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Summer of Jazz starts tonight!

For nearly 40 years, conguero (conga drummer) and bandleader Ray Barretto has been one of the leading forces in Latin jazz, and is widely credited for being the first U.S.-born percussionist to integrate the African-based conga drum into bebop jazz.

Barretto kicks off the 17th annual Summer of Jazz concert series from 7-9:30 p.m. today, at Two Rivers Park. Admission is free and donations are accepted. No dogs or glass are allowed in the park.

Whether he’s pounding out the melodious beat of Peggy Lee’s “Fever” on the congas, or respectfully paying a tribute to Tito Puente, with whom he’s played, on his original “I Remember Tito,” Barretto is grace under fire. At 73, this 12-time Grammy nominee performs with fluidity, passion and precision. Latin Beat calls his music “ageless,” and the Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival 1998 gave him the honor of “best individual set.”

Born in 1929, Barretto is one of the first Nuyorican jazz musicians to emerge from New York City’s Bronx borough. His mother was a Puerto Rican immigrant who cared for him and his two siblings. Because of her determination to make a better life for her children, she left them to listen to radio in the evenings while she attended night school. From listening to the big band sounds of Duke Ellington, Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, Barretto became enthralled by music.

In the 1940s, Barretto, along with other Puerto Ricans, was forced, through racial intolerance, to move from one home to another. To escape the inner-city blues, Barretto enlisted in the army, where he was exposed to bebop. He also learned that racial discrimination existed in the army. While stationed in Germany, he found a nightclub that catered only to Black GIs. It was there that he began his musical career by learning to play the back head of a banjo.

In 1949, Barretto returned to New York, purchased his first set of drums and set out to become a musician by sitting in on countless jam sessions around Harlem. He also played the Palladium with Puente, performed at the Blue Note, and set an incredible standard that sent him into recording sessions. After years of being the most in-demand sideman in jazz, Barretto formed his first ensemble, Charanga La Moderna, in 1962. With that group, he recorded the boogaloo standard, “El Watusi,” in 1962. The song became a national hit and established Barretto as a worthy bandleader.

Summer of Jazz concerts are presented from 7-9:30 p.m. Wednesdays through July 24. For more information, call 945-4500.


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