Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 6 Fall 1997
by Victor Rendón
Legendary Bill Fitch was born on November 27, 1941. He started playing congas with Cal Tjader at age 21 in the early 1960's, a position held by some of the top congueros of the day such as Mongo Santamaria, Armando Peraza, Changuito, Luis Miranda, Tommy Lopez, Patato, and Pete Escovedo.
It was also the position filled by Poncho Sánchez upon Bill's departure from the group. As noted by Cal Tjader, he was not only a conga player but a composer as well. During this time Bill recorded with Vince Guaraldi and did a short stint with Rene Bloch's latin big band. Bill later played with pianist Chick Corea, percussionist Don Alias, and others.
Bill was heavily influenced by the likes of Mongo Santamaría, Tata Güines, and Armando Peraza. These influences are strongly evident in his conga solo on the tune "Insight" from the Cal Tjader album, Soña Libré. His playing has inspired Jerry Gonzalez, Steve Berrios, and Poncho Sánchez. Bill now resides in New Haven, Connecticut where he continues to perform and share his knowledge and experience through teaching.
∞ Interview ∞
LP: Please talk about your background.
BF: I was born in New Haven, Connecticut. One day when I was about 10 years old, I was up in my room. I had some fruit that I wanted to throw out the window. I tried to open the window but it was stuck causing me to hit the window with the palm of my hand. Instead of hitting the handle I hit the window pane itself. My whole hand went through the window cutting my wrist. I was then laid in bed with twenty stitches. That's when I heard Perez Prado on the radio. They were playing "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White". I heard the congas and immediately got interested in Latin music.
LP: About what year was this?
BF: Somewhere in the middle 1950's. Later I asked my mom if she would buy me a conga drum. She went down to New York to buy one and I've been playing congas ever since. I'm basically self taught but I did listen to Mongo, Patato, and all these other fabulous players on records. I got a lot of ideas from them. So, I'm mainly self taught with the help of the masters.
LP: Did you study music formally?
BF: I went to the Berklee School Of Music in Boston around 1958. I was there for about two years and was the only conguero in the school. It was mostly a school for jazz musicians. I recorded an LP at the school which did pretty well in the market. I also did several club gigs in Boston and Cambridge. There was a place called Club 47. Alan Dawson was the drummer. We were playing heavy jazz. From Boston I came down to New York City and that's how I hooked up with Cal Tjader. He needed a conguero. The conguero at the time was Changuito (Armando Peraza's cousin).
I went down to Birdland where Cal was playing and sat in. He liked my playing and asked me if I would like to join the group. That was it. I was in heaven. I stayed with Cal for two years. After Cal I went down to Los Angeles and hooked up with Rene Bloch's 15 piece Latin big band. I had a great time. Playing in a Latin big band is a big responsibility. You can't go up or down in your time. It has to be right there. The situation in the club fell apart because it wasn't bringing in enough money. I went back to San Francisco and eventually back to the east coast due to the fact that my mom was ill.
LP: What type of things did you study at Berklee?
BF: I studied music theory, harmony, and composition. When I was playing with Cal Tjader I composed a tune called "Insight" at about 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning in San Francisco. I took it to Cal, we ran it down two or three times and he said, "We'll do it tonight, fellas." We played it that night and it came off very well. It was eventually recorded and released on the album titled, Soña Libré (recently reissued on Verve/Poly. 815 058-2).
LP: Can you talk about your technique or approach to congas?
BF. Well it all comes from here (pointing to his heart). The problem with many congueros today is that they play from up here (pointing to his head). It has to come from the heart and you have to have a love for it. The aspect of technique comes later. Sometimes older players know much more about the drum and the proper way to play it. I'm telling you in a humble way, that's how you get the feel.
LP: So who helped you along the way?
BF: Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria and a lot of records. They showed me different rhythms.
LP: Can you show us an example?
BF: This is what they called rumba viejo which Armando showed to me. (demonstrates example)
LP: What kind of things did you do to develop your hands?
BF: I practiced every single day. My friends would be outside playing ball while I would be inside playing the drums. I developed calluses and it would sometimes hurt like the devil when playing the drum. The calluses eventually disappeared. Now I don't feel any pain at all when I play.
