CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Ray Mantilla 1934–2020

One of the jazz world’s all-time great hand percussionists passes at 85

Ray Mantilla
Ray Mantilla (photo: Martin Cohen)

Ray Mantilla, a conguero, timbalero, and bandleader who was one of the most prolific hand percussionists in both Latin jazz and jazz in general, died March 21 at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by WBGO, who spoke with Mantilla’s brother Kermit. Cause of death was given as complications from lymphoma.

Hailing from New York City’s South Bronx—an all-important crucible of salsa and other Afro-Latin musical forms—Mantilla gained his first professional success while playing congas in the 1960s Latin-jazz band of flutist Herbie Mann. He also did early-1970s stints with Max Roach’s M’Boom and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before breaking through as a leader with his Space Station ensemble in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

He released nine albums as a leader (with a tenth, Rebirth, scheduled for release later this year). However, he appeared as a sideman on over 160 other albums, the second most recorded conguero in the history of jazz—behind only Ray Barretto, his friend since childhood.

Raymond Mantilla was born June 22, 1934 at St. Francis Hospital in the Bronx. His father was an architect and engineer from Peru; his mother owned a bodega. Though the Mantillas were a part of the New York diasporic community known as Nuyoricans, Ray liked to refer to himself as a “Peruvo-rican.”

From his earliest years, Mantilla was part of what would become the most influential cadre of salsa and Afro-Latin jazz musicians. His circle of friends in the South Bronx included, among others, pianist Eddie Palmieri, flutist Johnny Pacheco, and Barretto—his closest friend, with whom he spent countless hours playing.

Barretto introduced Mantilla to Herbie Mann in 1960; the two congueros played together with Mann for nearly two years, including the sessions for the flutist’s classic album Flute, Brass, Vibes & Percussion. Barretto left Mann in late 1961, leaving Mantilla to become the band’s primary percussionist.

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Mantilla also freelanced heavily: on Barretto’s albums, drummer Max Roach’s seminal 1960 We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, and (later) Charles Mingus’ final recordings, as well as sessions with saxophonists Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Richie Cole, pianist Cedar Walton, and guitarist Larry Coryell. In 1972, he became a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, though he left the following year to join Max Roach’s all-percussion ensemble M’Boom. (He would return to perform with Blakey and the Messengers on several subsequent occasions.) In 1977, he joined trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as part of the first band to perform in Cuba since the Kennedy-era travel embargo.

Late in 1977, Mantilla formed his own band with flutist Jeremy Steig, guitarist Karl Ratzer, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Joe Chambers; this band accompanied the percussionist on his first album as a leader, Mantilla, in the spring of 1978. After some personnel changes, including the replacement of Steig with Dick Oatts on flute and saxophone, the band eventually became known as the Space Station, famous for its exploration of odd meters within the context of Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, especially on albums like 1984’s Hands of Fire and 1988’s Dark Powers. In 1991, he formed a new band, the Jazz Tribe, which was for its first decade a live group only, though Mantilla continued working as a studio freelancer as well as with M’Boom.

The Jazz Tribe finally released its first album, 2000’s The Next Step, shortly before disbanding. Mantilla then formed the New Space Station, which released 2004’s Man-Ti-Ya, often regarded as one of his finest works.

Remaining a member of M’Boom until his death, Mantilla recorded his own final album, 2017’s High Voltage, at around the same time he was diagnosed with lymphoma. This year’s forthcoming Rebirth was intended to mark two years as a cancer survivor.

Mantilla is survived by two brothers, Kermit Mantilla and Lisandro Gilberto Mantilla, and two sisters, Irma Mantilla Ogden and Sara Mantilla Kelly.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.