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Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto

Ray Barretto is one of the most influential Latin percussionists in the history of modern jazz. With a musical heritage as deeply rooted in the bebop jam sessions held in Harlem during the late-'40s as in his Puerto Rican ancestry, Barretto has spent over five decades refining the integration of Afro-Caribbean rhythms with the improvisational elements of jazz.

Few artists have been as successful over the years at fusing these two genres as Barretto, an undisputed master of this style. A pioneer of the salsa movement, Barretto achieved international superstardom and released nearly two dozen albums with the Fania label from the late-'60s until salsa's popularity peaked in the mid-1980's. "The Fania years were fun, challenging and productive years. I was able to use some of the things I learned in jazz and apply it to the charts I used in the Latin band. And it certainly got my name out there"; he says with a laugh. "But while I had the privilege of working with Celia Cruz, Johnny Pacheco, Tito Puente, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and other great musicians, there was a downside too.

I discovered that after some 20 years with Fania I had become typecast as a 'Latin artist.' That turned out to be extremely limiting when I tried to interest jazz labels in signing me." This is ironic given Barretto's history. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants who was raised by a single mother from the age of four, he was exposed to jazz while still a child."I was born in Brooklyn in 1929 and grew up half in Harlem and half in the Bronx, Barretto recalls. "My mother would play Latin music during the day, but she'd have to leave me, my brother and sister home alone so she could go to night school and learn English.

Radio helped us make it through those nights as we listened to Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Harry James and other big bands. They were our baby-sitters!" Although Barretto was attracted to jazz as a child, it wasn't until he joined the army and was sent to Germany in 1946 that he realized he was destined to be a musician.

Ray Barretto died on Friday, February 17, 2006 at a New Jersey hospital, a family spokesman said. He was 76. Barretto had undergone heart bypass surgery in January 2006, according to press reports.

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