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Ray Barretto: Hard Hands

Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto does not play salsa or pachanga, and he certainly does not play Latin jazz. He plays jazz-Latin. Don’t forget it.

“I don’t play that anymore,” Ray Barretto said firmly to a fan who got in his face about not playing his old salsa hits. It was June 1996, and the conga-drumming bandleader was just opening a weekend stint with his New World Spirit band at Pete Escovedo’s nightclub, Mr. E’s, in downtown Berkeley, Calif. “I play jazz!” Barretto told the frustrated fan as the salsero stormed away and a look of disappointment overtook the conguero’s face.

Fast-forward to 2003, and the 74-year-old percussionist-bandleader Ray Barretto is still wary of his position of helping ignite the 1970s New York City salsa boom and the demands of those fans. He sees himself more as the gatekeeper to the Latin-jazz bridge built by Mario Bauzá, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Or jazz-Latin, as Barretto insists. He hates the term “Latin jazz,” which he feels is a misnomer.

“Jazz was no accident. I’ve loved it since I was a kid hearing Louis Armstrong,” Barretto says from his New Jersey home. “Salsa was no accident, either, having heard greats like Marcelino Guerra, Machito and Arsenio Rodriguez. I always had the essence of both worlds. I got into the Latin thing more out of economics. In jazz the conga is not an essential part of the rhythm section, so while I might record with an artist I never got called for the gig. In Latin music the conga is an essential, so Latin became a way of earning money.”

RAY Barretto’s parents were part of a generation of American-born Puerto Ricans who arrived in the Big Apple following the passage of the Jones Act in 1917 that made Puerto Ricans citizens of the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. Born in Brooklyn on April 29, 1929, and growing up in New York City, Barretto heard a lot of music. The swing bands of Duke Ellington, Chick Webb and others were making their mark then, as were Cuban performers such as Don Azpiazu, who sparked the rumba fad with his 1930 hit “El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor).”

Barretto later joined the U.S. Army and served in Germany from 1946 to 1949. There he heard the Dizzy Gillespie hit “Manteca” on a jukebox at the Orlando Club in Munich, and the fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban beats grabbed him and had him beating out rhythms on an old banjo head. What Barretto liked about the song’s cowriter and featured conguero, Chano Pozo, was that he only used one drum and tuned it very low to produce a fat, earthy sound that didn’t get in the way of the trap drummer. “Manteca” made Barretto take up congas after his Army hitch.

“I got my first congas from a bakery on 116th Street in Harlem that used to import drums from Cuba,” Barretto says. “For 50 bucks you would get yourself a nice drum with a tacked-on head that you heated up with Sterno to get in tune. Chefs used to keep food warm by putting these cans of flames under trays. So you would put the Sterno on the floor and turn the conga over, and it would dry the moisture from the skin and bring it up to pitch. This was before there was a rim on the conga drum. Now you just turn a wrench and it tightens the skin.

“I used to take those drums and put them on my shoulder and get on the subway, and anywhere between 110th Street and 155th Street in Harlem there were places to jam every night. I spent three, four years just going to jam sessions. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did. I met Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey.”

Blakey was the closet drummer to Chano Pozo, having played and recorded with the conguero in Gillespie’s big band as well as in sessions with James Moody and His Modernists, who made “Tin Tin Deo.” Blakey and Barretto became youthful contemporaries who hung and played at bebop spots like the Apollo Bar, the Lido, Club Harlem, Minton’s, Connie’s and the Bucket of Blood in Mt. Vernon.

“My first gig with Blakey was at a place called the Rockland Palace, an old ballroom that isn’t there anymore. Blakey kicked off the set by taking a 10-minute drum solo!,” Barretto laughs. “I had never heard anything like that in my life. We’d run into each other from time to time, until he called me to do those Holiday for Skins Blue Note albums [1958].

“Blakey to me was the drummer who first brought the spirit of Africa to his playing. It just wasn’t jazz but something very much from the earth. As a percussionist I loved and appreciated that in him. He was a real rugged, no-nonsense kind of guy who appreciated percussion from every level.”

Earlier this year Barretto released Homage to Art Blakey (Sunnyside), which has drawn widespread acclaim as his best jazz recording to date. With a young, vibrant combo, Barretto reworks selections from Blakey’s middle period Jazz Messengers band that included saxophonist Wayne Shorter. “United,” “Sleeping Dancer, Sleep On,” “Noise in the Attic” and “Lester Left Town” let Barretto’s own jazz messengers-Luis Perdomo (piano), John Bailey (trumpet), Miguel Zeñon (alto sax), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Vince Cherico (drums)-rip it up with the conguero guiding them.

“I feel the guys in my band inspire me with youthful energy,” Barretto says. “There is an easy way out by getting older cats to play with you who have a lot of experience and know the tricks of the trade where everybody goes into a nice little groove. But young cats come in willing to try new things and experiment. It shakes me up, and I learn from that. One thing you want to do as long as you live is to try to keep learning.”

