Jazz, Latin Musician Ray Barretto Dies

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Musician Ray Barretto has died at the age of 76. The musician straddled the worlds of jazz and Latin music in a career that spanned almost six decades. Barretto was known for his fearless experimentation with Latin, jazz and rythm and blues, and for helping popularize Salsa music.


Percussionist and bandleader Ray Barretto has died. He succumbed to pneumonia after recent surgery at a New Jersey hospital. He was 76. Barretto successfully straddled both the jazz and Latin music worlds in a career that spanned almost six decades. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.

FELIX CONTRERAS: In the 1970's, Ray Barretto was a salsa superstar. Recording for the upstart dance label Fania Records, he was a charter member of the label's collection of hit makers, the Fania all-stars. Barretto's orchestra was also one of the most popular bands in salsa.


CONTRERAS: But beneath the mambos, cha-cha-chas, and boleros, Barretto was a jazz musician at heart.


CONTRERAS: Ray Barretto was born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx. While his Puerto Rican-born mother went to night school to learn English, the young Barretto would spend hours listening to big band swing on the radio. He said Count Bassie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington took care of him while his mother was away.

RAY BARRETTO: I got the big bands and I got American pop music as my babysitters. The people that kept me from being frightened and alone was American big band music on the radio.

CONTRERAS: Barretto also heard the top Latin orchestras on the radio during the day. It was that early cross-cultural experience that prepared him for his long and prolific music career. Barretto started playing congas in the late 1940's at a time when jazz and Latin music were just getting acquainted.

Trumpeter Ray Vega was a member of Barretto's band in the 1990's. He says Barretto had one advantage over his Cuban-born peers of the early 1950's.

RAY VEGA: Ray Barretto was a quintessential Nuyorican, Puerto Rican born in New York.

CONTRERAS: And as a result, he had a natural affinity for the swing of jazz. At about the same time he auditioned and won a coveted seat in Tito Puente's popular dance orchestra in the late 1950's, Ray Barretto did his first session as a side man for a jazz recording and established his unique style of playing jazz.

VEGA: What you heard Ray do is (mimicking jazz drumming). I mean, let's face it, that term was called the Ray Barretto for many years. People would say, just do me a Ray Barretto.


CONTRERAS: In the 1990's, after 22 years with Fania and salsa, Ray Barretto returned to jazz.

BARRETTO: When I decided that my salsa days were on the wane, and rather than become a complete dinosaur in the genre, I said, let me go back to my roots, which was jazz.


CONTRERAS: Ray Barretto finished his career leading what he called jazz-Latin bands that released a string of critically acclaimed albums. Only five weeks ago, he was awarded the Jazz Master honor by the National Endowment for the Arts at a ceremony in New York.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

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