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Tribute to El Rey: Tito Puente and His Legacy

The aphorism: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Consider for a moment the parts that made up Tito Puente: master drummer, percussionist, pianist, saxophonist, vocalist, composer, orchestrator, arranger, and conductor. Out of the lengthy list of musicians who have contributed to the development and acceptance of our music throughout the world, none is more recognized than the man known simply as "the king." For over fifty years he was a constant source of inspiration to serious students of percussion, composition, and arranging, and thrilled dancers and concert goers around the world.


Tito was born Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. His father, Ernest Sr. from Guayanilla, and mother, Ercilia Ortiz from Coamo, had arrived in New York from Puerto Rico only shortly before his birth. Tito grew up in East Harlem; a community made largely of Puerto Rican émigrés, referred as "El Barrio." Tito recalled, "My parents moved from Brooklyn to El Barrio because at the time, landlords would give you two months free rent. We constantly moved from one block to another until my father finally established himself. He eventually became a foreman at the Gem Razor Blade Company in Brooklyn." The Puente family would later grow to five members, with the addition of a daughter, Anna, and a son Robert Anthony, who would die tragically at the age of four as a result of a fall from a fire escape.


Young "Ernesto" grew up during the full flower of the Jazz Age and absorbed its culture like a sponge, spending countless hours listening to big band music on the radio and seeing vaudeville acts and the latest Hollywood movie musicals. Puente's precocious interest in music did not go unnoticed. His mother packed him off to the New York School of Music, which had a branch near their home on 125th and Lenox Avenue. "I remember I used to go on Saturdays for my lesson," recalls Tito. "At the time I was enrolled at Public School 184, where I would practice my lessons on the school piano." Tito continued these lessons for seven years, also occasionally being tutored by pianist Victoria Hernández, sister of Puerto Rico's most renowned composer, Rafael Hernández, and Luis Varona, an early pianist in the Machito Orchestra who would one day play in the Tito Puente Orchestra.


After his lesson Tito would entertain his parents, playing semi-classical pieces and the current pop tunes of the day. "One of my most vivid memories is playing the Puerto Rican danza, 'Mis Amores' for my mother. She loved when I would play that." Spurned on by the comments of the neighbors, who heard his insistent tapping, Ercilia sought out a drum teacher for her son. Still studying piano, Tito began lessons with a Mr. Williams, a show drummer teacher. "He knew absolutely nothing about Latin music," remembered Tito, "but I wasn't going to him for that. He gave me a good foundation: snare drum technique, how to interpret figures in charts and accompany shows. I would listen to the great dance bands of the day on the radio, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa. I even won a drum contest playing his solo on 'Sing, Sing, Sing,' note for note."


In addition to listening to big jazz, Tito was influenced by the music coming out of Cuba. His early favorites included Arsenio Rodríguez and La Orquesta Casino De La Playa, which featured singer Miguelito Valdés. Tito expanded his artistic talents; singing in a neighborhood barbershop quartet and studying dance with his younger sister, Anna. They would eventually perform together as a child song-and-dance team. "Annie and I studied all forms of ballroom dancing, including acrobatic tap." Tito recalled. "We were inspired of course by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. I pride myself on being one of the few bandleaders who really knows how to dance. It's something that more young band leaders should investigate." Anna too would die tragically in her teens after a long illness.


The East Harlem of the 1930s boasted a varied and vibrant musical environment. While some bands played exclusively Puerto Rican and Cuban-derived musical forms, others included the musical styles of South American and Swing music in their repertoires. At twelve Tito had already begun performing in local and society bands. Tito credits Montesino, a black Cuban and drummer and timbalero for Los Happy Boys, a local big band, as his earliest influence in Latin drumming. Tito began regularly sitting in with the band at their Sunday matinees at The Park Place Hotel. "Montesino showed me the fundamentals of timbales in the big band contest. Remember, in those days, cowbell hadn't yet been introduced as a standard part of the timbales. That's why everyone played so much cáscara back then."


