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Postby JohnnyConga » Mon Aug 02, 2010 6:57 pm

For me on a personal note Bill Fitch was one of the most influential conga players of his time. The Cal Tjader album Sona Libre will attest to his composing ability as well as his playing and the most listened to conga solo ever on his tune "INSIGHT"...even Giovanni will tell you about this great player.
Bill Fitch passed away last week wednesday. He influenced not only me but also Jerry Gonzales, Chick Corea, Ed Fast, Giovanni, and many many other drummers..for those who want to hear possibly the best constructed conga solo on record, chek out his tune he wrote at the age of 21- Insight...we conga players from the 60's and 70's revered Bill and his talents...I only wish he had done more recording in his life. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Ed Fast who was a close friend to Bill in Connecticut where they live.

How did you make the leap into Latin rhythms, checking out Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms - was Lepak into that as well?

EF: That wasn’t a specialty of his, but he was knowledgeable in that area. Actually what happened was, when I was still in college, I got hired by some guys to play marimba doing Mexican folk music. From there, it was a small leap to checking out the vibraphone and in particular, Cal Tjader. The thing about Cal Tjader was he had the real guys on there, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, and of course later on, Poncho Sanchez. But everything was clean and not overdone - you could hear how all the parts were supposed to fit together. Once I heard Cal Tjader, that kind of captured my imagination and I kind of ran with it from there. I have to say that Cal Tjader was probably my biggest influence early on when I got into Latin Jazz.

LJC: Was someone in the area who was a mentor and helped you learn about the Latin side of the music?

EF: When I got into Cal Tjader, there was one record in particular that really drew me in, and that was Sona Libre. That album in particular had a tune on there called “Insight,” that was written by the conga player on the album, Bill Fitch. That tune really knocked me out. I took that tune “Insight,” that was written by Bill, and I transcribed all the parts - piano, bass, timbales, congas, vibraphone - I transcribed everything. I learned so much from that tune. It really impressed me that this conga player, Bill Fitch, took an amazing solo over one of the hippest montunos that I’ve ever heard in Latin Jazz. That’s the only album that I ever saw him on. It turns out that after trying to track him down for literally years and years and years, he lived in New Haven, Connecticut. That was right down the street from me . . . well, forty minutes away. So I got to hook up with him quite a bit. This guy was an amazing guy. He kind of dropped out of the music scene. He came up with Chick Corea in Boston and went to Berklee. A buddy of mine just worked for Chick out in Colorado, and Chick said that Bill Fitch hipped him to the real deal when it came to Latin Jazz piano playing. He came up with Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Don Alias, Tony Williams, and more. I used to go down every week to play with him. I took his advice on who to listen to and what was important playing wise. This guy was an amazing guy.

LJC: I’d love to hear more about him, he sounds like a pretty important player.

EF: This guy is amazing. Have you heard about that movie, The Soloist, about the violinist who was in L.A.? He went to Juilliard; they made a whole movie about him . . . well, Bill Fitch has got a story like that, but times ten. He went to Berklee, and he was one of the first conga players at Berklee. Gary Burton, and all these guys know Bill. I saw Don Alias just like a month before he passed away; he said, “Man, you think you know who the greatest conga player is? It’s not many of the guys out there, it’s Bill Fitch, the greatest conga player ever!”

People don’t know about him because he dropped out of the scene so early. Once he left Berklee, he went to New York. Cal Tjader was in New York and someone came running over to Bill’s apartment. He was living with Chick Corea at the time; they were roommates. Someone said, “Hey, Bill, Cal’s looking for a new conga player, you’ve got to come down and sit in with him.” So Bill sat in with him and got hired on the spot. Cal flew him out to California and he made that record with him, Sona Libre. He did a couple of other things. From what I hear, Bill wrote so many amazing charts, but where those charts are . . . who knows? Apparently all the conga drummers used to come out and watch Bill play because he was really something special.

LJC: That would be interesting to track down some of that music.

EF: Bill told me that they made a videotape out on Hermosa Beach; I think it was for Fantasy Records. I was trying to get in touch with anybody that might have a copy of that. I have no idea what tunes they videotaped, but it would be great to Bill when he was twenty-one years old, doing his thing with Cal.

