A profile of the too short life of trumpeter Ray Maldonado (1946 - 1982)
Profile: Ray Maldonado
by David Carp
Latino musicians in North America have always faced problems of identity as great as their non-playing compatriotas, if not greater. For some, it's a Faustian tug of war between typical roots and American mainstream; others seem to swim naturally in both currents. Ray Maldonado is an excellent example of the latter. He's remembered today as a beautiful human being and a trumpet player of astounding natural gifts.
It's often been said that being a master percussionist involves a strong feeling for melodic values. Jazz musicians will readily admit that every instrumentalist is also a drummer. If this is true for jazz it's exponentially true for Latin music. Raymond Maldonado began on the percussive side of this continuum. At an early age he was given bongos and a full drum set by his father Pacifico. The Maldonado household was always highly bicultural. Raymond and his brother Richard were raised on Brooklyn's Hoyt Street with Spanish as their first language. Their father was an accomplished guitarist in his native Bayamon and no unsophisticated jíbaro. "Fico" was very oriented towards technology and had to have the best and newest of everything. As the first TV-owning family on their Boerum Hill block the Maldonados were very popular with their Anglo neighbors. Owning a television set was especially useful when Ray performed "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour." He was eleven years old and had been playing trumpet approximately three years. Being able to command the kind of fat sound needed to pull off even a credible performance of "Cherry Pink" at this age gives an idea of how excellent Ray's natural embouchure setting was. Both Maldonados were shipped off to the nearby Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and eventually the High School of Performing Arts. This immersed both Ray and Richie in a milieu where classical music study was a common denominator, regardless of individual students' origins and professional aspirations. A rigorous practice schedule and eventual work with trumpet guru Carmine Caruso developed Ray's range and endurance. It's reported that the Maldonado brothers briefly played together in a group called the Richie and Ray Orchestra. For reasons not easily ascertainable, Ray did very little live performing with this group. It wasn't long before Richard Maldonado named his group the Richie Ray Orchestra, from time to time his brother would appear on Richie Ray's albums. It's possible that one reason for these separate career paths is that Ray was simply too busy. By the middle '60s it was well known that there was a new trumpet sensation ready and willing to take almost any gig. At age twenty Ray was already a veteran (he was born 1/20/46). By his late teens he had already recorded with the Alegre All Stars and La Playa Sextet.
In 1967 Ray received an urgent call from trumpeter/arranger Marty Sheller who was on a West Coast tour with Mongo Santamaria's unit. Marty was having such severe chops problems that he desperately wanted to leave the tour, provided that the right replacement could be found. Requirements for this particular position included excellent reading skills, a strong feeling for jazz and funk as well as Afro-Caribbean music, and an ability to double on bell when needed. (Normally, the bongo player in a Latin ensemble also plays the bell. Mongo's groups, however, only use a conga player and a drummer/timbalero.) The day after receiving Sheller's call Ray was on a plane to join Mongo. This group was heard at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach by a fourteen year old future drummer/arranger named Roland Vásquez. Vásquez remembers, "Ray sounded like three trumpet players playing simultaneously. I don't think I've heard anybody with as big a sound...ever. I mean, his ability to project and vitality and brilliance were not really comparable to anybody. There are a lot of famous guys that don't have the tone he had and he was capable of devastating people with his volume, but the fact is he had a very pure sound. His time was ridiculous, just brilliant in terms of the way he articulated stuff. There was always a real forwardness to the music and forwardness to the phrase." The fiery "fours" traded by Maldonado and Charlie MIller during the montunos of Orquesta Harlow's early 1970s albums verify Vasquez's observations. Mongo Santamaria has always made it very clear whether or not he's happy with his fellow musicians, especially if they're percussionists. Being asked--or even allowed--to play bell in his group was a great compliment for Ray Maldonado. Marty Sheller claims that recordings didn't capture the full measure of his excitement, that to get a really good idea of Ray's playing you'd have to hear him live. The closest most of us can come to this is listening to Mongo's live recordings at the Village Gate and at the Montreux Festival and to Eddie Palmieri's album done at Sing Sing.
