Percussionist, bandleader, clarinetist
Aleading force in contemporary Latin music for more than four decades, percussionist/bandleader Ray Barretto has helped define and popularize salsa, the distinctive blend of traditional Latin dance music and American jazz. Along the way, Barretto’s musical interests progressed from dance music to pure jazz. To the conga player, best known for his propulsive style as a performer, it was just part of a natural evolution. “It was time to move on,” he told an interviewer for San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz Online. “The Latin dance music changed, and I don’t think for the better. It became very fluffy and corny, with little substance. So it came a time where I realized I had to take the next step.”
The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Barretto was born on April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. After his father abruptly left the family when Ray was only four years old, his mother Delores moved her three children to the Bronx. She worked during the day and studied English at night so she could find a better job. For Barretto, an asthmatic, music was his only joy. He spent long nights listening to the big band sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Harry James on the family radio. School was an ordeal for Barretto because he was a claustrophobic child who found it difficult to sit still in class. At age 17, he begged his mother to let him quit school and enlist in the Army, where he could escape the racial intolerance he had experienced in the streets of New York City.
Unfortunately, the military proved no haven from bigotry. “The Army was still segregated at the time,” he told an interviewer for Paris Free Voice. “Being a light-skinned Puerto Rican kid, I was put in the white section. I caught so much flak from mainly Southern GIs, inflicting their prejudices on me.” While stationed in Europe, Barretto found refuge in a nightclub run for and by black GIs. “All the talk was about Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] and bebop. It was very exciting.” Particularly influential for Barretto was Gillespie’s recording of “Manteca,” which featured Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. “That song blew my mind,” Barretto told the Austin Chronicle. “It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician.”
When he was discharged from the Army in the late 1940s, Barretto bought himself some conga drums and began hitting jam sessions after hours in the nightclubs of Harlem and elsewhere in New York City. Developing a distinctive style of his own, he rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Parker and Gillespie; for a few years he played with Jose Curbelo’s band.
In the early 1950s the mambo was taking New York by storm, rivaling the popularity of bebop. Barretto found himself drawn to the city’s Palladium dancehall, home of Tito Puente’s hard-driving Latin orchestra. He was particularly impressed with the work of Puente’s
Born on April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Puerto Rican immigrants.
Began playing the conga drums while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army, late 1940s; returned to New York, played congas for free in local clubs until eventually landing a job with Eddie Bonemere’s Latin jazz combo; later worked with Jose Curbelo’s band; made recordings with such jazz notables as Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, and Red Garland; replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente’s band, late 1950s; formed own band, 1962; recorded actively, 1960s-1980s; formed New World Spirit, a Latin jazz sextet, 1992.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Performance for Ritmo en el Corazon (with Celia Cruz), 1989.
Addresses: Booking —Justin Fink, Pan American Music, 6407 Overbrook Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19151.
percussionists, Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. When Santamaria left Puente to join Cal Tjader’s band, Barretto was tapped to replace him. Away from the band, he continued to pursue his interest in bebop and sat in on numerous recording sessions during this period. Although he really didn’t start playing the congas until he was about 20, Barretto soon found himself in high demand as a studio musician, working hundreds of sessions for the Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside record labels.
In 1962 Barretto put together his first band, calling it Charanga la Moderna. Later that same year the fledgling group released a single entitled “El Watusi,” which quickly became a nationwide hit. It was around this time that Barretto established what would be a long-time relationship with Fania Records, a New York-based label specializing in Latin music that Barretto once described as the Latin version of Motown. Barretto eventually became the music director of the label’s Fania All-Stars, a coalition that over the years included such notable Latino musicians as singers Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe, trombonist Willie Colon, and pianist Larry Harlow. Looking back on his years as the leader of Charanga la Moderna, Barretto told the Austin Chronicle: “Many great years of salsa followed. Though [we were] not always commercially successful, the level of music was generally good and sometimes creative and great.”
