Fort Apache: Blue Notes Let the Clave Ring

Jerry Gonzalez

There were plenty of blue notes played at the now annual Fort Apache Band reunion last night, but Jerry Gonzalez wasn’t worried. Anchored by his brother Andy, who hovered over the bass as if he were guarding the entrance to heaven, Jerry calmly switched from a set of congas to flugel horn, penetrating the Monk-Rican space with effortless precision. “I’m trying to be two people at once,” he said 20 years ago at Club Broadway as if providing a one-sentence paradigm for everything our people have come to mean. But it could be three people, it could be four. Tonight Fort Apache was a sextet.

I wanted it all to be recorded in my head to be played back again and again in subway dreams, or riding a 10-speed along the East River, a 12-bar Nuyorican blues, but the moment, including the end, when it literally smelled of smoke, was safely tucked into a historical corner like it should be. A moment when we were all musicians, even those of us who lacked the discipline and grace to take a stage like that and offer that kind of insight into their insides.

I could wax poetic about the trance states Larry Willis induced, the steady bluster of Joe Ford, the relentless Lester Leaping In that I had never seen from Zenón in quite this way, or the majestic thunderclaps from Jeff Watts’s drum kit (Tain! Tain! Tain! bellowed Jerry in tribute). Can I Get A (What What) my heart pounded, feeling the deep roots of migrant island memory, as the tropical air surged too early into the New York streets, a stone’s throw from the last alcapurria in a shack on the road to Piñones.

Jerry wasn’t going to let Andy alone keep the time. He picked up a trademark wrench from the floor next to the conga and tapped it, as if letting some magnetic force do it for him, on a flat sheet of metal no doubt used to patch a hole in a studio floor in Madrid or Melrose, telling us now was the time in clave, that is the syncopated response, the correction to a fatally flawed flow.

I slapped him five as he walked off stage because I wanted to slap that hand that slapped the conga skin clave, the righteous space between what is demanded of us and who we are. He had bristled to me in our interview a few nights before about the missteps and the lost friends and the strange apocalyptic vibe that made him uncomfortable on the very streets he tried to pave with Afro-Caribbean gold. And the European tour that never happened. And the liner notes that never spoke his name.

“It’s all in the past now,” he smiled, letting go of my hand, happy, happy to be with family, to be in a world that lets him in. Happy to let the clave ring.

One Comment

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  1. Tell me: Who is this Gonzalez, this giant of jazz music, that we have not heard of him?

    Most memorable line: “I just walked right into the scene in Madrid and it was comfortable and I started to teach them some stuff about clave and guaguanco. They were scared to death at first but I said watch what happens when you play a buleria and I play this on top of it. And everybody went, `Oh shit!’ and I said `You dig?’

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