Ray Santos, a Latin-jazz saxophonist, composer, and arranger whose exceptional craftsmanship and depth of musical knowledge earned him the nickname “El Maestro,” died October 17 at a hospital in the South Bronx. He was 90.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Carmen Santos-Robson. The cause of death was complications from congestive heart failure.
A lifelong resident of New York, Santos was a member of the city’s Nuyorican community and eventually played in the bands of both of that community’s two leading musical lights, Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez. Those two bandleaders, along with the Cuban American Machito—with whom Santos also played—formed the “Big Three” of mambo music. He later lent his saxophone and arranging talents to Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Bauzá, and Celia Cruz, cementing his place as a major figure in the world of Afro-Latin music.
Santos was best known, however, for two projects from 1992: the soundtrack to the motion picture The Mambo Kings, on which he served as musical director and primary arranger, and Linda Ronstadt’s Grammy-winning album Frenesi. He remained active until last year as a performer, writer, and conductor.
“I had the best role model in my dad,” Rhynna Santos, his daughter and manager, told the New York Times in 2018. “He showed me you have to follow your passion. … My father’s integrity with his music has been long-lasting in my life.”
Raymond Santos was born December 28, 1928 in New York to Puerto Rican immigrants Ramon, a doorman, and Carmen, a dollmaker. Growing up in East Harlem and the South Bronx (where the family moved in 1942), he was surrounded by traditional son music, including the records he heard on his grandmother’s Victrola. His formative years coincided with the height of the Swing Era, and Santos and his friends immersed themselves in the sounds of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and other stars. When a junior high-school friend played Santos the 1939 recording of “Body and Soul” by saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, the enamored boy convinced his father to pay $40 for a series of 15-minute saxophone lessons.
By high school, Santos was good enough to earn paying gigs in the Catskills, as well as a place at the prestigious Juilliard School, where his fellow students included saxophonist Phil Woods, singer Leontyne Price, and saxophonist and record producer Teo Macero. While at Juilliard he began playing gigs around town—especially at the Palladium Ballroom, the Midtown theater and nightclub that was the nerve center of the post-World War II mambo craze. After completing his degree in 1952, he began working full-time as a saxophonist in the mambo bands. The Palladium was on the corner of West 53rd Street and Broadway, a block away from the jazz clubs that famously crowded West 52nd; jazz musicians working on “The Street” would often stop into the Palladium to jam with the mambo musicians.
Santos passed an audition for Machito’s band in 1956; he remained there for four years, then moved to Puente’s band in 1960 and Rodriguez’s in 1964. Thus Santos cycled through all of the “Big Three” bands at the Palladium. As an arranger for all three, he was crucial to the development of the mambo sound.
“The dance music [at the Palladium] was on the cutting edge, with leaders trying new sounds and rhythms all the time,” he recalled to blogger Marc Myers in 2009. “The goal was to make it big, and to make it big you needed a sound that drove dancers wild.”
Santos also wrote arrangements for Gillespie, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauzá, Paquito D’Rivera, and Eddie Palmieri. In the early 1980s, he began teaching Latin music at the City College of New York; among his students was O’Farrill’s son, Arturo, who later directed the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and also made use of Santos’ arranging work. He retired from City College in 2013.
In his final years, Santos was showered with honors, including a 2003 induction into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame; a 2011 Latin Grammy Trustees’ Award for lifetime achievement; and a 2016 honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music. These honors did not signal the end of his career, however. In 2016 he performed at the Puerto Rico Heineken JazzFest; in 2017 he arranged Latin singer Jon Secada’s album To Beny Moré with Love; and, in 2018 he contributed arrangements to Eddie Palmieri’s Mi Luz Mayor, his final project.
In addition to daughters Carmen and Rhynna, Santos is survived by two other daughters, Virna Santos and Cynthia Santos-DeCure; a son, Raymond Jr.; and eight grandchildren.
A funeral was held October 22 at the Church of St. Raymond in the Bronx.