Ray Santos, Saxophonist and Composer Known as "El Maestro" of Latin Music, Has Died at 90
Ray Santos, a saxophonist, composer, arranger rightly known to Latin music fans as “El Maestro,” died on Oct. 17. He was 90.
His death was announced by his daughter Carmen Santos-Robson.
Ray’s importance in the field of Latin music can’t be overstated. In his lifetime, not only did he play with the three greatest orchestras of big band Afro-Cuban music and its fusion with jazz harmony and arranging technique — Machito, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez — but he also composed and arranged for all three, a unique aspect of his notable and stellar career.
He represented in full force the lineage of Puerto Rican musicians who transformed midcentury Cuban-based music into the ultimate in hipness, sophistication, and swagger, through the way the music was played at Latin music’s mecca, the Palladium Ballroom in New York City.
Ray Santos was born Dec. 28, 1928 in East Harlem, the only child of Ramon, a doorman, and Carmen, a dollmaker. Both parents were had moved to New York from Puerto Rico.
His formal musical training was at the old original building of the Juilliard School of Music on West 122nd Street and Broadway (the building that Manhattan School of Music now occupies). But as he told me, his real education was in the orchestras, bands and combos he performed with in his youth — and his main influence on tenor saxophone, Lester Young.
An opportunity to play with famed Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales on a recording session turned into a Rubicon for him. “We were going over an arrangement and an argument broke out over some of the written figures in it,” he said. “It was the very first time I ever heard musicians talking about clave. I began to ask questions and started to realize that there was more to arranging this type of music than just voicing out chords for horns, etc. The rhythmic figures played by them were in many ways more important. I had a lot to learn.”
At the height of the mambo era, Ray got an opportunity to perform with the Machito Orchestra. “Mario [Bauzá, Machito's musical director] pulled out charts in the first set that I easily sight-read. But then in the second set he started to pull out charts that were in harder and harder keys to play in, and I began to sweat, but I got through it. At the end of the night I found out I was in the band when Mario said to me, ‘Stick around.’ It was great for me because that book had been written by great arrangers like Pin Madera. It was like going to school all over again.”
Ray then began playing for timbale titan Tito Puente and his orchestra. Ray’s composition “3D Mambo” brought him notoriety amongst his colleagues and the public. “The original name of ‘3D Mambo’ is ‘Mambo Moderno,’ but a woman at the publishing company suggested I give it a hipper name. Science fiction movies were big at the time, so she suggested the title.”
Ray would continue his musical studies with arranger Hal Overton. “Hal was studying at Juilliard when I was there and he was an already established jazz pianist. With him I learned to write modern blues with modern harmony. Tunes like ‘Caribe’ and ‘Cochise’ are examples that Tito recorded, and ‘Azulito’ which Machito recorded.” Later, with the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, he would complete his work with the triumvirate that has become known to the cognoscenti as The Big Three.
I first met Maestro Ray through my work as the drummer for Mario Bauzá, the acknowledged creator of Afro-Cuban jazz. Mario had come out of retirement, and Ray began writing pieces as well as arrangements for the band, which we recorded for the three CDs we did for the Messidor label, two of which were Grammy nominated.
We were always glad to see Ray, for we knew that he would bring in things that were always in clave, fun to play, and were swinging and sophisticated. The rediscovery of Mario and his importance to jazz history led to Ray’s name being mentioned as the go-to arranger for classic big band jazz, mambo style. It would lead to his being contracted to do the majority of the arranging on the music for The Mambo Kings movie soundtrack. The musicians used for the NYC sessions were we from the Mario Bauzá Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, with a pick-up band used in L.A. for “Quiereme Mucho” and “Perfidia,” which Ray arranged for Linda Ronstadt. It would lead to him working on Linda's Frenesí.
It was a great choice on her part, as Ray’s arrangements led to the album winning the Latin Grammy in 1992 in the Tropical Music category. In 2011 Ray received the Grammys’ prestigious Latin Recording Academy Trustees Award for the significant contributions he made to the field of recording throughout his career.
He became distinguished as an educator, passing down his knowledge of Latin music fused with jazz to the next generation at City College, where he taught for more than 20 years, retiring at the age of 84.
His most recent work was writing arrangements for Eddie Palmieri’s most recent album, Mi Luz Mayor. His quiet demeanor always projected strength, dignity, and supreme knowledge.
Recently at the Bronx Music Heritage Center, we featured a photo exhibit on Ray, curated by his daughter, noted photographer Rhynna M. Santos. The picture you see below with Maestro Ray, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Grillo, Pete Miranda, and yours truly, is from the opening night of that exhibition.
Ray is survived by his five children — Virna L. Santos, Cynthia Santos DeCure, Carmen Myriam Santos, Rhynna M. Santos, and Raymond Santos — along with eight grandchildren. A public viewing will be held on Monday, Oct. 21, at Thomas C. Montera Funeral Home in the Bronx, his home borough.
Rest in power, Maestro.