This week’s Jazz Caliente on KPLU includes music from conguero, composer and bandleader Ray Barretto. One of the first musicians to introduce Latin percussion to American be-bop, he was known as Manos Duras (Hard Hands), a power hitter of the congas.
Ray Barretto listened to jazz on the radio as a child growing up in the Bronx. He discovered be-bop while in the Army in the 1940s. In 1957, he replaced the legendary Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente’s mambo orchestra. At the same time, he was becoming known as the first-call studio percussionist for such notable jazz players as drummer Art Blakey, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and saxophonist Lou Donaldson.
“What I did as a player was develop a style that suited jazz players…that worked in a straight ahead swing context.” –Ray Barretto
Or, as I overheard one veteran jazz DJ explain to another: The conga drum enhances the swing. I think Ray would have approved that description.
Ray worked with and led his own Latin dance bands, and his band Charanga La Moderna had a huge national hit in 1962 called “El Watusi,” which later acheived cult status as the soundtrack for the 1993 Al Pacino film “Carlito’s Way.” During the 1960s and 1970s he was part of the salsa explosion promoted by the Fania record label, spending nearly 30 years as a member and eventually music director for the label’s famed Fania All-Stars. In the 1990s, tired of the constant touring and hoping to recapture his love of jazz, Ray formed a band called New World Spirit. Recording and touring with this jazz-focused, rhythmically adventurous band brought him a whole new audience.
I saw Ray Barretto and New World Spirit twice in Seattle in the 1990s, most memorably on a double bill with Kenny Burrell as part of the 1999 Earshot Jazz Festival. It was an honor to watch the conga master at work. And I once saw him stop the band in the middle of a tune to chastise a first-row audience member for talking loudly during the performance. The accused woman took offense; as far as she was concerned, she’d paid her entrance fee and could therefore do whatever she wished. From the stage, Ray quite eloquently noted that most of the audience was at least showing respect to the musicians by listening, and they were hearing the results of the years of study, practice and plain hard work that went into the evening’s concert. At that point we, the rest of the audience, applauded—as much for Ray’s defense of his musicians as for the welcome relief from the woman’s yammering. Ray Barretto took his music seriously.
Ray Barretto died in February of 2006. His career in jazz and Latin music spanned almost six decades.