Jerry Gonzalez, Latin jazz genius, dies at 69

Ron Scott | 10/5/2018, 2:17 p.m.
Jerry Gonzalez, the Latin jazz innovator, whose multi-instrumental talent effortlessly merged the genres of Afro-Cuban jazz, straight-ahead jazz, salsa and ...
Jerry Gonzalez Wikipedia

Jazz Notes

Jazz Notes

Jerry Gonzalez, the Latin jazz innovator, whose multi-instrumental talent effortlessly merged the genres of Afro-Cuban jazz, straight-ahead jazz, salsa and Latin jazz, died around midnight Oct. 1. He was 69.

His death was confirmed by the Spanish Society of Authors and Publishers and local reports. It was reported a fire blazed through his first-floor home in Madrid. Police responding to the fire found Gonzalez, who had gone into cardiac arrest, and attempted to revive him. He reportedly died hours later at a Madrid hospital.

Gonzalez, who was born and raised in New York City, moved to Spain in 2000. As he became immersed in the flamenco scene, he was able to develop a new concept with the genre that bloomed into a creative moment with the recording of “Los Piratas del Flamenco” (2004) that included the flamenco guitarist Niño Josele, the percussionist Israel Suárez “Piraña” and the singer Diego El Cigala. The genius of Gonzalez was in full swing as he developed this new sound with a fusion of jazz, flamenco and New York street.

The album was nominated for a Grammy Award as Best Latin Jazz Album and won the Critics Award in New York as Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. He played and collaborated with a variety of musicians living in Spain, including Enrique Morente, Martirio and the Argentinean Andrés Calamaro. He was working on new projects up until his death.

Gonzalez was born June 5, 1949, in Manhattan, at 158th Street and Third Avenue (which was known as Spanish Harlem). The family eventually moved to the Edenwald Houses in the Bronx. His father, Jerry González Sr., was a master of ceremonies and lead singer for bands during the days of the Palladium and Park Terrace; he sang with Claudio Ferrer’s band.

“Jerry’s recent passing like that of Dave Valentin’s is indeed a great loss,” said Bobby Sanabria, drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger and educator. “They represent the incredible contributions that New York-born Puerto Ricans [Nuyoricans] have made to not only Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz but to the history of jazz itself. It is a relationship that goes back to James Reese Europe’s Harlem Hellfighters Regimental Band in WWI, where 18 Puerto Ricans, including Rafael Hernandez, PR’s most famous composer, helped to bring African-American culture and jazz in its early form to European audiences.”

In junior high school, Gonzalez began playing trumpet and later congas. He started jamming in the projects and with local bands. He grew during a pivotal point in music. Aside from the Latin, Afro-Cuban and jazz he heard at home, outside in the projects and teenage world he was hearing the sounds of doo-wop, the falsettos of Frankie Lymon, Smokey Robinson and Lee Andrews. Salsa music was at a peak with Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Ray Barretto (El Watusi) and Johnny Colon “Boogaloo Blues”; jazz with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Cal Tjader; and the funk of it all with George Clinton and James Brown.

One of Gonzalez’s first jam sessions took place in Edenwald Projects every Sunday during the summer when the teenagers (boys and girls) dressed-up to hang out in the “big park.” The music consisted of about five conga players, including Gonzalez, Juan Rodriguez, Nanny and Melvin Grant and Marsalis Jones improvising to the sounds of the street, “Edenwald Do or Die.”