The Beat Goes On

Celebrated Percussionist Gerardo Veléz Brings Rhythm and Style to Sarasota

Veléz has been a percussionist for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Spyro Gyra, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and Nile Rodgers and Chic.

By Andrea González September 7, 2023 Published in the September-October 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Gerardo Veléz

Gerardo Veléz

Image: Joe Lipstein

In the early 1950s, when Sarasota’s Gerardo Veléz was growing up, his uncle Rafael would often bring his orchestra to the Veléz family apartment in the South Bronx. A Puerto Rican family was still an anomaly in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood, but the area was changing, giving way to waves of Puerto Ricans, other Latinos and African Americans who moved into the area. Dark-haired with big curls, lithe and easily excitable, Veléz would watch as Tío Rafael set up in the living room. The area would be cleared away for instruments, musicians, dancing and sometimes poetry. 

“All the neighbors were invited,” says Veléz, now 75 and still as spry and energetic as ever, though his signature curls are now white. “Some of the most beautiful music and poetry was heard in those days.”

As a percussionist for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Spyro Gyra, David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, Nile Rodgers and Chic, Veléz has been nominated for a Grammy award seven times. And it all goes back to that living room, where he learned about the music of his culture—the rhythm, the beats and the dance—and took his first lessons on the conga.

“We were often discriminated against because of our name,” he says, shrugging, underscoring a struggle shared with other Latinos and people of color. The Veléz family had a difficult time buying a home and getting loans from banks (still a challenge for many today), but the family persevered. Veléz’s father owned three bodegas in the neighborhood, and everyone knew him. “He helped the Latinos coming in, collecting rent for the landlords, helping whenever he could,” Veléz says. “He was the go-to guy for the community for all kinds of things.”

When Veléz was 9, he picked up the bongos. He found sanctuary and peace of mind by steeping himself in Latin beats. Later, he took advantage of a pal’s percussion setup. “He wasn’t very good, thankfully for me,” Veléz says with a laugh. “We would go down to 72nd Street, jam in Central Park and spend hours listening to records and playing along.” Eventually, his talent landed him in clubs like The Scene, where, one fateful night, he caught the attention of Hendrix. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, the band that had rocketed Hendrix to superstardom, had just broken up. Hendrix hired Veléz to join a new group that would perform at an upcoming festival known as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.

Veléz suggested the new band go by the name Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. At the festival, before launching into the song “Message to Love,” Hendrix introduced the band. “We got tired of the Experience,” he said, “and we were just blowing our minds too much, so we decided to change the whole thing around and call it Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. It’s nothing but a band of gypsies.”

The breakthrough performance that followed launched Veléz’s career. “Veléz went on from Woodstock to become one of the top Latin rhythm percussionists in the world,” says percussionist Rob Giglio, a member of the Hendrix tribute band Kiss the Sky. Giglio, who performs some of Veléz’s parts in the tribute show, calls Veléz “a truly great musician.”

Winston Roye is a much-sought-after Broadway musician and the bassist for the rock band Soul Asylum and the socially conscious Latina rock guitarist Eljuri. Veléz, he says, “is not just a great percussionist—he’s a great musician that happens to play percussion.” When Roye was playing with Romanian rock guitarist Kristin Capolino in 2019, Veléz was invited to sit in. “It was a non-Latin-based situation, but [Veléz] transcended it by being just a great musician,” Roye says. “He would listen to a song and just add something interesting.” Fifty years after Woodstock, Roye says, Veléz still “had so much power and so much energy and stage charisma.”

Participating in dance competitions with his older sister—former Broadway star and television actress Martha Veléz-Reid—informed Veléz’s musical style and onstage demeanor. “I’m a dancer,” he says. “I’ve always been. Jimi would feed off of my movement and energy.”

Music producer and musician Nile Rodgers, best known for his legendary disco band Chic, first encountered Veléz’s music through his performance at Woodstock. “Everybody’s going, ‘Who’s that guy on stage playing congas with Hendrix?’” Rodgers recalled during an interview with a New York radio station. “So Gerardo became our percussionist for a gazillion years.”

Spyro Gyra in the 1970s, featuring Veléz (third from right).

Spyro Gyra in the 1970s, featuring Veléz (third from right).

Often the sole Latino in whatever band he found himself in, Veléz says he brought “excitement as a front person and not just as ‘dressing’ in the back.” He would leave his setup, dancing with a tambourine or another instrument at the front of the stage. During his decade with the pop jazz group Spyro Gyra, he says, he “changed the perspective of what percussionists were doing, with many changing their setups to match mine.”

Ten years ago, Veléz was diagnosed with Reynaud’s disease, a rare disorder of the blood vessels that turns affected body parts icy-cold. When he was younger, during frigid New York winters, Veléz would travel to California or Puerto Rico to help manage his symptoms. “It’s just something that was done—there was no question that I had to go [somewhere warm] for my health,” he says. “My parents just made it happen.”

Combined with those physical struggles were his self-diagnosed issues with dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. He says his unrecognized problems got him labeled as a “difficult troublemaker” in his youth. He was kicked out of public school and sent to a militant Catholic school in another area of the Bronx.

“Catholic school saved me from likely ending up in prison,” Veléz says.

Later in his career, Veléz moved to Hawaii, where he continued to perform and won raves from local critics. One wrote that he “breathes life into just about any setting, thanks to his toe-tapping rhythms and infectious, upbeat personality.” Another called him a “guru percussionist.” While in Hawaii, he also wrote a music education curriculum for children in grades seven through nine and managed his own company, Gerardo Veléz Productions.

After playing gigs at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on several occasions, Veléz and his wife of 47 years, Heather, decided to move to Sarasota full-time in 2018. Veléz’s sister Martha lives nearby and is still involved in entertainment. (She recently performed in Asolo Rep’s Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help as Grandmother O’Shea.) “This community has given my wife and me peace, especially during the pandemic,” he says. “Sarasota has a heavy base of funding for the arts that’s colorless.”

More recently, Veléz has turned his attention to the idea of marrying rock music to Sarasota’s rich circus culture by bringing in live musicians to collaborate with circus performers. At the moment, details are scarce, but given Veléz’s energy and enthusiasm, expect big things. “It’s in the works,” he says. “We’ll see what happens.” 

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