Ray Santos, who played saxophone with the biggest stars in Latin jazz and went on to write arrangements renowned for their economy and clarity, died on Oct. 17 at a hospital near his home in the Bronx. He was 90.
His daughter Rhynna Santos said the cause was complications of congestive heart failure.
In the 1950s and 60s, if you were at the Palladium or one of the other nightclubs in New York where Latin jazz was played and elegant dancers tried the newest Cuban-inspired steps, there’s a decent chance that you heard Mr. Santos. He was a mainstay in bands led by luminaries such as Tito Puente, Machito and Tito Rodriguez, often called mambo’s Big Three.
In an interview with the blog Jazz Wax in 2009, Mr. Santos said that all three of those bandleaders “could go off the deep end” when they felt musicians were not playing their best. “Machito was low key when he was angry,” he said. “But Puente and Rodriguez would pull out the whip. The whole band would get it.”
As an arranger, conductor and teacher – he earned the nickname el Maestro – Mr. Santos took a more measured approach.
Wynton Marsalis, the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, who invited Mr. Santos to conduct concerts there in the 1990s, described him in an interview as an “extremely astute musician” who was able to catch the smallest error in an ensemble, but who was “collegial” in his approach to musicians.
“He was a great conductor of improvised musicians,” Mr. Marsalis said. “He’s not strict; he wants to hear the freedom.”
He added, “He just represented the quality, the insight and the dignity of a whole idiom, and by that idiom I don’t mean Afro-Latin music, I mean American music.”
Mr. Santos wrote arrangements for Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauza, Noro Morales, Celia Cruz and Eddie Palmieri. He played tenor saxophone on Machito’s seminal Afro-Cuban jazz album, Kenya (1958), which featured Cannonball Adderley on alto.
In 1992, he arranged many of the songs for the soundtrack of the film The Mambo Kings and arranged Linda Ronstadt’s album of Latin pop songs, Frenesi (1992), which won a Grammy Award for best tropical Latin album.
For nearly three decades, Mr. Santos taught at the City College of New York, leading the Latin band there and imparting his long experience to new generations of musicians.
One of them was Arturo O’Farrill, the pianist, composer and director of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Mr. O’Farrill, the son of Mr. Santos’s old colleague Chico O’Farrill, said in an interview that Mr. Santos had “never overplayed or overwrote” and that “his contribution to the body of work is this distinct clarity and singleness of purpose.”
“Playing his piano parts, for instance, didn’t require a degree in physics,” Mr. O’Farrill continued. “They played themselves. His music played itself; it was so well written, so clear that it couldn’t help but swing.”
Raymond Santos was born in Manhattan on Dec. 28, 1928. His parents, Carmen and Ramon Santos, were from Puerto Rico. His mother was a doll maker and homemaker, his father a doorman. He grew up, in East Harlem and later the Bronx, immersed in Puerto Rican music and in big-band jazz, particularly as played by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
He began studying the saxophone as a teenager and graduated from Haaren High School in Manhattan before studying classical music at the Juilliard School. There his contemporaries included saxophonist Teo Macero, who would become an acclaimed record producer, and soprano Leontyne Price. He graduated in the early 1950s.
“I was exposed to classical music and became amazed at how much jazz harmony came from Stravinsky and Ravel,” Santos said in 2009. “We’d analyze the scores of classical works, which got me into arranging. Eventually I was devoting as much time to music theory and writing as I was to practicing the saxophone.”
Mr. Santos’s marriage to Maria Santos ended in divorce.
In addition to his daughter Rhynna, he leaves three other daughters, Virna Santos, Cynthia Santos-DeCure and Carmen Santos-Robson, a mezzo-soprano; a son, Raymond Jr.; and eight grandchildren.
In 2011, the Latin Recording Academy honored Mr. Santos with a Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. In 2016, the Berklee College of Music in Boston granted him an honorary doctorate.
He continued working almost until the end. His last published project was writing arrangements for Eddie Palmieri’s 2018 album, Mi Luz Mayor.