Bill is on another album with this organ player named Charles Kynard and that album was Bill Fitch, Armando Peraza, and one other percussionist. On the cover it says “The Greatest Latin Percussion Section Ever Assembled.” It was Armando Peraza on bongo and Bill Fitch on congas. All these guys were very close.
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Postby Omelenko1 » Mon Aug 02, 2010 10:27 pm

On the Sona Libre album by Cal Tjader, the tunes INSIGHT and ALONZO with Bill Fitch, were anthems for us congueros of the early 70's. An incredible conguero, Bill Fitch. May he rest in peace.

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Postby Mike » Tue Aug 03, 2010 4:52 am

Hey JC, thanks for that thorough background information on Bill Fitch. It is sad to hear
that he has passed away.
"Insight" is one of the best tunes EVER and really features a top-notch conga solo,
absolutely incredible. My all-time favorite!

By the way, in an interview Andy Gonzalez said that Fitch indeed "had a strong influence
on my brother Jerry and other conga drummers around. For its day, Fitch´s solo was
kind of audacious; you could tell his influences. He liked Mongo, and he liked
Tat Guines, who was the premier influence at the time (...)
[While listening to the conga solo]He does have a little Peraza (...) Poncho Sanchez copied this guy.
(Manny Oquendo:) Right, sure. And this Latin Jazz (...) is purer than what they play now.
(Andy Gonzalez:) Yes, but this is West Coast stuff. The West Coast sound was very much influenced by the
Mongo-Willli Bobo - Cal Tjader band- they had an influence on everything that came afterwards."

(taken from the liner notes of the sampler "More than Mambo - the introduction to Afro-Cuban Jazz",
Verve 5279032)

R.I.P. Bill Fitch - we keep on drumming.
Peace & drum
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Postby jorge » Tue Aug 03, 2010 5:26 am

Here is his solo on Insight:
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Postby niallgregory » Tue Aug 03, 2010 1:18 pm

jorge wrote:Here is his solo on Insight:

Thanks Jorge .A great solo indeed and one id never heard before .He had a great sound and a rock solid groove .Solo seems like it had a lot of modern elements to it and i bet it sounded amazing back then ( still does ) .
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Postby bongosnotbombs » Thu Aug 05, 2010 6:41 pm

I first heard Bill Fitch's name from this post and I'm glad I did. That Insight solo is tremendous, and of course I'm a fan of everything Cal Tjader. It seems Bill has had a lot of influence in the music world, but I can't seem to find a picture of him anywhere, anyone have an image or video?
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Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Aug 05, 2010 8:21 pm

I feel embarassed because I have never heard anything about him, didn't even know his name.

Some guy once gave me a cassette with a tune from a Cal Tjader record. He told me I should listen to this solo of Mongo's. Now that I dug out this cassette, it says: "Cal Tjader: Insight, from Sona Libre". It wasn't Mongo then. I was listening to Bill Fitch.

I immediately ordered the CD online.

JC and Jorge, thanks for bringing this man to my (our) attention. May he rest in peace. I'd love to see a photo of his, too.

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Postby bongosnotbombs » Thu Aug 05, 2010 8:55 pm

Apparently Bill Fitch's influence is greatly underestimated, Chic Corea credits Bill with introducing him to Latin music. ... orea.shtml
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Postby tamboricua » Fri Aug 06, 2010 1:20 am

This photo comes from the now out of print "Latin Percussionist" newsletter Issue 6 Fall 1997.


Bill Fitch.jpg
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Postby Thomas Altmann » Sun Aug 08, 2010 5:16 pm


I forgot to thank you for uploading the photo. I copied it to my computer.

Sorry about that, and thank you -

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Postby bongosnotbombs » Sun Aug 08, 2010 7:02 pm

Yes, thanks Jorge.
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Postby tamboricua » Sun Aug 08, 2010 10:58 pm

No problem guys!!! Below is an interview conducted by Victor Rendón and recently posted @ the Yahoo Latin Jazz E-group.



Bill Fitch: Conguero Insight
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.

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

LP: What about the clubs during that time?

BF: The Small Paradise was happening and a few other clubs. A lot of jazz was

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.
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Postby Thomas Altmann » Mon Aug 09, 2010 10:19 am

Thank you Jorge. Formally, I'm still in that e-group, but rarely check posts.

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Postby tamboricua » Tue Nov 09, 2010 6:44 pm

Very short clip of the late Bill Fitch in action with Tjader.


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