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Tito Puente: 1923-2000
Tito Puente
Timbales, percussion, vibraphone, piano, band leader

Born: April 20, 1923 in New York City, New York
Died: May 31, 2000 in New York City, New York

The King Of The Mambo

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Tito Puente thrilled audiences for five decades with his infectious blend of Latin jazz. Puente was known to all and sundry as El Rey, the King, and his exuberant music did much to establish the global appeal of the genre. He was almost without a real challenger for the title of the most important Latin musician of his era, and played a key role right from the beginning in the fusion of Latin music with jazz.

A self-confessed showman and extravagant performer, Puente was known for his ever-present grin and ebullient dancing and clowning on-stage, as well as for his great musicianship. He was a major exponent of the timbales, the quintessential Latin percussion instrument, but was also a capable soloist on the vibraphone, and took great satisfaction from his smaller but equally fervent band of admirers of his work on that instrument.

Puente had been taken ill while performing with the Puerto Rican Symphony. He was admitted to hospital on his return to New York, but died from complications suffered after receiving open heart surgery.

He was born Ernest Anthony Puente in Harlem, to parents of Puerto Rican extraction. He grew up in the part of 110th Street then known as Spanish Harlem or the Barrio, and showed an early propensity for drumming which led his mother to scrimp together enough cash from the family’s limited funds (Puente has described how she would go through his father’s pockets for change while he slept) to give him some elementary music lessons at the age of seven.

He studied piano initially, then moved onto drums and timbales, the single headed hand drums central to Latin music, which are generally used in conjunction with a set of percussion instruments, including cowbell and woodblock, all mounted on a rack, which provide the essential rhythmic stimulus in Latin music.

He considered becoming a dancer, and even performed in the local theatre as youthful double act with his sister, Anna, who died a few years later (his brother had been killed in a fall from a fire escape as a child).

Instead, he decided to concentrate on music. His break arrived when the drummer for the famous band led by the Cuban leader Machito was drafted into the army, and Tito was recruited as his replacement. He in turn joined the navy, where he saw active service in battle, and received a Presidential commendation. The navy inadvertently provided further valuable musical education, however, since the served on an aircraft carrier with jazz trumpeter Charlie Spivak, who passed on arranging skills to him.

After the war he enrolled at the Juilliard School of Music in New York to study conducting, orchestration and theory, but did not respond to their rigid emphasis on classical music. He started his first band in 1948, using the name The Piccadilly Boys, but quickly decided to change it to the Tito Puente Orchestra (his explanation was that he decided that he did not want a band whose name could be confused “with something on the menu”, a picadillo being a hash of meat and potato).

Puente became famous for rearranging the layout of the band on stage. He believed that the players needed to see the percussionist clearly in order to pick up their rhythmic cues, and placed the percussion instruments at the front rather than behind the rest of the band, an arrangement which quickly became -- and remains -- universal in Latin music.

He had his first hit single, ‘Abaniquito’, in 1949, but his real breakthrough arrived when the band took up residence at the Palladium, a dance venue on Broadway, in the early-1950s. The mambo craze was sweeping the New York music scene at that point, and his electrifying fusion of Latin dance rhythms with big band arrangements saw him installed as the king of mambo.

The period is evoked in Oscar Hijuelos’s novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was subsequently filmed as the The Mambo Kings in 1992, with Puente playing himself. He registered a string of hits with tunes like ‘Barbarabatiri’ and ‘El Rey del Timbal’, and later incorporated other Latin forms into his Latin-jazz fusion with equal success, including the cha-cha. His rivalry with bandleaders like Perez Prado and Tito Rodriguez led to hugely popular competitions between the bands, with packed houses of partisan dancers cheering on their favourite.

In the 1960s, he began to work with singer Celia Cruz, his counterpart as the Queen of Latin Music, an association which continued intermittently through four decades. He continued to collaborate with jazz musicians, notably Woody Herman, and had his own television show, The World of Tito Puente, in 1968. In 1963, he first recorded his tune ‘Oye Como Va’, which Carlos Santana later turned into a massive rock hit.

Puente maintained his position as a leading figure in Latin jazz throughout the ensuing decades, recording with musicians like George Shearing, Phil Woods, James Moody and Hilton Ruiz, and touring regularly throughout the world. His tight, hard-hitting band was always a popular draw on the festival circuit, and even as a veteran, he could be relied upon to stoke up an impressive fire and fervour from his array of percussion.

He won five Grammy awards, the most recent earlier this year for Mambo Birdland, and recorded around 120 discs across his career. He was equally comfortable whether the emphasis was on the Latin or the jazz side of his music, and often used jazz rather than Latin tunes as the basis for his arrangements. He was venerated as a symbol of Puerto Rican success, and often appeared there, as well as opening a popular restaurant in 1995. He had four children to three different wives or partners, two of whom are musicians.

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