Remembering Ray Barretto

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By David Amram

When Ray and I first met and played together in the Fall of 1955 at the Monday night sessions at the 125 club in Harlem, Ray was the only conga player and I was the only French horn player who always showed up.

We used to always laugh because we were surrounded by a small army of great musicians who played what were then considered traditional jazz instruments.

When Ray was complimented for being able to play with anyone and always be perfectly in tune, he would say "I was born with that Latin fire. I'm making that part of jazz.

Saxophonists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Wayne Shorter, trumpeter Art Farmer and all the members of the Mingus band, of which I was a member, would come up every Monday night to jam and Ray was always there. He played with everybody and always knew what to do.

We all loved the way Ray played way back then. He had a real understanding of how to add to the music, rather than trying to blow everyone else off the bandstand. He was already a true musical artist by 1955 and he always remained one.

He also knew how to inspire others to be that way by his example of always listening and being creative.

In the '70s we both played with our bands, along with Gil Evans' band, at a historic concert for the United Farm Workers at the Felt Forum. Ray's band of young musicians brought down the house.

When I came back from Cuba in 1977, after concerts in Havana with Dizzy, Stan Getz, Earl Hines and my band, the Cuban musicians were able to come to America for a special concert at Lincoln Center.

When I was reunited to play with Los Papines for this series of events in New York, Ray, along with Tito Puente, Mongo and Candido, was one of the musicians all the Cubans wanted to meet when they visited here. By this time, he was known and admired around the world, but he never acted like many people do when they receive recognition. Over the years, it was always a joy to be in his presence because he remained the same warm gentleman that he was back in '55.

At his birthday party a few years ago, we scat sung some blues together, making up lyrics on the spot in a song about the 125 Club in Harlem and how it was when we met 50 years ago.

At another concert in NY, with Clark Terry, when our three bands all played together for the finale, my son was able to sit in and play with Ray's son as well as with Ray.

Looking at my young son and his own young son, as we all played together, Ray said to me, "There we are Dave, that's us, all over again.

I know that 50 years from now, my son will still remember that night, because it was a blessing for him to share some of the blessings of Ray's magic, as many of us were fortunate enough to share as well.

Ray's spirit will always remain in all our hearts and his music will stay as strong and fresh as ever, because it came from his heart. He lived for it and he loved it.

His wonderful family should know that we are thinking of them as we mourn his passing, thankful that he was here and grateful for the years he spent to bring beauty to us all.

He opened up doors as well as brought joy for many years to many people around the world.

While he rests in peace, his music is more alive then ever.

Photo Credit
Jennifer Samuel, Jazz at Lincoln Center

David Amram has composed over 100 orchestral and chamber works, written two operas and many scores for theater and films. He has collaborated with Leonard Bernstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Betty Carter and Tito Puente.


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