The Ray Barretto Story

It’s a little too easy to paint Ray Barretto in shadows. He was, by some reports, not the easiest guy to get along with. Especially in his later years, he could be prickly with associates or even with members of his audience. He may have at times felt cut off from at least some of his colleagues, who perhaps didn’t appreciate what they saw as his deviations from the Latin music canon. Worse than that, there were family problems — and worse still, even with his devotion to jazz, his favorite music above all, and his vast catalog of performances and recordings with respected jazz artists, he never felt like that community had accepted him fully as one of their own.

At least that’s how it seemed until the very end, literally the last hours of his life, on January 13, 2006, when Barretto stood on a stage in New York City and accepted the National Endowment For The Arts’ honors as a Jazz Master — the highest distinction a practitioner of jazz can attain from America’s cultural establishment.

With his fellow recipients Tony Bennett and Chick Corea standing nearby, Barretto took in the applause from the dignitaries and musicians gathered for the event. And then he responded with a statement he had prepared in advance: “To receive this honor is the gift of a lifetime. Jazz has been my spiritual babysitter since my youth in Harlem and the Bronx, and I’ve spent my career trying to give something back. With gratitude and respect to everyone at the National Endowment For The Arts, please allow me to consider myself, still, a jazz student.”

Maybe he had written this out a few days earlier, but in truth Barretto had spent a lifetime anticipating this moment. Latin musical culture, particularly in New York, has long ties to jazz, going back to before Barretto’s arrival. The salsa explosion of the ’80s rode on a chorus of trumpets echoing Dizzy Gillespie and pianists voicing harmonies as advanced as anything Bill Evans ever laid down. But it wasn’t always easy to notice these connections behind the firestorms of rhythm ignited by the front line: the timbales, the congas, and the bongos.

Barretto benefited from his identity as a Latin musician, yet his heart was always in jazz. As a result, there was enormous diversity in his work, which stretched from Puerto Rican dance band genres through R&B and, briefly, psychedelic rock all the way to bebop. Most often there were elements of each in the explorations he led with his various ensembles, in particular his last one, New World Spirit. But as the NEA confirmed early this year, Barretto was first and foremost a jazz artist who played Latin percussion, which made him unique and, until his last days, maybe a little lonely as well.

Sadly, this moment of redemption preceded a rapid denouement. Just one day after being anointed by the NEA, Barretto suffered a heart attack. Rushed to Hackensack University’s Medical Center in New Jersey, he received treatment for pneumonia and, shortly, quadruple bypass heart surgery. Complications set in, aggravated by his asthma, and on February 17, at 5:00 in the morning, the great conguero’s story came to its end.

It had begun 76 years before, on April 29, 1929, with Barretto’s birth in Brooklyn. His mother played recordings of Puerto Rican music at home, but Ray, like his brother and sister, felt a stronger pull to the big band jazz that dominated local radio at the time. At age 17, he enlisted in the Army and shipped out to Munich, Germany. There he found a club, the Orlando, and began sitting in on jam sessions. He had to build his own drum, essentially a banjo with the strings removed, which only emphasized how anomalous the idea of playing percussion in a jazz setting was at the time.

But then Dizzy Gillespie came to town. At that time, the great trumpeter was drawing heavily from Afro-Cuban music and blowing over a rhythm section that he’d built around Cuban percussionist Chano Ponzo. Gillespie’s appearance was all it took to convince Barretto that the idea of transplanting Latin percussion into a jazz context was viable after all. By the time his tour was up, he was eager to lead the way.

His first gigs back in New York were with Latin bands led by Eddie Bonnemere and José Curbelo. But then, one night in the early ’50s, after Barretto had wrapped up a gig at the Apollo Theater, Charlie Parker suddenly appeared and invited the young percussionist to sit in on his set. They played together at the Apollo that night and for several days after that; given Parker’s already iconic status, this was the greatest possible confirmation of Barretto’s arrival.

In 1957, when Mongo Santamaría left Tito Puente’s band, Barretto took his place. While gigging and recording with the great timbalero, he worked exhaustively to establish a beachhead in the jazz world. Some of the earliest of these dates were with the pianist Red Garland, whose trio Barretto first supplemented on two sessions in 1958, for the albums Manteca and Rojo. These performances forecast the challenges that Barretto would face on his jazz odyssey: His ability to complement the drummer, without getting in his way, is evident, and his swing feel can’t be denied. Yet Garland uses the congas only on the up tunes; in fact, he speeds up ballads like “Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup” and “Mr. Wonderful,” no doubt reasoning that percussion has no place at slower tempos. And, truth be told, if the congas were erased from these tracks, the drums, with their idiomatic post-bop approach of active ride cymbal and occasional left-hand accents, would certainly have gotten the job done on their own.

