Mongo Santamaria, 85, Influential Jazz Percussionist, Dies


Mongo Santamaria, a Cuban conga player and percussionist who arrived in New York at the beginning of the jazz-Latin fusion and was arguably the most popular Latin musician of the 1960's, died on Saturday. He was 85.

He had been placed on life support at a Miami hospital after a stroke last week, said Rosy Lopez, his niece and manager.

Most know Mr. Santamaria for two things: his version of Herbie Hancock's song "Watermelon Man," which became a top-10 hit in 1963, and his authorship of "Afro Blue," a song John Coltrane made famous. But those more familiar with Afro-Cuban music know that Mr. Santamaria was at the middle of the shift from the Afro-Cuban jazz of the 1950's to the salsa sound of the 1970's.

"Mongo's major contribution," said the percussionist Bobby Sanabria, "was that he applied the conversational aspect normally played on the bongo to the conga drums. But more importantly, Mongo always represented the close ties that Cuban music has to West Africa."

His given name was Ramon Santamaria. After establishing himself as a professional musician in his hometown of Havana, performing at the famous Tropicana Club with Conjunto Matamoros and Conjunto Azul, he toured Mexico with a dance team. In 1950 he arrived in New York and began working with Gilberto Valdés, playing charanga music, with its recognizable, courtly flutes-and-violin mixture in the frontline. Soon after, he worked with the popular bandleader Peréz Prado, and then for six years with Tito Puente, trading fireballs of percussion with the timbales-playing bandleader during the height of the mambo craze in New York City.

At the end of the 1950's Mr. Santamaria left Puente's band to join Cal Tjader, the San Francisco-based jazz vibraphonist, who was beginning to mix jazz and Latin music. With Tjader, Mr. Santamaria made the album "Mas Caliente," among others; it was a new, mellower Latin-jazz sound, popular among jazz audiences and another affirmation of the wide applicability of Cuban music.

While with Tjader, Mr. Santamaria recorded his own albums on the side, first delving into his past, then into his future. "Yambu," in 1958, was an authentic record of Cuban religious percussion and chanting, closely linked to West African music; "Mongo," which included the tune "Afro Blue," showed a stronger willingness to work with straight-ahead jazz musicians in his own music. He went back to charanga for few years afterward while still in San Francisco, but in late 1962 he wandered back toward New York and the jazz side of the fence, convening a band led by a trumpet and two saxophones.

One night when Herbie Hancock substituted for his regular pianist at a Bronx nightclub, the group worked out a Latin groove underneath Mr. Hancock's new composition "Watermelon Man"; Mr. Santamaria quickly took it to the studio, and the song became the only time that Riverside, the distinguished jazz label, had a song on the top-10 pop charts.

That marked the beginning of the Latin-soul sound, popular through the 1960's. Mr. Santamaria signed with Columbia and made 10 records in a similar vein, latinizing jazz tunes or R & B vocal numbers; when he was signed to Atlantic in 1971, he was so inured to the process that he left the decisions about the songs entirely to his musical director, Marty Sheller.

Though he never had another commercial breakthrough on the level of "Watermelon Man," Mr. Santamaria maintained an identifiable sound, and using top-level musicians like Chick Corea, Ray Vega, Sonny Fortune, La Lupe, Hubert Laws and Mr. Sanabria, he recorded through the 90's for labels like Concord, Vaya, Roulette, Chesky and Milestone, playing in clubs and festivals around the world.

Mr. Santamaria retired from performing several years ago and had split his time between Miami and New York for the last 15 years. He is survived by six children: Nancy Anderson, Jose (Monguito) Santamaria, Rosa Santamaria and Felipe Santamaria, all of Miami; Felicia Santamaria of Los Angeles; and Ileana Santamaria of New York City; two sisters, Alicia Valdez of Miami and Rosa Mendiola of New York; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.