Jerry González Dies at 69

The trumpeter and conguero played a crucial role in the cross-pollinating of jazz and Latin traditions

Jerry Gonzalez image 0
Chris Drukker

Jerry Gonzalez

Jerry González, a jazz trumpeter and conguero who was a key figure in the New York Latin music renaissance of the 1970s and beyond, died in the early hours of Monday, Oct. 1, at San Carlos Clinical Hospital in Madrid, Spain. He was 69.

According to El País and El Mundo, Spain’s two largest newspapers, González suffered a heart attack caused by smoke inhalation after a midnight fire broke out in his home on Calle Jesús y María in Madrid. Police rescued González and attempted resuscitation, but he was already in critical condition when he transferred to San Carlos, where he died a few hours later.

Though a New York native and member of the Puerto Rican immigrant community known as Nuyoricans, González was a major exponent of Afro-Cuban musical styles. He worked in several seminal New York salsa and Latin jazz ensembles, often with his bassist brother Andy—with whom he co-led two bands. He lived in Madrid for his final 18 years, where he experimented with the fusion of jazz and flamenco.

Gerald González, Jr. was born June 5, 1949 in East Harlem, New York, and grew up in the Bronx. His father, Jerry Sr., was a singer, and Jerry Jr. was enthralled by music as a child in the housing projects of the South Bronx. He began playing trumpet and congas in junior high, and he and Andy (two years younger) were soon jamming with local musicians. A few years later, the family moved into a house in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood of Clason Point. The basement that the brothers shared became a musicians’ hangout. González studied at New York College of Music and New York University; at the end of that time he spent a year playing congas with his hero, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (appearing on his 1970 album Portrait of Jenny), then joined the band led by pianist and salsa pioneer Eddie Palmieri for three years.

In 1974, González left Palmieri’s band alongside longtime percussionist Manny Oquendo to join Conjunto Libre, which Oquendo had cofounded with Andy González. While still working with Oquendo, the Gonzálezes founded the Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, whose 1975 recording Concepts in Unity was a breakthrough release in the salsa revival of the mid-1970s

After releasing his first album under his own name (Ya Yo Me Curé) in 1979, González created a new ensemble with his brother, the Fort Apache Band, which they would co-lead until the older González’s death. Fort Apache was a fusion of dead-earnest hard bop and Caribbean traditions, performing works from Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, and the Great American Songbook as well as originals, salsa staples, and Afro-Cuban pieces. In addition, González performed frequently under his own name—and as a sideman for the Beach Boys, Tito Puente, and Jaco Pastorius—throughout the 1980s and ’90s (though he was frequently sidelined during that period by a long battle with drug addiction).

In 2000, González appeared in Calle 54, a documentary on Latin jazz by the Spanish director Fernando Trueba; its success in Spain prompted him to move to the country’s capital city. He became active in Madrid’s flamenco scene, ultimately forming the band Los Piratas del Flamenco to fuse the Spanish national music with jazz. He also formed a quartet with Madrid-based Cuban musicians, El Comando de la Clave, to continue exploring the Afro-Latin rhythms into which he’d delved for most of his career. He remained in Madrid until his death, making his home in the city’s immigrant enclave of Lavapiés.

In addition to his brother Andy, González is survived by his wife, Andrea Zapata-Girau; their daughter, Julia; three children from a previous marriage, son Agueybana and daughters Xiomara Amelia and Marisol; several grandchildren; another brother, Arthur; and a sister, Eileen González-Altomari.

Read a 2012 JazzTimes feature on the González brothers.

Read a 2004 JazzTimes profile of Jerry González.