This, then, was Barretto’s dilemma: The congas, coupled with traps, would inevitably sweeten rather than drive the engine of the groove in a jazz context. To stay out of the drummer’s way, he tended to simplify, often playing little more than a high slap on the second beat and two lower hits answering as eighth-notes on the fourth beat of each bar. It did swing, but on his sessions with Gene Ammons, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and other jazz headliners, the irony was that he usually did so by laying down a pattern that allowed the other musicians, including the drummer, more room to stretch.

It was, in other words, the antithesis of what drew Barretto to jazz in the first place: freedom, interactivity, spontaneity.

The irony continues in the fact that, from his first album as a leader — Pachanga With Barretto, a charanga project in 1961 — through his final recordings, he found these qualities more in Latin than jazz settings. Partly this owed to his experiments at enhancing the genre with jazz as well as R&B influences. These efforts earned him commercial success, beginning with “El Watusi,” which became the first Latin single to break into the Billboard Top 20 and eventually earn gold status. But his creative breakthrough was probably Acid, released in 1967. Despite the title’s trippy implications, these performances evoke street intensity more than spaced-out grooviness. On the Stax-oriented numbers, such as “A Deeper Shade Of Soul,” he even restructures the feel created by Al Jackson Jr. without a trap set in sight; it works, too, though with enough air between the congas, timbales, and tambourine to allow room for a drummer to join the fun.

Acid was the first of a series of LPs involving Barretto on the Fania label. Most of them were credited to the Fania All-Stars, which was exactly what the name says: an assembly of legends in Latin music, including Willie Colón, Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, and Johnny Pacheco, recognized now as the band that launched the salsa music craze. Fans and musicians still remember their concerts; one, at Yankee Stadium, peaked with Barretto and Mongo Santamaría locked in a percussion battle on “Congo Bongo” that whipped the crowd into a frenzy that hastened an early end to the show. But even though he would cross paths with most of the group’s members in years to come — most memorably with Cruz, with whom he would share a Grammy for their performance on “Ritmo En El Corazón” in 1989 — Barretto would sometimes seem to resent their impact on reinforcing the perception that he was fundamentally a Latin, rather than a jazz, artist after all. To one interviewer he would grumble, “Playing with the Fania All-Stars was as much about showbiz as it was about playing music.”

Writer Carol Amoruso captures this ambivalence in her description of a Barretto performance, posted at “The boys from the barrio … were out to boogie, but Ray was out to uplift them with new sounds. They were not about to hear it and called up to the bandstand, letting him know they wouldn’t be happy until he brought back the Fania days … Ray was not about to comply. The sultry air got thicker … until Ray got up and called to his band to quit the stage. Something or someone moved him back behind his drums again and, perfunctorily, he gave us another 20 minutes. When he’d been done, he didn’t go away mad, he just stood up and went away.”

Salsa diehards weren’t any happier as Barretto moved back toward jazz through the ’80s and ’90s. Typical was an exchange at Mr. E’s, a venue owned by the great West Coast timbalero Pete Escovedo in Berkeley, California, one night in the ’90s. Midway through the evening, a member of the audience, impatient with the genre-hopping of Barretto’s New World Spirit band, started shouting his objections and demanding that they dust off some salsa standards instead. Barretto gave no ground: He and the customer exchanged heated words for a while, until the set resumed in the same progressive vein in which it had begun.

Through stubbornness, determination, refusal to compromise, and above all his supreme gifts as a player and bandleader, Barretto was able to achieve his dreams over these past several years. His 2004 album Time Was — Time Is stands as his most complete synthesis of aesthetics; the horns play over a wide emotional range beyond the razzle-dazzle of salsa solos, the piano comps on chords with only an occasional montuno moment, and the rhythm balances perfectly between modern, Elvin-oriented drive and Latin simmer. For all that he had accomplished up to this point, this was the CD that Barretto had imagined and pursued and finally captured throughout most of his journey.

With that journey’s end earlier this year, the factions that had debated his merits came together at last. Family, friends, politicians, Randy Weston, Bobby Sanabria, and other musicians, many carrying their instruments, sent him off in New York at the Riverside Memorial Chapel; two conga drums, and two floral sculptures of congas, stood near his casket. In the old district of San Juan, a group of Puerto Rican congueros regaled thousands of dancers at a memorial service. On the West Coast, the respected percussionist and educator John Santos cited the “great strength” and “giant love” in writing a personal farewell to the master.

