GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY / KEEPER OF THE FLAME by Jerry González
I was born in New York in 1949, the year that Charlie Parker, Machito and Dizzy Gillespie made the Afro Cuban Jazz Suites, written by Chico O'Farrill. Some of the greatest Caribbean artists where living in New York at that time, people such as Mario Bauzá, Chico O'Farrill, Mongo Santamaría, Patato Valdés and Arsenio Rodríguez, all recording their original folklore as well as collaborating with the main jazz musicians in town.
My parents came to New York from Puerto Rico in the 1940's. My father was a singer and my main musical education came from listening to his record collection: Louis Armstrong, Machito and his Afro Cubans, Tito Puente, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Eddie Palmieri, El Gran Combo, Tito Rodríguez, Chuíto de Bayamón, Mario Hernández, Rafael Cortijo, Dorival Caymmi, Elis Regina, Jair Rodriguez, Charlie Parker…
As I child I was lucky to take an advantage of the moment when music education was important in the schools and there was money in music programs that would lend instruments to the children who didn't have any. They educated me on trumpet in John Philip Sousa Junior High School and then I went to NYC Music and Art High School, where they really enriched my music experience with classical music and orchestra and theory concepts. It was there where I met most of my musical friends.
At that time me and my friends collected and shared records and music information: Afro Cuban music, Latin dance music (mambo, cha cha cha...) and jazz records. That was how we learned.
My family lived in Edenwald housing projects in the Bronx, a melting pot with many positive influences but also dangers. As a teenager music kept me out of trouble, gave me aspirations and good role-models.
In the 60-70's everyone was looking for identity. Coming out of segregation into integrated cultural experiences helped to identify your cultural identity: being black, being Latino, being Nuyorican…
That had its impulse in everything: music, poetry, art, performance, dance and political activism. I was part of that, claiming my Latino identity. I still believe in the need of knowing your cultural background to understand who you are and what values to embrace.
The culmination of my personal experience and my academic musical education made me realize that my mission was to educate other people about music and share my knowledge of Latin Jazz, Jazz and Afro Caribbean music with the new generations. In the 70's, that culmination made me join the state program "Artist in the Schools" (Jazzmobile) and teach children from the Bronx and Harlem to read music and play trumpet and percussion. This would lend value to their ability to learn mathematics and increase reading comprehension. I also taught music to teenagers at East Harlem School of Music. During the 80's and 90's, I taught Afro-Caribbean percussion at Massachusetts University, Dartmouth University and the New School of Music for Jazz and Contemporary Music. This experience was meaningful to me as I was able to expose Afro Caribbean and Latin Jazz music to a higher education audience and communicate its cultural and social value.
During the 90's I continued sharing my knowledge with the instructional videos "Jerry González, Conga Drumming & Afro-Caribbean Rhythms" (Alchemy Pictures, 1994) and "Jerry González, Conga Mania - In the Tradition" (Alchemy Pictures, 1995, U.S.). Both are still used in music education programs worldwide. In the videos, I explain the rhythmic patterns and history of main Afro-Caribbean music expressions: guaguancó, rumba columbia, yambú, bomba and plena, and perform examples.
What you listen to is important, you should be a music gourmet and never stop listening to the masters of each style and learning from them. I feel lucky to have met and even played with some of those music heroes of mine. That feeling of gratitude made me pay tribute to them in many of my recordings and in entire albums such as "Rumba para Monk" (to Thelonious Monk), "Rumba Buhaina" (to Art Blakey) and "Tribute to Chombo Silva" (to Chombo Silva). It also made me want to expose their music to as many people as possible so, wherever I travel, I always carry with me the music that I love and I always turn people on to it. It makes me very happy to see how, years later, some of those people have used the music I introduced to them in their own albums.
It was the possibility of sharing my experience with others what made me stay in Spain after participating on film "Calle 54" and explore the fusion between flamenco and Latin jazz.
Today, I continue participating in workshops in schools and universities. I enjoy collaborating with young ensembles such as the "Latin Youth Ensemble of San Francisco". I'm also involved in other projects with several musicians, such as Ramon Farrán and his Orquesta Nacional de Jazz de España and Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Alliance, where we work together to keep cultural music alive and bring it to the masses.
Jerry González, San Francisco, 2012.