Tito further expanded his musical voice vocabulary, playing with society bands whose evening programs would include everything—tangos, waltzes, foxtrots, bolero-rumbas, and polkas. Although only in his early teens, Tito's musical versatility and crack sight-reading ability landed him gigs with the most prominent Latin bands of the day. Tito fondly remembered, "Machito's Orchestra was so good that it could not be denied work accompanying floor shows in the chic downtown clubs like Havana Madrid, La Conga, and Rio Bamba. To do the gigs, you had to be able to sight-read." Tito continued, "Tony Escolies couldn't read music so he had to be replaced, and Uba Nieto became the regular drummer. I subbed for the band and eventually became its steady drummer when Uba was drafted."


Tito also subbed for Pato Vaz in a band headed by the legendary Puerto Rican pianist Noro Morales. "I was in my early teens and Noro was playing at El Morocco, he had a band with two trumpets. I came in for Pato and sight-read the book and backed up the show. It was the same situation. We had to be versatile and play a lot of different styles." While enrolled at Central Commercial High School, Tito maintained a heavy schedule of weekend gigs with Machito, Noro Morales, José Curbelo, Ramon Olivero, and Los Happy Boys. Tito remembered, "I would do jobs four to six hours long. The pay was two to three dollars and I would be falling asleep by midnight. The musicians would sometimes tie my feet to the bass drum and hi-hat pedal so that when I woke up I would trip all over myself."


After two years of High School, Tito received his father's permission to leave school. He took a twelve-week engagement in Miami with a sextet led by bassist Tellerina. After returning to New York, Tito began work as a full-time freelance musician. During this period, Tito became interested in the saxophone and the clarinet, and began to study woodwinds. He would later add vibes and marimba to his musical arsenal.


Tito made his earliest recording with José Curbelo and Machito, proving to be one of the first drummers in Latin music to use a combination of timbales, bass drum, and cymbal to "kick" big band figures, often without bongo or conga accompaniment. Tito's concept of chart interpretation and "kicking" of figures was most likely influenced by Mario Bauzá, musical director for Machito's and for Chick Webb's orchestras, whom jazz historians generally acknowledge a the first drummer to "kick" figures in a big band context.


In the early 1940s Tito replaced Uba Nieto, who had been drafted, as the regular drummer for the Machito Orchestra. With Machito, Tito was featured as a soloist, bringing his timbales to the front of the stage, where he played standing up rather than seated, as had been the approved method until this point. In 1942, at nineteen Puente was drafted into the navy. He was assigned to the USS Santee (CVE29), a converted aircraft carrier charged with escorting supply and passenger ships. Tito split his time between loading ammunition into artillery and playing conga and alto saxophone in the ship's big bar. Tito also doubled as the ship's bugler, the mornings "I would play reveille to wake up the crew. One morning I was on the bridge and I started to warm-up by playing general quarters, the single man battle stations. Man, the whole ship went crazy, everyone thought we were being attacked. I had to hide for a week; everyone wanted a piece of me."


During his tour of duty, Tito was befriended by a Lieutenant Sweeney, a tenor sax player and pilot who had a previously performed and served as chief arranger for Charlie Spats Big Band. "Sweeney showed me the foundation of writing a good chart, how to lay out voicing and get colors out of brass and reeds. I began writing at this time." While still enlisted in the Navy, Tito mailed an arrangement based on the tune "El Bag de Chapotin" to the Machito Orchestra. The arrangement was well received. Tito was discharged in 1945—he had seen action in nine battles and received a Presidential Commendation. He began to write arrangements for a number of bandleaders including Pupi Campos and José Curbelo and he was freelancing extensively as well as conducting, contracting, arranging and studying the Schillinger System with Richard Bender. Developed by mathematician and theorist Joseph Schillinger, this system was a popular method among jazz musicians, including Stan Kenton, whose writing influenced Tito greatly. "My goal was to continue to study the Schillinger System but I got sidetracked and became a bandleader."

Tito completed his formal musical education at the Julliard School of Music, studying conducting, orchestration, and theory from late 1945 to 1947 under the G.I. Bill. At the same time, Tito kept up a busy work schedule, drumming at the Copacabana nightclub with a Brazilian band led by a singer Fernando Álvarez and featuring Charlie Palmieri on piano. He also served as musical director and contractor for over forty years. During a break from the Campos Band, Tito formed a pickup band to play occasional gigs. By now he had mastered the vibraharp, an instrument popularized by jazz musicians, which he featured on ballads. During 1947, promoter Federico Pagani began promoting the major Latin orchestras at the Alma Dance Studios on Broadway and 53rd Street. For the first time, Latinos and blacks were coming downtown to listen and dance in the summer of 1948 Pagani offered Puente the regular Sunday afternoon matinee at Alma. The original band which Pagani dubbed "Tito Puente and the Picadilly Boys," included Jimmy Frisaura on lead Trumpet, Chino González on second, Luis Varona on piano, Ángel Rosa on vocals, Manuel Paxtot on acoustic bass, Manny Oquendo on bong, Frankie "Paco" Colón on congas, and Tito on timbales, vibes and drum set.

Tito Puente at the Palladium Dance Hall

In 1949 Max Hyman purchased the Alma Dance Studios from Tommy Martin. The large crowds that flocked to the club when Latin music was featured had excited Hyman. He immediately erected a brightly-lit sign displaying the club's new name, The Palladium.


The Palladium provided New York City's ultra-hip dance crowd with continuous performance by Latin music's most progressive orchestras. "The Palladium was a phenomenon. On Wednesday nights 'Killer Joe' Piro would teach the current mambo steps to the crowd. The place was a BIG melting pot, Jews, Italians, Irish, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Cubans—you name it. Everyone was equal under the roof of the Palladium, because everyone was there to dig the music and to dance." The Palladium attracted the elite of New York's art and literary community along with a host of Hollywood stars. On any given night Sammy Davis Jr., Jackson Pollack, or Marlon Brando might be found sitting in on bongos with the Machito Orchestra. Tito's popularity as a bandleader had skyrocketed, fueled by the release of his 78-rpm recording, “Abaniquito” (the name for the traditional rim shot phrase played on the timbale).


Tito Puente  “Abaniquito”

The track featured the exciting trumpet work of Mario Bauzá with Vincentico Valdés on lead vocals and Graciela, Machito's sister, on background vocals. Tito used a conjunto setting (an ensemble featuring trumpets) in these early recordings but he would soon begin to expand the size of the band. Within a year it would include four trumpets, baritone, alto, and tenor saxes, and trombones. "I always wanted to be progressive in my writing for Latin music, I was inspired by my work with Machito under Mario Bauzá's musical direction and by others who worked with the band like the great pianist-arranger René Hernández. The Machito Orchestra was way ahead of its time by combining Jazz and Latin. I wanted to keep that going." By 1950, Tito was churning out 78s for Tico, RCA, SMC, and Mambo Boys. Mambo was the rage. It had developed two distinct factions: the more commercially palatable sounds represented by the Xavier Cugat Orchestra and Dámaso Pérez Prado, and the hybrid Afro-Cuban, jazz sound of the Machito Orchestra, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríquez.

Anti-establishment beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach were making their way up the block from Birdland to the Palladium to listen to mambo. Gillespie began incorporating what he heard into his music and the exciting fusion that jazz writers came to call Cu-bop, Jazz Mambo or Cubano Jazz came into being.

Drawing on his early musical experience, Tito structured his band to be versatile enough to play a wide variety of music, ranging from straight-ahead jazz and society music to pop standards and typical Latin music, thereby increasing the number of venues it could play and widening its audience. Even as music writers proclaimed the passing of the big band, Tito and his contemporaries in the Latin scene were keeping the genre alive and vital.


