Steve Berrios, 68; master of Latin, jazz, and drums

NEW YORK — Steve Berrios, a master percussionist whose command of jazz, Latin, and Caribbean folk music traditions figured prominently in the sophisticated rhythmic drive behind a wide range of jazz and Latin-jazz fusion bands, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan.

He was 68.

Mr. Berrios was a fixture of the New York Latin jazz scene for 40 years, playing in groups led by Max Roach, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, and Grover Washington Jr. He was a founding member of the Fort Apache Band, a popular Latin jazz fusion ensemble led by Jerry Gonzalez.


Mr. Berrios grew up in Upper Manhattan with neighbors like Puente, Willie Bobo, and Mongo Santamaria, all of whom were icons of Latin music and friends of his father, Steven Berrios, who was a professional drummer in dance bands.

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Starting his professional career at 16, the younger Berrios credited a host of mentors, including his father, with helping him develop both an authoritative style — described by fellow percussionist Eddie Bobe in 2002 as “reigning behind the beat” — and a sure-footed fluidity in moving from one musical idiom to another, matching his fluency in both English and Spanish.

Mr. Berrios began touring and recording at age 19 in a band led by Santamaria, a Cuban-born conga player considered the best of his generation.

He learned to play batá sacred drums — hourglass shaped instruments used in the Afro-Caribbean religion called Santería — from Julito Collazo, a prominent drummer in the band who later left music for a religious life.

Mr. Berrios played conga, djembe, cowbells, marimba, timpani, and glockenspiel in Dizzy Gillespie’s band on a good-will tour of Cuba in the 1980s.


From the drummer Max Roach, he said, he learned leadership.

“I don’t care who the leader of the band is,” Mr. Berrios said in a 2007 interview with the online journal All About Jazz.

“Once the tune is counted off, the drummer is the leader of the band. The drummer controls the dynamics, the tempo, the feel of the music, everything.”

Mr. Berrios recorded more than a dozen albums as a member of the Fort Apache Band, in- cluding “The River Is Deep” (1982), “Obatalà” (1988) and “Rumba Para Monk” (1988), “Earthdance” (1990), and “Moliendo Café” (1991).

“And Then Some!” (1997), one of the few albums he recorded at the head of his own group, was nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Performance.


Mr. Berrios was born in Manhattan on Feb. 24, 1945, soon after his parents arrived in New York from Puerto Rico. He started learning to play the trumpet in junior high, but found his father’s drum set a better fit.

He leaves four daughters, Aisha Jafar, and Merida, Cindy and Angela Barrios; and a son, Steve.

In recent interviews, he reflected on being little known outside the world of jazz musicians and aficionados despite a long career.

His personal semiobscurity bothered him less, he said, than the general public disregard for drummers as artists.

“Most people look at the drummer as an ignorant timekeeper who doesn’t know anything about music or forms,” he said in the 2007 interview.

“But a drummer has to be as intelligent as the horn players. He has to know the vernacular, the history of the music.”

A horn player can take a break. A drummer never leaves. “We’re like royalty,” he said in the interview..