At age 76, percussionist Ray Barretto passed away this morning. Earlier this year, he had undergone heart bypass surgery and suffered from pneumonia since then in addition to undergoing a second operation. Barretto was responsible for bringing the conga drum into jazz, augmenting the already significant "hip" factor of several recordings from the '50s and '60s, performing alongside Kenny Burrell, Red Garland, Gene Ammons, Cal Tjader, Lou Donaldson, and countless others.
Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents in the Bronx, Barretto listened to jazz radio while his mother went to night classes to learn English. He later enlisted in the army and was exposed to the modern jazz of the day, bebop. Upon returning to the States, he played in clubs until replacing Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's band in the '50s. He saw success as a leader after forming the group Charanga la Moderna in 1962, propelled by a popular boogaloo hit, "El Watusi." Moving to a Latin record label, Fania, he became the musical director of the Fania All-Stars, then founded New World Spirit, his own group that focused more on mainstream jazz. He was an innovator not only in Latin jazz circles but in the mainstream jazz world as well.
Listen to a very cool NPR Jazz Profiles interview with Ray. Also, read these obituaries in JazzTimes, EJazzNews, or the New York Times.