Coming to conga playing from a jazz perspective, Barretto was not well-versed in tipico (traditional) drummer, but Mongo Santamaria certainly was. Santamaria arrived in New York City in 1949 with his boyhood friend Armando Peraza, and along with Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Candido Camero and Sabu Martinez they were part of the first wave of post-Pozo conga drummers in jazz and Latin.

Barretto began working with piano player Eddie Bonnemere at the Savoy Ballroom playing “pseudo jazz-Latin.”

“When I first came out of the Army, Chano Pozo had already been killed. So I never saw him,” Barretto says. “One weekend Tito Puente came in to play a gig at the Savoy Ballroom. It was the first time I saw Mongo, and he blew my mind! The style I was playing was closer to jazz but it wasn’t real traditional. When I saw Mongo I realized there was another way to play the drum that I had not yet learned.”

In 1957 Barretto joined the Tito Puente Orchestra, replacing Mongo Santamaria and solidifying his place on the scene. His skilled playing on Puente’s mega-album Dance Mania (RCA Victor) fooled many into thinking it was still Mongo behind the congas. The gigs at the Palladium Ballroom and the ever-widening circuit across the country for Latin music kept the group busy for a while, but the big bands were slowly dying as rock combos began to capture the interest of young people.

At a jam session in 1958 he met a producer from the Prestige label who invited him to be part of recording session for pianist Red Garland’s Manteca album. It would prove to be a lucrative opportunity into the world of studio sessions, and he went on to work with a plethora of jazz greats such as Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Sonny Stitt, Lucky Millinder and others. Barretto also did R&B and rock ‘n’ roll dates with the Turbans and Bobby Rydell.

“He brought a quality as a percussionist that wasn’t about an ethnic thing but more about a beat and feel that added tremendously to those blowing dates,” says producer Orrin Keepnews, who used Barretto on several sessions. “I used Ray on the merit of what he did for Prestige, particularly those Red Garland sessions. This is an excellent player, a man who lends a quality to what’s happening, a broad-based jazz percussionist.

“One of the important records I did with Ray was with Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis on Afro Jaws,” Keepnews continues. “The use of a horn background with Lockjaw was an unusual thing. He was a funk player, but we put him in an African-Latin mode and he brought a quality to it like nobody else.”

In 1959 Cuban songwriter Eduardo Davidson introduced “La Pachanga,” a swinging new dance. It would be the last major musical trend Cuba would have on the U.S. following its revolution that same year. The groups that embraced and delivered pachanga (party) were the string-and-flute ensembles known as charangas. The mid-1950s cha-cha-cha fad introduced the charangas as a Latin-pop entity with dynasties like Orquesta Aragon. The pachanga brought powerhouse players like Jose Fajardo in Cuba and Charlie Palmieri’s La Duboney to New York City.

Barretto started talking to Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer, the owners of Riverside, about starting his own band. They were open to the idea. The label was in financial trouble but still willing to give Barretto a shot. Barretto Para Bailar came out in 1961, and while not a big seller overall, it was a hit in the South Bronx and Harlem and introduced Barretto’s charanga la moderna style.

“I believe these albums gave Ray validity as a leader,” Keepnews says. “What Riverside tried to do was look for individuals with something special and interesting. And Barretto had that. Unfortunately the label couldn’t do anything to promote the albums. But the albums helped him develop a reputation in his community and he began to get gigs.”

In 1962 Barretto signed with Tico and scored a pop hit with “El Watusi.” The novelty tune went to #17 on the pop charts, and Barretto admits that it inflated his head and pushed him to follow the same formula, turning out other nonsense novelty tunes like “Mr. Blah, Blah” and “El Bantu.”

Pop-oriented recording sessions were one thing, but on the bandstand Barretto was still honing his skills. “It was war on stage,” Barretto says, “but you learn to get slick. I would follow a band that just left the stage burning, maybe Larry Harlow or Eddie Palmieri, and all the stops were out. They were shooting machine guns everywhere. I would go on stage and start with a son montuno like “Hipocrasia y Falsedad” and cool things down-take it back to basics. You don’t have to follow fire with fire; you can be cool and build it up. Then I’d finish the set with “Que Viva la Musica” or something and have the audience back. But learning to do that came with experience.”

Barretto continued to refine his sound throughout the 1960s, and he began to integrate brass into his charanga. His 1966 tune “Descarga Criolla,” from the Polydor album El Ray Criollo, was important because it signaled the salsa sounds to come. By the time he hooked up with Fania in 1967, for Soul Drummer, he had dropped the strings and flute altogether and picked up two trumpets for a modernized conjunto sound. On his 1968 Fania album Acid, Barretto not only delivered straightahead salsa but also experimented with jazz and R&B. He was also leading the Fania All-Stars.

“That sound opened the door for us,” say timbales player Orestes Vilato, who was with Barretto during his salsa heyday. “We went to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Santo Domingo-all over. Fania opened a lot of doors, but it was the movie Our Latin Thing [1971] and live albums [by the All-Stars] from the Cheetah Club [1971 and 1973] that were the bomb! When we went to that premier in tuxedos and limousines we went, ‘Wow, we’re really stars!'”

