Andy González, for the past half-century, one of the premier bass players in Latin music, died in the Bronx, New York, Thursday. According to his sister, Eileen González-Altomari, quoted by The New York Times, the causes were pneumonia and complications of diabetes. He was 69.
González had long made his mark as a key member of The Fort Apache Band, a group he founded with his late brother, trumpeter and conguero Jerry Gonzalez; and also Conjunto Libre, a stellar dance-music band led by timbalero Manny Oquendo but which González helped found and direct.
“The Fort Apache Band is the most important ensemble in the history of Latin Jazz,” said multi-Grammy winning pianist, composer and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, founder and director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. “They could stop a groove and turn around on a dime. They could go from an Art Blakey swing to a guaguancó on a dime, and it was as authentic as if you had two different bands. Nobody in the history of this music had as much respect for both traditions as these guys.”
And yet, Gonzalez’s influence is broader and more profound than that.
Gonzalez also anchored the bands of Latin music luminaries such as Eddie Palmieri, Rafael Cortijo, Machito, and Tito Rodriguez. But he was also part of the pool of players that comprised the adventurous Jazz Composers Orchestra, provided the ballast to Avant-garde composer and producer Kip Hanrahan’s large ensembles and participated in recordings of the music of New Tango master Astor Piazzolla.
But as talented as he was as a player, Gonzalez was also influential as a music historian. He was a dedicated student of the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican musical traditions, but he approached it not as a preservationist but as a creator, concerned with having a solid foundation for the future of the music.
“Many of the younger musicians have an education in this music — up to a point,” González told me in an interview for The Boston Globe in 1992. “They know one style, one way of playing, they play certain rhythms the right way. But they don’t know the whole story.”
In the 1970s, Andy and his brother Jerry set out to explore Afro-Caribbean musical traditions by hosting informal sessions at their home that attracted some of the top Latin players in the New York area. The work of the loosely organized Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino was documented in two exceptional, uncompromising recordings that traced the development of modern Latin Afro-Caribbean music, from the ancient to the future, from Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican roots styles such as rumba, plena, and música de Santo, to modern Latin jazz.
It was a passion and vast knowledge, by all accounts most often shared with an unpretentious attitude and a low-key missionary enthusiasm, that had a profound impact on and off stage.
“He’s the one who brought me back home. When I was a kid, I rejected all of my father’s music,” said Arturo O’Farrill, the son of composer, arranger, and bandleader Chico O’Farrill. “I thought it was his music, and so it was because he was my father. I hated it, so I stayed as far away from Latin music as I could. I began playing jazz and free jazz and funk, and I made my first professional reputation playing with Carla Bley. I didn’t care for [Latin music].”
It was a chance encounter with González, and the home-cooked, informal music history lesson that followed, which made O´Farrill reconsider and eventually led him to reframe his musical career.
“We had just finished a recording session, we were just hanging, and he surprised me telling me he was a big fan. I had no reputation in jazz music but apparently, he followed my career,” recalled O’Farrill. “And then he said ‘But you should really embrace your roots. You should really embrace your Latino-ness.”
“So he invited me to his home and basically taught me the history of Latin music and Latin jazz and more importantly, the history of Latin piano playing from Bola de Nieve to Charlie to Eddie Palmieri,” said O’Farrill. “He taught me everything I knew about Latin pianists and then we started playing together a lot more.” That led to O’Farrill’s appearing with the Fort Apache Band, Conjunto Libre and outfits such as trombonist, composer and arranger Papo Vazquez’s Mighty Pirates Troubadours “and so by the time that Chico needed someone to step in and take care of his orchestra, I pretty much knew what I was doing.”
Fittingly, González was part of Chico O’Farrill’s late-career rediscovery, both as a player on his orchestra and on the old master´s Grammy-nominated recordings Heart of a Legend and Carambola.
“Andy was a shadow co-producer on those records,” recalls Jorge Ulla, the actual producer of those albums. “He was the one who would leave the studio and walk into the control room to check on everything. He was concerned with every detail. That man did not accept ‘close enough.’ He was the best bass player in Latin music after Cachao. He knew the right feeling, the right sound of every instrument in Latin jazz, and when he heard something that was not up to his standards he would go up to the player and very kindly, with great respect, would give him a nudge this or that way.”
Composer and producer Hanrahan recalled González playing that same role, albeit in a very different musical setting, as a member of his large ensembles.
“The bands had like 12 or 14 guys, and sometimes, as the pieces unfolded, now and then someone might spin-off in a different direction. Andy would hear what everybody was doing and knew how to emphasize something to bring him back in,” recalled Bronx-born Hanrahan, who knew the González brothers since they were all pre-teens. “He anchored things. And he was a living encyclopedia. When I went to his apartment, this as recently as a couple years ago, he would play stuff and we’d talk about it for hours. There was a bit of a teacher in him. He was generous about everything. He was generous about his time; he was generous with his music.”
It’s an observation echoed by O’Farrill.
“He was very kind, very generous, and a lovely, lovely person,” he said. “We not only lost a genius of the bass, but we also lost a really decent and generous human being.”