Barretto and his band kept busy during the 1960s, recording dozens of albums before the decade ended. Some of the more memorable titles from this period included Viva Watusi!, Acid, Fiesta en El Barrio, Alma Alegre, Hard Hands, Soul Drummer, and Encendido Otra Vez. Among the singers who worked with Barretto over the years were Ray de la Paz, Ruben Blades, Adalberto Santiago, and Tito Gomez.
Although Barretto’s salsa band was among the most popular of its kind for nearly 30 years, he began to feel increasingly frustrated by salsa’s musical limitations. In the early 1990s he released Soy Dichoso, his farewell salsa album, and shortly thereafter announced the formation of a jazz ensemble called New World Spirit. Discussing this change in musical direction with an interviewer for San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz Online, Barretto said: “The thing I always wanted to do with this group was to respect the genre of jazz. I did not want to play dance music any more. Much to the dismay of many people who thought I was a dance band kind of person. But the fact is that I’m a music kind of person.”
With New World Spirit, Barretto recorded three albums for the Concord label—Handprints, Ancestral Messages, and Taboo; in 1996 he signed with the French Owl/EMI label, releasing the critically acclaimed My Summertime. In 1997 Barretto and New World Spirit released Contact on the Blue Note/EMI label. An eclectic blend of jazz standards and Barretto’s original compositions, Contact was both a popular and critical success. Reviewer Paula Edelstein of All About Jazz said of Contact “As deep and enjoyable as each piece is, what gives the CD its impact is the vehement delivery by Barretto which portrays the profound impressions left by his musical mentors and his revolutionary development as a result of their influence. He introduces a facet of this influence on ‘La Benedicion’ and ‘Liberated Spirit,’ both original compositions by Barretto that focus the listener on the dynamic forces surrounding his imagination. Jazz definitely receives the respect it deserves at the hands of this jazz linguist.”
In an interview with the Paris Free Voice, Barretto and interviewer Tim Baker discussed the many images evoked by the word “contact,” which Barretto had chosen for his album’s title. “All these parallels have some validity,” Barretto said, “but the truth is I thought of ‘Contact’ as a title because it was short, to the point, and grabbed your attention. It was only after I had put all the music together that I made certain analogies between it and points of contact in my life that were inspirational to me, starting with my childhood.”
Asked by the Paris Free Voice interviewer how long he intends to keep touring, Barretto replied: “As long as I can. It’s what I do ‘cause I have to do it, and it’s what I do ‘cause I love to do it.”
Carnaval, Fantasy, 1962.
Encendido Otra Vez, Tico, 1963.
Viva Watusi!, Polydor, 1965.
El Ray Criollo, PolyGram, 1966.
Alma Alegre, Jazzland, 1967.
Soul Drummer, Fania, 1967.
Acid, Fania, 1968.
Fiesta en El Barrio, Polydor, 1968.
Hard Hands, Fania, 1968.
Barretto, Fania, 1975.
Tomorrow: Barretto Live, Koch, 1976.
La Cuna, Sony/Columbia, 1979.
(With Celia Cruz) Ritmo en el Corazon, Fania, 1988.
(With New World Spirit) Handprints, Concord Picante, 1991.
Soy Dichoso, Fania, 1992.
(With New World Spirit) Ancestral Messages, Concord/Picante, 1992.
(With New World Spirit) Taboo, Concord Picante, 1994.
Latin Gold Collection (compilation), PolyGram Latino, 1995.
(With New World Spirit) My Summertime, Owl, 1996.
(With New World Spirit) Contact!, Blue Note/EMI, 1997.
Portraits in Jazz and Clave, BMG/RCA, 2000.
(With New World Spirit) Trancedance, Circular Moves, 2001.
Barretto 50th Anniversary, Sony, 2001.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.
Holtje, Steve, and Nancy Ann Lee, MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Austin Chronicle, June 15, 1998.
Billboard, January 13, 1996, p. 44.
Le Jazz, December 1997.
Paris Free Voice, November 1997.
