‘Bax, the name Tito Puente is all you need to know…’
So, I knew the name before I knew any of his music, as that quote above illustrates, his being the name that was mentioned to me whenever the conversation turned to the world of Latin sounds.
Known as ‘El Rey’ (The King) of Latin Jazz, he left an indelible mark on the world of music with his infectious rhythms, innovative compositions, and extraordinary skills as a percussionist. With a career spanning over six decades, Puente’s vibrant and dynamic performances not only popularised Latin music but also transcended cultural boundaries, captivating audiences around the globe. From his early days living in Spanish Harlem to his status as an international music icon, Puente’s legacy continues to inspire and influence generations of musicians.
He was born Ernesto Antonio Puente on April 20, 1923, in Harlem Hospital, Manhattan, New York City, the son of Ernest and Felicia. Known early on as Ernestito, that gradually became shortened to Tito and the rest, as they say, is history. Hyperactive as a kid, he was forever tapping out a rhythm on anything that didn’t move. Mum Felicia sent him for piano lessons and then after seeing the drummer Gene Krupa, he switched to percussion, specialising in timbales.
Growing up in the vibrant musical scene of his local area, Puente was exposed to diverse musical genres, including jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and mambo. Inspired by the sounds of artists like Duke Ellington and Machito, he honed his skills as a percussionist and bandleader, at the head of the Tito Puente orchestra.
He then served in the US Navy from 1942 during the World War II. His resultant GI Bill upon discharge from the forces, entitled him to study at the world-renowned Juilliard School of Music, from 1945 to 1947. There he studied orchestration, conducting and theory.
He became very popular in the 1950s and his band’s fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, and big band arrangements became a defining characteristic of Puente’s music. So good was he at what he did, he was very often mistaken for being Cuban by birth. His compositions, such as Oye Como Va and Ran Kan Kan became iconic hits that would shape the future of Latin jazz, and bring the sounds of Mambo, Son and Cha Cha Cha into the mainstream. His most popular album was Dance Mania released in 1958.
Simply put, his impact on the music world cannot be overstated. With his infectious rhythms, Puente introduced Latin music to a broader audience, becoming a pioneer of the genre. He collaborated with numerous renowned artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Santana, and Celia Cruz, to create unforgettable musical fusions.
Puente’s virtuosity as a percussionist was unparalleled. His signature instrument, the timbales, became his calling card, adding a vibrant and distinctive sound to his performances. His mastery of multiple percussion instruments earned him the reputation of being one of the greatest percussionists of all time.
Beyond his musicianship, Puente’s charismatic stage presence and showmanship made his live performances legendary. His energetic and dynamic shows had audiences up on their feet, dancing and cheering, thus creating an electrifying atmosphere wherever he performed. His influence extended beyond his own music. He inspired countless musicians and contributed to the development of Latin jazz as a genre. His innovative approach to blending Latin rhythms with jazz improvisation set the stage for future Latin jazz pioneers, including Eddie Palmieri and Poncho Sanchez.
‘In front of a bandstand you’ve got to be a showman. Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience. Now I’m a showman, selling what I’m doing, giving the people good vibes.’ –
Following a show in Puerto Rico in the year 2000, Puente suffered a heart attack and was immediately flown to New York for surgery, but due to complications, he died a few days later on June 1st. , he was 77.
‘I can tell you that it’s just a sad day, a sad day for the Latin music industry. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that this was a procedure he was going to recover from. Tito was known all over the world.’ – Eddie Rodriguez, his manager.
Margie, his wife and children Ronnie, Audrey and Tito Jnr. were at his bedside at the time of his passing.
In 2003 he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously at that years Grammy’s.
So, what of his legacy? Well, a quick Google search on his name will reveal him still thought of as the King of Latin Jazz, 20 odd years since his passing. He released over 110 albums during his 60-year career. His name lives on, forever embedded in the fabric of music history. Listening back to his sounds today, I think I’m on safe ground by saying Puente’s vibrant and infectious sound will continue to resonate with audiences, ensuring his lasting influence for generations to come.
‘Just hearing Tito Puente’s name makes you want to get up and dance’ – Bill Clinton – Ex President of the United States.
The Mumper of SE5
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THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 3 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Eddie Piller
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