by Carol Amoruso, Hispanic Village Feature Writer
Nobel, in introducing his friend and inspiration (the iconic T.V. host and social commentator admitted that he was a closet pianist), hailed those artists who play jazz because it is their passion, unmindful of whether it would earn them celebrity or an adequate living. He observed, “They’re certainly not in it for the money, but for love of the music.” The words were a powerful reminder of a poignant truth.
Some days after the concert, I met Ray Barretto. Most people, Latinos especially, know him from his 22 years as a conga player with the Fania All-Stars and Fania Records. Fewer have clocked the more than equal time Barretto has put in in jazz, the music that’s closest to his heart and the idiom in which he’s had to struggle harder to pay the bills and be recognized for his contribution. (At one point Barretto quipped: “If you want to make a million dollars in jazz, you’ve got to start out with two million.”) While Barretto has been fortunate enough to have found some commercial success, Gil Nobel’s words resonated as he talked of his life in music.
New York raised
A Nuyorican raised between Brooklyn, the Bronx, and East Harlem, Barretto was, nonetheless, infused more deeply with jazz than with Latin music. In the 30s when he was growing up, his mother had to leave the kids at home nights so that she could attend school. The radio became the Barretto siblings’ baby-sitter, and they would cluster around. Since there was precious little music in Spanish on the air then, Barretto became absorbed in the big bands of the era, Benny Goodman, Glen Miller and Harry James, to name a few. At the time, the boy never thought he’d choose music as his life’s work.
Hearing Dizzy Gillespie play in Germany while in the US Army just after the war proved a watershed for him. The famed trumpeter had included Afro-Cuban conga player, composer and singer, Chano Pozo, in his line-up. Barretto was inspired; he would become a musician. His path would not follow the Latin route, the only real opportunity then for musicians pursuing the curious hand drum, but he would wed the conga to jazz, determined to free it as rhythmically and harmonically from its Afro-Cuban roots as he could.
While one side of him went with his heart, choosing a non-remunerative profession and an off-the-map instrument, the other was somewhat pragmatic: in choosing the conga, he reasoned that, having come to music relatively late in life, he could learn drum technique more quickly than he could horns, for example, which had intrigued him as well.
Once Barretto had made the commitment, he lived and breathed music. He never thought of having a regular “day job” or to play as a sidelight. “When I was younger,” he said in humored reflection, “and would be dating some young lady and take her out to a club to hear jazz, I’d wind up totally ignoring her because my heart, my passion was completely on the playing. I was a terrible date.”
Right place, right time
Barretto, who’s both unassuming about his talent and secure of his place in the roster of major musical players, likes to say he’s been, over the years, in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, that’s true. It was by becoming a fixture at the clubs, the straight-ahead jazz joints in Harlem and the jazz and Latin jazz clubs further downtown, in the 50s, that he was noticed and asked to sit in. A highlight of the early years, indeed of his career, was a stint with Charlie Parker, “Bird”, the bebop sax man who was Barretto’s idol.
But jazz is a tough gig for a conguero. The hand drum is seen as a luxury in the jazz line-up, and as Barretto relates, when groups would go on the road, almost invariably he’d be left at the curb. In addition, the conga’s credibility in jazz has been a long time coming. Says Barretto, “We kind of have never been looked upon by the serious jazz aficionado or the jazz critic as having something legitimate to say in the language of jazz. They never equate Ray Barretto with Milt Jackson or Freddie Hubbard.”
When the charanga craze hit the Latin world, Ray was given the opportunity by the jazz label, Riverside, to form his own band, Charanga la Moderna. Then, salsa began to simmer and he signed on to Fania, in 1967. Barretto had his own band with Fania, was their musical director for 4 years, and was pivotal amongst the super line-up of the Fania All-Stars. Barretto is quick to point out that the many hits Fania turned out were not carbon copies of inferior material, but genuinely fine pieces of composition, arrangement and virtuosity, spiced way up with the individualism that characterized the band leaders, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Johnny Pacheco, Barretto, and others. He is proud of and grateful for his years with them. They have made him a legend.
Barretto was caught off guard when salsa cooled and the great hit factory he thought would churn forever stopped making records. He found himself out on the street, after 22 years, “scufflin'”. But he knew immediately what to do: “That foundation of the Latin music scene that had blazed the trail in the 60s and 70s was now on the wane in the 80s. But I had something up my sleeve.” That something up his sleeve had been waiting for thirty years to slip out and it was jazz. In the early 90s, Barretto formed New World Spirit, an evolving sextet of jazz musicians, a number of whom also played Latin. Barretto’s intentions were to add the breeze and salt of the Caribbean to a straight-ahead jazz repertoire, and to appeal to a jazz audience. His work with New World Spirit has garnered much critical praise. Restless in the same way that Weston is, though, he recently has been involved in a project honoring an early jazz icon, trap drummer Art Blakey. Those explorations have inspired him to rethink and renew New World Spirit whose “time has come and gone,” he says. He will turn his next creative page this spring with a new group and repertoire.
Barretto has defined jazz conga, and done more towards the instrument’s legitimacy than anyone else. He is lauded as the best, perhaps the only, conguero to be able to eliminate all Latin accents from his jazz playing. Says musicologist and journalist, Larry Birnbaum, “Ray is the best jazz conga drummer. He has the best feel for jazz music. He’s like a jazz musician, not a Latin musician who’s crossed over into jazz.”
This vigorous, bespectacled heap of a man—both Barretto and Weston, curiously, are the twin redwoods of jazz—will be 75 years old in April. While he supremely exemplifies Robert Frost’s line “and miles to go before I sleep,” tirelessly creating, a good part of his life is now devoted to a very important part of his legacy, his son, Chris. Recalling Frost again, it’s as if he were fulfilling “promises to keep.” At nearly 18, the younger Barretto has shown great prospect and passion for music. He is the sax player his father might have been. More than lead, Barretto Sr. seeks to support his son should he choose the same, tortuous road his father has gone down. His words are philosophical and inspirational:
“My glasses are tinted and tainted with age and with experience, and his glasses are tinted and tainted with youthful exuberance and 17 year-old ‘I-know-it-all’….I can’t doom him to be a jazz player. Precious little monetarily awaits….He’s got to live his own life in his own way.” The only firm advice Ray Barretto has for his child is that which he had no one to give him but himself: “Be the best player you can be.”