Drummer-Percussionist Steve Berrios Dies at 68
Steve Berrios, a founding member of the Fort Apache Band and a drummer-percussionist who blended jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms into his own unique synthesis, died July 25 at his Manhattan home. He was 68.
Berrios, who was largely self-taught, built on the work of trap-set drummer Willie Bobo and developed a driving style that could go from bebop to ballads to boleros while maintaining a deep sense of swing. Berrios’ blending of musical and cultural worlds stemmed from his early exposure to jazz and Latin drummers as a child.
“Steve had a rich background [from] all of the music he listened to,” Fort Apache Band bassist Andy González said. “He was a protege of Art Blakey, he played in Max Roach’s M’Boom group and he loved Philly [Joe] Jones. And on the Afro-Cuban side, his father was a drummer, and one of his mentors was Julito Collazo, a highly respected batá drummer and all-around percussionist. He had a rich tapestry of all of those things. So when he started playing with Fort Apache, he brought all of that with him.”
“Steve was a walking encyclopedia of rhythms,” Fort Apache Band trumpeter-percussionist Jerry González said in a statement. “When I started Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band, I was looking for someone who could really combine the Afro-Cuban and the jazz essence as one [and] be able to switch gears effortlessly, without losing the beat or the feeling of swing. Steve was it, the perfect combination. Just a couple of weeks ago, Jerry González & The Fort Apache Band played for six days at the Blue Note [in New York City]. Steve played wonderfully. Who could have imagined that would be our last gig together?”
Steve Ramon Berrios Jr. was born on Feb. 24, 1945, in Manhattan. His father, Steve Berrios Sr., was a drummer who had worked with pianist Noro Morales and bandleader Pupi Campo, and his mother, Merida (Pizarro) Berrios, had grown up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Some of the Berrios family’s neighbors were bassist Israel “Cachao” López and trumpeter-bandleader Mario Bauzá.
From infancy, Berrios listened to a wide range of music, including various forms of classical, jazz and Latin music, and he was surrounded by a diverse array of percussion instruments in his home.
“My dad always had drums in the house,” Berrios told Wilson A. Valentin-Escobar in the fall 2004 issue of Centro Journal, “and I would set them up and play along with records, or just bang on my mother’s pots and pans.”
Berrios’ formal instruments were the bugle and trumpet, which he played from ages 11 to 17 before switching to the drum kit. He played his first professional gigs as a trumpeter with Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers and with tenor saxophonist Hugo Dickens’ group, which included flutist Hubert laws and trombonist Barry Rogers.
Berrios’ gigs as a drummer started at the Alameda Hotel in Manhattan, which lasted for five years, and he performed with singers Miguelito Valdés, Bobby Capó and Ruth Hernandez. He enjoyed a long stint with percussionist Mongo Santamaría and later served as Art Blakey’s road manager.
By the early ’80s, Berrios had mastered his percussive technique, which included augmenting the drum kit with cowbells, while translating Latin rhythms for the jazz idiom. “[W]hen I’m playing something with a clavé involved,” he told Valentin-Escobar, “I’m thinking of rumba and congas and clavé and cascarita de baile on the side of the drum. That’s basically my approach.”
Berrios made more than a dozen recordings with the Fort Apache Band, including The River Is Deep, Rumba Para Monk, Crossroads, Obatalá and Rumba Buhaina.
Berrios also led his own group, Son Bacheche. The folkloric ensemble recorded two CDs: First World (1994) and And Then Some! (1996).
As a sideman, Berrios collaborated with numerous artists, including Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Randy Weston, Michael Brecker and Grover Washington Jr.
“Steve Berrios [was] one of the most profoundly bilingual and truly innovative artists in the entire history of Afro-Cuban jazz music,” said drummer Billy Hart.
A memorial service for Berrios was held in New York City on Aug. 1 at St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave. at 54th St.). The musical advisor for the event was Andy González, and Todd Barkan served as master of ceremonies.
To make a donation to the Berrios family to help pay for funeral and burial expenses, visit the Jazz Foundation of America website by clicking here.
Berrios is survived by daughters Aisha Jafar, Merida, Cindy and Angela Berrios; and a son, Steve.
—Eugene Holley Jr.