Mambo’s Modest Maestro

City College’s Ray Santos grew into adulthood in the 1940s listening to big band music in his family’s Bronx living room, while his mother’s favorite Afro-Cuban and Caribbean selections drifted from the kitchen. Years later, as a saxophonist, arranger and composer, that cross-cultural experience inspired Santos to create the Mambo-era  Palladium sound for which he is renowned. Santos, 83, worked with Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Mario Bauza and Machito.  He scored films — most notably “The Mambo Kings” — and in 2011 received a coveted Grammy Trustees Award.

He also has a delightful trove of tales from bygone eras: He bought his first tenor saxophone from Stan Getz.  Thelonius Monk once danced the cha-cha while Santos played. And, yes, bobby-soxers did scream for Frank Sinatra. He heard them himself, at the old Paramount.

Santos, a Julliard graduate, has taught at City College for more than 25 years. Despite his fame, he still agonizes over leading his undergraduate students in the “Latin Band” course to a successful concert at semester’s end. When an interviewer greeted the elegantly attired Santos as “Maestro,” he shook his head with a smile and said, “I am Ray.”

How do you introduce Latin music to your students?

The most important part of the music is the rhythm. Latin rhythm. Most of my students have experience reading music and they know their music. But they have never really played with authentic Latin arrangements. Most of them are rock-and-roll or jazz oriented. They are talented. But we have to get them used to phrasing the music differently.

And how do you teach phrasing?

Often, I sing to them. Phrasing is accents. It’s like the difference between a Southern accent and a Spanish accent.   Different ways of “saying” the same “word.” So if they “speak” with a Southern accent,  which is jazzy and laid back, I have to get them more into the “bop-bop-bop-bop-bop-bop.”  The straight syllables of the Spanish accent.  Jazzy is more like “ bab-adu-ba-daba-do.”  The technical terms would be “straight eighths” notes for Latin music compared to shuffle type rhythm. I try to do a little musicology;  a little history, too. I get a lot of students from Israel.  A lot from Japan. They want to get with it — the Latin beat. I had a student from Israel and she plays the flute in a salsa band in Tel Aviv.

In your own music, you “speak” with both accents.

I had a friend in junior high school and he invited me to his apartment to meet his folks. He played this recording of “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins and it was so impressive. I said I want to play that…. When I started learning how to write music I wanted to combine the Afro-Cuban beat with something jazzy. At Julliard, I had good [classical] harmony lessons and I was learning jazz harmony from other students.

Your students, like most of us, no doubt love to hear stories about the other famous musicians with whom you played. Can you tell us more about Tito Puente?

Sometimes we’d go to a place to play and nobody was there and he’d pull the hardest arrangements and he played like there were ten thousand people there. He loved to play. He played up to two weeks before he died. I did his last record date with him and he played great. No downhill playing with him.

What is it like to compose for films?

I always ask the composer to give me the lyrics so I can zero in on the emotion of the tune.  In film you are locked into time frames. You have to synchronize a certain sequence with what’s on screen already.  But now with computers it’s easier.  It gives you a structure. I love the technology. I was strictly pencil and paper but I got on the computer in 1991.

Like Tito Puente, you seem to love the music you write and play. Is there anything in music you didn’t like doing?

I got into doing jingles and the money was good but you have to deal with these people from the ad agencies. They only see selling their product. The music has nothing to do with it. I was once asked to do this jingle for a big oil company. So to me, gasoline means power. So I wrote something with a lot of power. Very Stan Kenton-ish. And the agency rejected it. They said it didn’t have enough impact. I heard what they picked instead and it sounded like a nursery rhyme. That was the end of my jingle career.

Watch CUNY Channel’s “Latin Music Legend Ray Santos”: