Ray Barretto, who died Feb. 17 at the age of 76, may be remembered best for giving jazz a Latin beat. But he made an even greater contribution, largely unacknowledged, to American culture: composing a soundtrack for social transformation.
Barretto's name may be unfamiliar to most non-Latinos in the United States, even to many of those who have a passing acquaintance with late salsa greats such as Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.
But the bandleader, known as "Hard Hands" for the punishing style of his playing, was influential in that most original American music form: jazz.
Born in 1929 in Brooklyn, on the edge of New York's WWII-era Puerto Rican boom, Barretto was rooted in an American Latin experience. As a Nuyorican kid in the 1940s, he fell in love with jazz greats Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
When he was a young serviceman in Germany, he discovered Dizzy Gillespie's classic, "Manteca," which gets much of its drive from the percussion of Cuban conga player Chano Pozo.
Barretto then dedicated himself to his two musical loves, Latin and jazz. He brought Latin rhythms to straight-up jazz combos, playing as a sideman in some 150 jazz recordings, including with Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley.
To Latin music of the 1960s and 1970s, he brought the rigor and experimentation of bebop. During that time, the Latin music movement known as "salsa" exploded in New York under the Fania label, the Latin version of Motown.
Barretto always pushed the boundaries of what Latin music -- and Latino identity -- could be. His songs gave rhythm to the social transformation that was happening in Latino and black communities in the 1960s and 1970s.
In almost psychedelic, drum-driven records like "Acid" from 1972, "Rican/Struction" from 1979 and his signature "Indestructible" from 1973, Barretto conveyed pride and resoluteness in his Puerto Rican identity while refusing to fall into any simple or stereotyped notions of what Latin music ought to be.
Jazz heads sometimes thought of "Latin jazz" as a minor form, and salsa fanatics sometimes wanted Barretto to stick to danceable, rather than "difficult," numbers. But Barretto stuck to his guns, producing recordings such as the 2003 "Homage to Art," which channels Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter compositions.
Jazz has of late been relegated to minority music, not because it is a musical form of African-American origin, but because few people in the United States listen to it regularly. And Latin music forms, despite the phenomenal growth and popularity of styles such as reggaetón, bachata and "Mexican regional," are still considered marginal genres.
The music that Barretto made in his jazz and Latin modes, like those made by Al Green or Marvin Gaye, has little room in the charts these days. But the influence of artists like Barretto endures, whether it's through bands with a Latin beat and social conscience (such as L.A.'s Ozomatli or New York's Yerba Buena) or just the rebel tones of Latin hip-hop and reggaeton artists.
Revolutionary music like Barretto's beats on, and some young music makers continue to take bits and push forward. It's up to us to listen.
Carolina González is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.