“Contact: Ray Barretto and New World Spirit,” All About Jazz, http://www.allaboutjazz.com/reviews/r0699_45.htm (April 29, 2002).
“Jazz Profiles: This Week’s Profile: Ray Barretto,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/oldsite/000614.rbarretto.html (February 19, 2002).
“Ray Barretto,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 22, 2002).
“Ray Barretto & New World Spirit,” University of Wisconsin Learning Support Services, http://polyglot.lss.wisc.edu/afrst/artists/barrbio.htm (February 18, 2002).
“Ray Barretto—Master Conguero,” Afro-Rican Ensemble, http://www.afroricanensemble.net/barretto.htm (February 19, 2002).
“Recent Contact: Ray Barretto,” San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz Online, http://www.salsasf.com/features/interviews/barretto.html (February 19, 2002).
“Spotlight on the Artist: Ray Barretto,” Barnes & Noble, http://music.barnesandnoble.com/search/artistbio.asp (February 18, 2002).
Barretto, Ray: 1929—: Musician
Ray Barretto: 1929—: Musician
Ray Barretto has explored and expanded the possibilities of Afro-Cuban Jazz for more than five decades. In the 1950s he introduced the conga drums to bebop, and during the 1960s he spread the sounds of salsa while keeping a busy schedule as a session player. In the 1970s he began experimenting with fusion, and during the 1980s he successfully straddled the worlds of Latin music and jazz. John Storm Roberts in Latin Jazz commented, "Ray Barretto is not an avant-gardist but an experienced and intelligent musician with excellent tastes on both sides of the aisle, and a particular talent for picking young players." When Barretto began to feel that his music was growing stagnant in the early 1990s, he formed the adventurous New World Spirit. "Known for impeccable swing and a hard-hitting conga style," wrote Jesse Varela in Latin Beat Magazine, "Baretto is one of Latin music's most distinguished bandleaders. From salsa to Latin jazz, he has graced stages around the world and worked with a 'who's who' in both worlds."
Barretto was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in Spanish Harlem. Early in his life he was drawn to Latin and big band music. During the day his mother played her Puerto Rican records, and at night, when his mother was attending classes, he listened to jazz. He fell in love with the swinging sounds of Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James coming over the radio, and later recalled to Harvey Pekar in the Austin Chronicle, "It helped me survive spiritually." To escape the poverty of Spanish Harlem, Barretto joined the army at age 17 and was stationed in Germany. There he heard Latin rhythms and jazz merge together for the first time, in the music of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca." Gillespie's secret ingredient was Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. "That song blew my mind," Barretto told Pekar. "It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician."
Became a Conguero
When Barretto finished his stint in the army in 1949, he returned to New York. He bought conga drums and began to sit in on jam sessions with other musicians and perform at clubs like the Bucket of Blood. Barretto told National Public Radio, "What I did as a player was develop a style that suited jazz players [and] that worked in a straight ahead swing context." He received his first steady job with Eddie Bonnemer's Latin Jazz Combo, and then joined José Curbelo for two years. Barretto received his big break in 1957 when he replaced Mongo Santamaría in Tito Puente's band. After sitting in with the band for only one night, he was invited to participate in the recording of Puente's classic, Dance Mania. He remained with Puente for four years, and then played with Herbie Mann for four months. In 1961 Barretto formed a band and recorded his first effort as a leader for Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records. He also recorded a single, "El Watusi," that reached the Top 20 U.S. pop charts in 1963.
At a Glance . . .
Born Ray Barretto on April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York; son of Delores Barretto.
Career: Played with Tito Puente, 1957-61; signed with Riverside Records, 1961; worked as session player, 1960s; achieved chart success with "El Watusi," 1963; joined Fania and recorded Acid, 1967; directed Fania All-Stars; teamed with Adalberto Santiago for Rican/Struction, 1979; teamed with Celia Cruz and Adalberto Santiago for Tremendo Trio!, 1983; formed New World Spirit and signed with Concord, 1991; signed with Blue Note, mid-1990s.
