The Kennedy Center

Ray Barretto


Conga drummer Ray Barretto, born in Brooklyn in 1929 to Puerto Rican parents, grew up in Spanish Harlem and the Bronx, where he absorbed the Latin music around him. While stationed in Europe during World War II, he had a life altering experience when he heard a recording of Chano Pozo with Dizzy Gillespie for the first time. He returned to Harlem after the war, studied percussion and haunted jazz clubs where he sat in with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and scores of others. He joined José Curbeto’s Latin band, and two years later replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente’s band, remaining with Puente for four years. He joined Herbie Mann, but after four months, his growing desire to start his own band prevailed. He began recording as a leader and in 1963 his rendition of the song “El Watusi” brought a new and compelling sound to the listening public. It was an instant hit, one of the few pure Spanish-language songs ever to climb the pop charts. Over the years he has recorded more than forty albums, ten of them Grammy-nominated, and in 1990 he won the Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance. In 1991 he signed with Concord Jazz and began recording on the company’s Picante label. Now, after more than 50 years as a professional musician, acclaimed around the world, respected as an extraordinary instrumentalist and bandleader, recognized as a standardbearer and a dominant force in the world of jazz and Latin music, Ray Barretto brings his ‘Homage to Art” to the Kennedy Center. The “Art” in the title is of course, Art Blakey, the great drummer and jazz musician whose contribution to jazz from 1954 to 1990 as leader of the Jazz Messengers created a sound known as Hard Bop and influenced many individual players and groups over the years. Ray Barretto appeared as a guest artist on Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center on October 3, 1994, a program that was recorded and later broadcast nationwide on NPR member stations.

“Barretto performs with the apparent abandon and certainly the polyrhythmic intensity arising from years of experience … (he) continues to entertain us with irrepressible spirit as he honors the Latin jazz tradition that grew in popularity during his career, but which we take for granted today.” (Don Williamson, 52nd St. Review)

February 2003
Photo for Ray Barretto