The 1970s found Ray Maldonado working steadily as part of Fania's pool of session players, touring the U.S with Lionel Hampton, traveling in Africa with Ray Barretto and eventually becoming a regular with Hector Lavoe. The year 1975 marked a breakthrough in both musical and personal terms. Ray moved to Los Angeles and began playing with Stevie Wonder. His trumpet can be heard on both "Sir Duke" and "Another Star" and "Pastime Paradise" uses his percussion talents. Roland Vásquez was witness to sessions that generated some of these records; he's sure that the Wonder sound was influenced by Maldonado. "If you listen to the horn lines in "Sir Duke," there's a Mongo-esque thing that's there and that's just Ray. That's his wild phrasing, the way he would bend notes and do doits and all those things. Nobody else was doing that in R&B bands in those days." He was able to bring the percussive talents and Latin flavors of Carmello Garcia (another Mongo alumnus) to important Wonder sessions. Ray's Spanish lyrics for "The Story of Our Love" were incorporated into Wonder's vocals as "Es una historia." The power of his Latin-derived rhythmic feel paved the way to opportunities working for Ashford and Simpson, Blondie and various funk groups. Considering the popularity of Stevie Wonder's records, it's highly possible that there's a little Ray Maldonado in many pop horn sections. During his Stevie Wonder days Ray was on a retainer. This effectively put him on call twenty-four hours a day. His wife Lisa compares his L.A. period with his early New York gigs. "If you worked you got paid at the end of the night in cash and maybe the guy owed you an extra forty dollars next week. Then suddenly there was this level of professionalism and respect and dignity and I think that was certainly something that he was very happy with." Maldonado's new success had another side though. The politics of California music making and the "hurry up and wait" aspects of being on call for Wonder were aspects that never sat well with him. Roland Vásquez remembers, "He was so into what he did that there was no room for any dishonesty. I mean, dishonesty in a way that a lot of guys in the business are always outshining people and being nice to people that they don't really care about because they're trying to get a gig. I never saw Ray do that." Vásquez feels that the level of ego bred by pop success was the farthest possible thing from Ray's roots. "At that time," he recalls, "there was a super-territorial thing in Wonder's group about who could play and who couldn't. Ray was of the old Latin tradition which is 'Let's make music together.' It's a family thing, you share and you play claves or you play shekere or whatever but you participate." There were always ways that he was giving of himself: suggesting sidemen to leaders or recommending musicians to clubowners, demonstrating conga technique or clave to young musicians, helping arrangers whose work he liked by playing for nothing or next to nothing, organizing jam sessions during studio down time, and doctoring record dates when some trumpet player couldn't quite cut it. Lisa Maldonado comments, "He was a very intelligent man and I think he felt conflict between doing something for nothing, doing something ego-free without any credit--that was one side of him--and his other side probably said, 'I guess I'm a schmuck because I'm not really advancing my career or taking care of myself on a professional level.' He very much squashed his ego because he felt that he just wanted to play music,' that if he didn't sublimate his ego he wasn't really a true musician but more of an egomaniac or something. I think that when he got with Stevie Wonder or Ashford and Simpson and there were fancy photo sessions with expensive photographers and wardrobe people it probably threw him. it was something that he hadn't been exposed to, this sort of self-promotion or being front and center."
Doubts about self-worth, identity, and one's place in life's hierarchy run rampant among workers in a field as volatile as the music business. For many, the obvious way out is substance abuse. Lisa Maldonado explains why her husband didn't seek help for his chronic alcoholism. "if the guy was sleeping in the street or not getting any work that would have been one thing, but he was strong as an ox and he was always functioning. I think the hallmark of any substance problem is denial and so, hey, how can I have a problem if I'm getting calls or if I'm hitting the notes? His line was always 'listen to the playbacks, here's not a bad note in there'." On September 16, 1982, Ray Maldonado was scheduled to leave New York for Minnesota to enter a detox program at Hazelden Foundation. On September 13 he was found dead of a drug overdose. Ray Maldonado's feeling for jazz, Latin, soul, funk and rock music was subsumed within a uniquely dynamic concept. His humanity was universally appreciated. The success of his denial mechanisms made his premature departure a shock to the music community. He's still deeply missed by friends, family and colleagues.