Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ray Barretto (1930-2006)

Ray Barretto did not invent the conga drum. He was by no means the first percussionist to play it. But he almost single-handedly defined its role in jazz and Latin music over a rich 50-year career.

Barretto, who lived around the corner from some friends of mine in Norwood, N.J., was 76 when he died of heart failure on Saturday.

Over his long career, he collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, George Benson, Sonny Stitt, Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, Jose Curbelo and Tito Puente, among other jazz greats.

His one hit as a solo artist was "El Watusi," which was the first Latin tune to crack the Billboard Top 20. But he should be best remembered as a stylist and bandleader, and for his fierce determination to be considered a full-fledged jazz musician, not merely a Latin percussionist.

Barretto was a father figure in New York's Puerto Rican community.

"Ray was like the quintessential Nuyorican," fellow percussionist Bobby Sanabria told the New York Times. "For us in our community, he was a shining example of how somebody from humble beginnings can rise and achieve greatness."

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