And amid the festivities and eulogies and stories shared by those who knew and respected Barretto, that gap he had tried through his life to close, between his heritage and his true music, narrowed a little more, almost without anyone noticing.

Joe Lovano Remembers A Friend

Joe Lovano stands in the front line of great modern jazz tenor saxophonists. His credits include a three-year run with Woody Herman, followed by gigs and/or sessions with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, and for the past 15 years as leader of his own groups. He has won a Grammy Award and been honored as “Musician Of The Year” by Downbeat magazine.

“I first heard Ray on record, especially with Gene Ammons, when I was a kid. We met at the Heineken Jazz Festival in Puerto Rico. I was there with my quartet and he was there with his band, and I ended up sitting in on some of his set. It was a thrill when he called me to participate in a recording session with his group, the World Spirit Band, on Portraits In Jazz And Clavé. Some friends of mine were in that band, like Mike Mossman, Adam Colker, and John Di Martino. Bobby Sanabria played percussion along with Ray, and Vince Cherico played drums.

“I played live with his band on most of his stuff, but on a few tracks I dubbed my part over music they’d already laid down. Kenny Burrell played live with the band on those, and they left some spaces for me to play within those charts. But Ray played along with me along with the tracks, so it wasn’t like I was overdubbing by myself. Instead, we had a great interplay, and you can hear it in what both of us were laying down.

“Ray always thought of himself as a jazz musician. He used to say that he didn’t play Latin jazz, he played jazz Latin. That was his approach especially when he worked with jazz players. He was in a lot of groups led by jazz musicians, before he emerged as a leader himself, and he embraced that whole Art Blakey tradition of leading a band from the drum chair. Playing with bands whose leaders are in different positions taught me a lot about how to compose and put music together based on the attitudes of different places in a band. They get other kinds of insights, which can make magic happen in their group — and Ray had that. He knew a lot about how to put things together as a leader. He was especially good at playing with other drummers without getting in their way. He could make himself part of the drummer’s concept without standing out by himself. A lot of the music he cut with Gene Ammons or Lou Donaldson, some people might think he was doing a simple, minimal part, but it added so much to the groove. He had a special way of turning trio and quartet performances into a quintet sound.

“Ray was an improviser. He didn’t want to play just for dances or parties. Most of the famous Latin bands, like Tito Puente, played for dancers. Ray came up in a different environment through playing in jazz clubs — real listening rooms. So he led concert-type bands. I’m sure he played for hundreds or thousands of dances too — we all did — but as the leader he focused on playing with a concert attitude, whether it was in a club or not. He played to play, like the Jazz Messengers. That also shaped his career. Maybe he didn’t get into the limelight like a lot of people did, but everybody knew the beauty in his music. He was powerful, too. He had an incredible sound onstage; it was the focus of everything that went on in his band. But he wasn’t a showboat. A lot of cats are showboats when they hit the spotlight. They might be playing great things, but they’d be jumping all over the place and playing by themselves. He had his moments, but especially in those early sessions he was the consummate rhythm-section player.

“I never went on the road or hung that much with Ray, but being around him was a joy. He had a beautiful spirit.”

Mr. Hard Hands’ Grooves

Ray Barretto was tagged “Mr. Hard Hands” because of the rich, cutting tone he gained by spanking his congas like no other conguero of his time. The inimitable sonic pioneer of the tumbadoras had many songs of commercial success in both American popular music and salsa, even though his heart and soul was that of a jazz man.

Barretto’s crossover mega-hit was El Watusi (1962), which was recorded as a pachanga dance style that was trendy in the early ’60s. He never thought much of the record musically but enjoyed the recognition and fame. Nevertheless, Barretto’s fundamental conga rhythm drives the tune in a way that only Mr. Hard Hands could (Ex. 1).

A pioneer of salsa music, Barretto was a member of the famous Fania All-Stars for three decades. Toward the end of his salsa career, he recorded the album Ritmo En El Corazon with the late “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz, earning a Grammy award in 1990. On the title track’s conga rhythm, Ray drops the last conga tone on the final bar of each musical phrase to very musically set up the next section (Ex. 2).

His last solo studio record, Time Was — Time Is, is all about Barretto’s jazz side featuring his sextet. The African-based 6/8 groove on “Motherless Child” (Ex. 3) complements the haunting trumpet lead by displacing the conga open tone on beat 6.

Barretto’s recordings as a sideman and solo artist number in the hundreds, and these three examples simply represent moments in time of his rich musical history. If you are a conga player, or an aficionado of Latin and jazz music, you owe it to yourself to seek out the recordings of Ray Barretto.