The Woodstock Experience
Woodstock Music and Art Festival in 1969. When Jimi Hendrix takes the stage and points to the crowd of thousands, right behind him was percussionist; Gerardo Velez. Gerardo “Jerry” Velez said,“It was my birthday, and my first professional performance. I was playing with the greatest guitarist in rock and roll history Jimi Hendrix, what a weekend!”
Woodstock’s 50th anniversary
This year marks Woodstock’s 50th anniversary, a milestone many of the festival’s performers and attendees are celebrating. That includes Velez, a percussionist, a seven-time Grammy nominee for his work with jazz fusion group Spyro Gyra.
During the Aug. 15-18 weekend anniversary of Woodstock, Velez will visit North Carolina for WE 2019. A festival featuring other original Woodstock performers such as Canned Heat and Ten Years After. Then in November, he’ll headline a Woodstock-themed version of the Sarasota music festival Giving Hunger the Blues. He’ll be performing with his group Hendrix by Hendrix, which also features Hendrix’s second cousin Regi Hendrix.
In his Sarasota home office, a poster of him and Hendrix flashing the peace sign from the Woodstock stage. Velez reflected on what he calls “eternal Woodstock.” A half-century later, people are still chasing the high of a festival that brought half a million people together. All for overall harmony, despite huge unexpected crowds, schedule snafus and gushing rain and mud.
The right place at the right time
“The right place at the right time” has guided Gerardo’s legacy in life. Mr. Velez went on to perform with such luminaries as David Bowie, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Destiny’s Child, Stevie Nicks, Chaka Khan, Marc Anthony and countless others. Then he was poised for greatness as an original member of the Best-Selling Contemporary Jazz Groups of all time Spyro Gyra, garnering multiple Gold and Platinum recording awards, also best new group of 1978, several number one hit songs, Billboard Magazine’s Jazz Band of the 80’s and 14 Grammy Nominations.
“It was just a lot of young people with a lot of energy and being willing to not sleep and put all their direction into what we were doing, and that’s how the event came off,” said Velez, who turns 72 this week. “That’s the only reason it happened.”
Forming the band
Velez, an aspiring 20-year-old musician from the Bronx, first crossed paths with Hendrix at famed Manhattan nightclub The Scene. Furthermore, this club hosted numerous jam sessions featuring rock royalty, including one between Hendrix and The Doors front man Jim Morrison.
Velez just finished a few songs with Rick Derringer and Jeff Beck when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Hendrix, who told Velez he liked his sound and invited him back onstage to play with him. That went well too, so Hendrix asked Velez to come to a recording studio to jam some more.
“Then we go to the studio and we jammed from 4 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” Velez said. “No one ever slept back then. We were all on stimulants and drugs; it didn’t matter, and we were young, too.”
Band of Gypsy’s
The two continued playing together along with other performers like Electric Flag drummer Buddy Miles. Hendrix told Velez he was interested in a fuller sound than the trio of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and bringing in musicians like Miles, Hendrix’s old military buddy Billy Cox on bass, his longtime friend Larry Lee on rhythm guitar and Velez on percussion.
Velez said he suggested the band name Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, while Hendrix preferred Band of Gypsys. They ultimately used both, with Hendrix introducing the group at Woodstock as “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows — for short, it’s nothin’ but a Band of Gypsys.”
Hendrix spent the vast majority of the festival continuing to rehearse in a house he’d gotten in Woodstock. Meanwhile, Velez, familiar with the area because of his sister’s living there and wanting to celebrate his birthday, went to survey the scene.
He headed back to New York City to attend Harlem Cultural Festival, later known as “Black Woodstock” for its lineup of performers including Sly & The Family Stone and Nina Simone. Then he raced back to Woodstock, visiting backstage and taking in the throng of attendees.