alto saxophone and Larry Willis, piano.
"Be ready for a musical journey," Gonzalez says. "Come with an open mind, ready to experience some great music that has all kinds of roots, especially Cuban music and the best of jazz, with some great percussion."
Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band, State @ Crossroads , 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. Jazz and Latin rhythms combined into an Afro-Caribbean jazz and salsa mix. $25. Saturday, November 15, 8 p.m.