Awards: Best Conga Player, Latin NY magazine poll, 1975, 1976; Best Conga Player, Musician of the Year, Latin NY, 1977; Album of the Year, Musician of the Year, Best Conga Player, Latin NY, 1980; won ACE (The Hispanic Association of Entertainment Critics of New York) Award for Salsa Album of the Year for Tremendo Trio!, 1983; Grammy with Celia Cruz for Ritmo En El Corazón, 1990; inducted into International Latin Hall of Fame, 1999.
Addresses: Office— 6407 Overbrook Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19151.
Besides recording his own dates during the 1960s, Barretto also became a busy session musician, participating on dates with Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Freddie Hubbard, and many others. In 1967 he moved to Fania Records, where he would eventually direct the Fania All-Stars. He recorded Acid the same year, a landmark album that combined a number of styles. "Barretto gained major popularity among Latin audiences for the first time with Acid, which ingeniously blended Latin, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues ingredients," noted Roberts in The Latin Tinge.
Ventured Into New Directions
In 1972 lead singer Adalberto Santiago and four other band members left the Fania All-Stars to form the successful Típica 73. Barretto responded to this crisis as though it was an opportunity. He recalled to Ed Morales in Newsday, "When they left, I made a record called The Other Road, in which I took advantage of not having a particularly Latin band at that time. We made our first attempts at playing jazz, and the record stands out as the Fania era's most unique record. It had no vocals, it had nothing to do with dance music, and it incorporated a lot of jazz."
In the late 1970s Barretto experimented with fusion, but found less commercial success. He re-united with Santiago in 1979 and recorded a progressive salsa album titled Rican/Struction, which Latin NY named album of the year. He continued to record salsa albums throughout the 1980s, including a collaboration with Celia Cruz, Ritmo En El Corazón, which won a Grammy in 1990. In the 1990s, however, Barretto began to tire of salsa, and he expressed a desire to concentrate on jazz. He told Morales, "With all the changes in Latin music … I thought a return to jazz would be a good thing for my life, my career and my sanity."
Formed New Band
In 1992 Barretto formed a sextet called New World Spirit, "which made some absorbingly unpredictable albums," wrote Richard Ginell in All Music Guide. "There was also a remarkable power and tightness about the band, and a freshness about almost all the arrangements," noted Roberts in Latin Jazz. New World Spirit recorded Handprints (1991), Ancestrial Messages (1993), and Taboo (1994) for Concord Picante, before switching to Blue Note for Contact (1997). Reviewing Contact for Latin Beat Magazine, Rico Raúl noted, "Each member of New World Spirit is a strong player, taking articulate, intelligent solos, and tunes like 'Caravan,' 'Poinciana,' and 'Serenata' are beautifully interpreted."
Barretto's willingness to experiment has kept his music fresh for more than fifty years. "While Ray Barretto's congas have graced more recording sessions than virtually any other conguero of his time," noted Ginell, "he has also led some refreshingly progressive Latin jazz bands over the decades." Besides jazz and Latin music, Barretto has also recorded with the Bee Gees, the Rolling Stones, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Although his home base was in the United States, Barretto remained very popular in France and has toured Europe a number of times. In 1999 Barretto was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame. Pekar noted, "As a lifelong purveyor of Afro-Cuban jazz, Barretto has been a pivotal figure in the fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, moving the musical hybrid toward the mainstream with his propulsive percussion work."
Pachanga With Barretto, Riverside, 1961.
Charanga Moderna, Tico, 1962.
Acid, Fania, 1967.
Together, Fania, 1969.
The Other Road, Fania, 1973.
Rican/Struction, Fania, 1979.
Handprints, Concord, 1991.
My Summertime, Owl; Blue Note, 1996.
Contact!, Blue Note, 1998.
Roberts, John Storm, Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880 to Today, Schirmer Books, 1999.
Latin Beat Magazine, March 1998, p. 41; September 2000.
Newsday, February 24, 2002, p. D37.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
Weekly Wire, http://www.weeklywire.com
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.