LP: Who was the drummer when you were playing with Cal Tjader?
BF: It was John Rae on timbales/drums, myself on congas, Freddie Schrieber on bass, Clare Fischer on piano, and Cal on vibes. Clare joined after Lonnie Hewitt left to perform with his own jazz trio. Clare is a genius but personally a little to stiff for me. You always get this feeling that the tempo is going to jump.
LP: Why did you leave Tjader's group?
BF: I left Cal because my mother was ill. I hung around the West Coast for a while and then came back home. Cal was a very easy man to get along with if you didn't push him the wrong way. Still, he was a beautiful man. I'm glad to have been associated with him and to have had that experience. I have to tell you an embarrassing moment. One time we were playing the Blackhawk in San Francisco. I was right up on the bandstand taking a solo. I fell over the bandstand. It was elevated so I must have fallen at least two feet. The band kept on playing while I pulled myself together and got back on the bandstand but, I pulled the chair back a little bit (laughs).
LP: What are you doing now?
BF: I'm teaching in New Haven with a buddy of mine named Jesse Gelles. I also play with Ed Fast's group. We sometimes get together at a place called ECA (Educational Center for the Arts). We have a little jam and go over a couple of tunes. My buddy Dr. G. who's the conguero of the group sometimes gets some lip from me. However, he's coming along slow. We always have a good time. I usually play piano in this group. We have a young lady named Nancy who also plays the congas. She plays like an angel. You don't hear her at all but you can feel it. I'm glad she's there because it keeps the time balanced.
LP: What do you recommend for younger players?
BF: When you teach any instrument you have to start from the roots and the basics. You can't teach the bambino how to play a solo on the quinto when he doesn't know the roots. First you have to learn the basics and then graduate to other levels. Listen to any Latin groups like Machito, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, and other groups along those lines. If you want to listen to Afro-Cuban religious music, you can start with Julito Collazo. If you want to listen to Cuban music you can start with Cachao, Tata Güines, and some charanga bands.
Many congueros today just want to display their technique going at one thousand miles per hour. That's a big mistake because they are not leaving enough space. Then if you try to tell them something, they get a swelled head and look like they want to punch you out or they walk away. They are not being true to themselves. But, you leave them alone and eventually they'll get the message. They'll wake up. Speed goes nowhere. It's just a flashy display.
LP: Weren't you asked to play in Tito Puente's group?
BF: Yes, but I had to turn it down because I was playing with Cal Tjader at the time. It would have been a ball playing with Puente. I didn't want to pass up Tjader's gig. That was a hell of an experience.
LP: Tell us about the scene in Harlem during the 1960's and 70' with Pucho and Latin Soul.
BF: We used to have these rehearsals with five hours of rapping and two minutes playing (laughs). We were at a place called Gyra Hall on W. 116th Street. This is where Pucho would rehearse at. There was also a fella named Norman Carr on vibes.
LP: What about the clubs during that time?
BF: The Small Paradise was happening and a few other clubs. A lot of jazz was happening.
LP: I see that you played with Milford Graves. How was that experience?
BF: Milford and I joined a quintet in New York. Milford was on timbales, Chick Corea on piano, Lyle Atkinson on bass and Pete Young on alto sax. We played back up gigs at the Palladium backing up artists like Arsenio Rodríguez. Milford was a good businessman. He was always running around negotiating gigs for us, signing contracts, etc. Chick didn't know anything about Latin music at all. I showed him some basic montunos on the piano. He picked it up very quick and has been playing with Latin overtones ever since.
LP: You've mentioned something on the pitch of the cowbell which I thought was kind of interesting.
BF: A big mistake that many bongoceros make is that they use a campana (bell) that is pitched too high. You need a deep campana for a ride. A high pitch bugs me. Some congueros also tune their drums too high.
LP: At home what do you listen to?
BF: I listen to Cuban music, classical music, and jazz such as John Coltrane.
LP: Bill, thank you for being here with us today.
BF: It was my pleasure.
Special thanks to David Easter, Ed Fast, Lenny King, and Antonio Artís Harrison "Chevere", for their assistance and input during this interview.