Barretto made inroads with those early Fania albums into the black community in Harlem, capturing the vibrancy of street-hip boogaloo on tunes like “Soul Drummers” and “Mercy, Mercy, Baby.” Vilato recalls many a show where the opening acts included Kool & the Gang and Sly & the Family Stone.

“Barretto was hot! I remember we played in Central Park with Cal Tjader and Willie Bobo when they were happening. He also would pass on to me the morning studio sessions he couldn’t do. So between the gigs and sessions Barretto was laying on me I was making tons of money. The first successful bandleader that I ever met was Ray Barretto.”

Barretto was at the top his game in the early ’70s, bringing salsa to the masses, and to show it Fania put together a concert in for the All-Stars in Yankee Stadium in 1973 with all of its stars. Mongo Santamaria had recently signed with the label’s subsidiary, Vaya, and he and Barretto engaged in a conga dual at the concert. The cut was called “Congo Bongo” on the 1974 album Latin-Soul-Rock, and the 10-minute-long jam captures the two going at it skin-to-skin.

“We played a couple concerts together, but Mongo was a difficult guy to get close to if you were another percussionist,” Barretto says. “Mongo was a very proud man, and he had a right to be. I can’t say we were tight at any time, but when we did ‘Congo Bongo’ I was fighting for my life. The man came out with fire in his eyes. Oh my god! It wasn’t until years later in hindsight that I felt I did alright and defended myself.”

WHILE performing on the island of Martinique, some of Barretto’s musicians stayed behind for a meeting, and they decided to break away from him and join Tipica 73. It infuriated Barretto, and he permanently broke off relationships with all of them, including Vilato, trumpeter Rene Lopez, bassist Dave Perez and vocalist Adalberto Santiago.

Barretto reorganized and found new talent, such as singer Rubén Blades and flutist Art Webb. He signed with Atlantic and turned out an amazing live double album, Tomorrow, in 1976. But then things had started changing, and Barretto’s phone stopped ringing.

“When Willie Colon and Rubén Blades came out like Batman and Robin-that old hard driving salsa that we thought was the way to play-the music fell behind. So the pace changed, and of course if you don’t get played on the radio you’re out of sight, out of mind. I knew my career was coming to an end in Latin music when I did my last album for Fania [1975’s Barretto]. I said, ‘One door closes and another opens.’ So I came back to my jazz roots.”

While Ray Barretto had always spiced his salsa with hip jazz harmonies, he never really did a complete jazz album. Perhaps his 1973 album The Other Road featuring brilliant instrumentals and players like trumpeter Manny Duran could be considered his first jazz Latin album, but it was wedged in the salsa record bins in stores. Barretto’s 1977 jazz-rock-fusion album for Atlantic, Eye of the Beholder, was a bit far out for his traditional fans, but it did get to 31 on the jazz charts. The Creed Taylor-produced La Cuna (CTI), from 1979, shows Barretto’s great jazz chops, but it and Beholder went nowhere sales-wise.

Barretto returned to a reorganized Fania in 1979 for several salsa releases through 1987. He even scored his first Grammy award, in 1989, with Celia Cruz on the collaborative album Ritmo en el Corazon (Off-Beat). But salsa dance music had taken a dive by then, with romantic trends sanding down the music’s rhythmic edge and the artists and producers pushing sappy love songs. A frustrated Barretto became a critic of “singers with ponytails.”

In 1991 Barretto signed with Concord, joining a roster largely handpicked by Cal Tjader for owner Carl Jefferson. On albums like Handprints (1991), Ancestral Messages (1993) and Taboo (1994) Barretto performs perhaps his best jazz work. His talented combos included excellent musicians like trumpeter Ray Vega, pianist Hector Martignon and reedman Steve Slagle, and those albums brought Barretto back to jazz full time; after that salsa became a thing of the past.

Barretto stopped doing his salsa material until 2001 when he did Live in Puerto Rico (AJ/Sony), a Barretto 50th Anniversary 2-CD set which recognized him for his contributions to salsa and reunited him with his old salsa bandmates. In April his 74th birthday party at New York’s Blue Note also brought out well-wishers and contemporaries Candido Camero and Carlos “Patato” Valdes to salute his contributions to jazz.

At this point in his life Barretto appreciates his health and family, which includes his wife, Brandy, and son, Chris. Yet he laments that Chris, a budding alto sax player, has decided to follow his footsteps into music.

“If he was a doctor, lawyer, accountant I’d know he’d have a gig somewhere,” Barretto laments. “Music is not essential to the way of life; music is essential to the spirit. You can’t build a house or fix a leak. People don’t think about music until they’re done with everything else they need to do, then they think about going to the club. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Musicians suffer as a result because you’re at the mercy of the public. There’s no compensation after 20 years to retire, and it’s a rat race. I’m blessed a lot of good things happened in my life. But I’ve got a lot of friends who are scufflin’. That’s the risk you take when you do what you love.”

Listening Pleasures

“Sinatra, Bird and Diz, Machito, Arsenio Rodriguez, Ravel, Debussy.”


“I don’t carry my own drums anymore, so these days I play pretty much what is put in front of me. But my favorite drums were the ones with the tacked-on mule-skin head that you tuned with Sterno. They had a special organic quality.”

Originally Published