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Ray Barretto: 1929-2006
Ray Barretto

Born: April 29, 1929 in Brooklyn, NY
Died: February 17, 2006 in Hackensack, NJ

Master conguero and salsa pioneer

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins

Ray Barretto, one of the greatest Latin percussionists in jazz’ history, died on the morning of February 17, 2006, at Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, New Jersey. He was 76 years old. Barretto had undergone a heart bypass a couple of weeks before his passing, and had suffered numerous complications from the procedure.

Barretto began playing the congas during his stint in the military, after World War II. Upon his return to New York he dove into the sizzling Latin music scene there and found continuous work. In the late 50s he replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente’s band, where he remained for four years. His Puerto Rican heritage was as inspirational as the musicians with whom he was surrounded, and in time he became one of New York’s master congueros. In ’58 he backed Puente and Woody Herman on the classic album Herman’s Heat and Puente’s Beat.

In 1961 Barretto recorded his first album as a leader, Barretto Para Bailar (Riverside, 1962), featuring timbalero Ray Mantilla who would be a longtime partner. The following year he recorded Concinando Suave for Riverside and Charanga Moderna for the Tico label; the latter album gave him a major dance hit in “El Watusi”. He made several more records in the 60s for Tico, Polydor and United Artists. Along the way he served up heaping portions of Latin rhythm for such jazz artists as Kenny Burrell (Bluesy Burrell, Out of This World), Red Garland (Blues in the Night, Manteca, Rojo), Wes Montgomery, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Cal Tjader, Gene Ammons (Blue Gene, Boss Tenor), Lou Donaldson (Blues Walk, Time Is Right), Freddie Hubbard (Backlash), Herbie Mann (Common Ground, Discotheque), Art Blakey (Holiday for Skins, Vols. 1 and 2), Joe Zawinul, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dave Pike, Arnett Cobb, Shirley Scott, Sonny Stitt, Frank Wess, Johnny Lytle and Oliver Nelson (Afro-American Sketches). Barretto was the first-call conguero for New York’s jazzers from the late 1950s onward.

In 1967 Barretto joined the Fania label, which became renowned as the birthplace of the salsa movement. He led the Fania All-Stars and recorded a number of fine albums under his own name: Soul Drummer, Acid, The Other Road and Rican-Struction were among the best of the eighteen or so albums he led for Fania. Later on he attempted to fuse rock, disco and other pop forms with Latin music, particularly during his 1970s tenure with Atlantic Records (Eye of the Beholder, Can You Feel It?). Barretto played a role in the 70s Latin-pop crossover projects of Deodato (Prelude) and Luiz Bonfá (The New Face of Bonfá).

The 1980s saw Barretto continuing to move in other directions, though the Fania All-Stars kept him grounded in Latin jazz. In 1981 he recorded the wonderful La Cuna (CTI) with saxophonist Joe Farrell, Charlie Palmieri, and Tito Puente on board. He then served as musical director for the TV program Bravisimo! and took part in the 1985 recording session for “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” with Miles Davis and a bevy of popular artists. In 1992 he formed New World Spirit, an excellent ensemble featuring younger white, black and Latino players. The band recorded a number of sessions for Concord Picante, including Ancestral Messages (1992) and Taboo (1994). His 2001 album Trancedance (Circular Moves) featured another stretch beyond the confines of Latin music: an interpretation of Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite”. Barretto’s last recording was Time Was - Time Is (O+ Music, 2005).

Ray Barretto’s survivors include his wife, Brandy (Annette Rivera); four children, Chris Barretto, Raun Barretto, Ray Barretto and Kelly Barretto; and four grandchildren, Jullian Barretto, Aja Peters, Alex Peters and Arno Peters. Information on a memorial service is pending.

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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With 1 reader comment, posted December 17, 2007