Steve Berrios: Latin Jazz Innovator
AAJ: So how did you make the transition from trumpet to drums?
SB: To me it wasn't really a transition. My dad had his drums around the house and I used to set them up and mess around with them. So I learned by watching guys and playing along with records, I never took any drum lessons. As long I can remember I used to do that, I used to bang on my moms pots and pans. On the trumpet I had to do a little more study but the drum stuff always came naturally.
AAJ: I should mention that your father was a professional drummer.
SB: Right, and a very good one too. In the early '40s he played with a band led by Marcelino Guerra and made a lot of good records. And I'm proud of him, later on he opted to do those straight club date gigs just to feed his family. I don't think I could be that unselfish. He opted for doing a hip gig for no money to playing sad gigs for the rest of his career just to feed his family.
AAJ: Did your father play trap set or percussion?
SB: It was a mixture of trap set and timbales at the same time, which a lot of society bands where doing. You had to play a little bit of everything. You had to play a polka, then you'd play a cha-cha, a tango, a mixture of everything. I don't know if you've ever heard of Roseland or Arthur Murray or what they sometimes call a rhumba, which is a fast bolero.
AAJ: Yeah, rumba with an "H.
SB: There you go. That was the Fred Astaire era.
AAJ: So it was mainly a dance band?
SB: Yeah, yeah.
AAJ: I guess a lot of the bands were back then. The big bands were mainly for dancing.
SB: Back then there were a lot of bands doing that. That's like a dying art now. I caught the tail end of that so I learned a lot of stuff. I used to play the Catskills, the Concord and a place called Stevensville.
AAJ: Were your first gigs on trumpet?
SB: Yeah, that was with the guy we won the amateur hour with, his name was George Wheeler. He was trying to imitate Art Blakey and I was trying to imitate Lee Morgan on trumpet [laughs]. And after that I got the gig with Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers and I also got a gig playing with Joe Panama around the same time.
AAJ: Those were boogaloo bands, right?
SB: Yeah, it was boogaloo type stuff. Matter of fact, Joe Cuba's band comes out of Joe Panama's band. Joe Panama was a pianist and I think they all mutinied and Joe Cuba took it over.
AAJ: Didn't your father let you take over a steady gig that he had?
SB: Right. He had a steady gig not too far from here on 57th Street. It was a hotel called the Great Northern, and inside that hotel there was a club called the Alameda Room. It was a six night a week gig. There were two bands, a show band and a dance band, and my old man put me on the dance band. I did that gig for like four years straight without ever missing a day. So that was a real learning experience. Some of it I liked and some of it I really didn't like. So then, when my father left the show band to do another gig, he put me on the show band, and I learned a lot. I had to do some reading on that gig. It was a five-piece band, there would be a comedian, a singer, you'd have to cover all that stuff. It wasn't very hip but it was a good experience.
AAJ: How old were you at that time?
SB: I think I was nineteen.
AAJ: That's not a bad gig for a young man.
SB: No, it was great. A six night a week gig wearing a tuxedo every night, I thought I was hot shit! [laughs]. And making decent bread at that time. At least it was steady bread. I only had one night off, it was a Monday. When I was on that gig, on my break I used to run down or take a cab to the Palladium or Birdland to see the real hip stuff, what I was really attracted to.
AAJ: That's a great opportunity. Only in New York, with some real straight-ahead jazz on one side of the street and then some hip Latin shit on the other.
SB: Right! Exactly. So I really ate all that stuff up.
AAJ: Who did you get to hear?
SB: Oh, name it. In one night, let's say I start off at the Palladium. I would see Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez and then I'd cross the street and I'd see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver's quintet or Miles Davis with Trane or Monk's quartet, all within one block, so that was an amazing time.
AAJ: Yeah, definitely. You can't replace that.
SB: No, and I used to see it live and there's no price for that.
AAJ: Did you realize at the time how special that was?
SB: No, not taking it for granted because I was engulfed in it. But I didn't know it was that special as now when it's not there anymore. I feel really blessed to have seen that. I mean its one thing to see that on You Tube but seeing it live, just the vibe of that. You know just seeing the cats hang out and walk into the club, or settin' up, just their body language, guys breakin' a sweat, the stuff gets pretty intense, there's no words to describe that.
AAJ: Do you remember your first record date?
SB: Wow. I think it was with Pucho, playing trumpet.
AAJ: Is there any session from the early days that stands out?
SB: Not really. I've done so many and some I've really forgotten about.