From 1951 through 1955 Tito recorded for the Tico label. At Tico, Puente was given free rein to explore diverse musical ideas, a relationship that culminated in the highly innovative recording, Puente in Percussion, recorded in 1955. On the date Tito used no pianos or horns, featuring only percussionists Willie Bobo, Mongo Santamaría, and Patato Valdés, along with bassist Bobby Rodríguez.


According to Tito, "George Goldner, an executive at Tico, was resistant to the project at first. He couldn't see my making an album without piano and horns. I explained to him the significance of the drum in Africa, its used in religious dance rituals and communication, and how the tradition was handed down to us in Latin America. He finally gave me the go-ahead on the condition that we use the studio late at night to keep the cost down. We recorded everything in one or two takes and the album was very successful both from the standpoint of sales and quality drumming."


In 1955, RCA released Mambo on Broadway, a compilation of Tito's previously recorded 78's. That same year, Puente signed an exclusive recording contract with the company. Tito's years at RCA would be marked by prodigious artistic output and commercial success, achieved despite RCA's less than enthusiastic support of his efforts. "At the time," stated Tito, "RCA was pushing Pérez Prado and Luis Álvarado whom they felt appealed to a wider audience because of their toned-down approach to Latin music. Here I was ready to record with new arrangements and composition, and they called me 'little Caesar.'"


In 1956 Puente recorded the album Cuban Carnival, his first hit with RCA. His next release, Puente Goes Jazz, which showcased Tito's instrumental writing, was also a major commercial success. Despite RCA's lack of promotional support, Dorothy Kilgallen, writing in her daily column, "The Voice of Broadway" reported: "Tito Puente's new album, Puente Goes Jazz is rocking the aficionados. They've snatched up 28,000 copies in two weeks." Tito stated, "RCA didn't know what to do with Latin music and they still don't. They treated me like some small-time local artist although I would consistently sell records."


The following year, through the efforts of Jack Louis, a sympathetic A&R man at RCA, Puente recorded Top Percussion, his second album explored the wide melodic and rhythmic range of Afro-Cuban drumming. One side featured drummer Julito Collazo along with a chorus performing the chants and songs of Lucimí, a religion of Western African origin that took root in Cuba and then throughout Latin America where it became know as Santeria. Tito had become interested in Santeria and in later years would become an initiate of the Orisha Obatalá. Top Percussion exposed a largely unknowing listening public to the inseparable nature of African religion and music and to its deep link to Latin music. 1957 also saw the release of Night Beat, Tito's sequel to the popular Puente Goes Jazz. The album featured a young trumpeter named Doc Severinsen.


The same year, through the efforts of Mario Bauzá, the Cuban government would include Puente in a ceremony honoring the greatest Cuban musicians of the past fifty years, earning Tito the distinction of being the only non-Cuban to be so recognized.

In 1958 Puente recorded Dance Mania, an album featuring Santos Colón on vocals. This album, which includes such signature tunes as “Hong Kong Mambo” and “Cayuco” remains one of the highest-selling Latin albums of all time and is still a favorite of dance instructors.

Tito maintained a busy and varied recording schedule during the decade, producing Tambo, a further delving into Afro-Cuban themes. More Dancemania, a straight dance album and big band recording with Count Basie, Woody Herman, Charlie Barnett, and Abbe Lane. In 1960, Tito collaborated with trombonist Buddy Morrow on the recording Revolving Bandstand. Tito's radical concept for the album placed two big bands, one with a Latin rhythm section, the other with a jazz rhythm section, together in the same studio. "First," Tito explained, "the jazz big band would play a tune like 'Autumn Leaves' and give it their treatment, and then the Latin band would play the bridge of the tune in authentic style." The album, which wasn't released until the 1970's featured Tito's conducting and arranging skills, blending his thorough knowledge of both the Latin and jazz idioms. Revolving Bandstand would be Tito's last recording for RCA. Joe Conzo, producer and long-time Puente publicist states, "Tito recorded literally hundreds of unreleased tracks for RCA. They just never understood how great a talent they had with Tito."


After recording one of his favorite albums, the 1961 live recording, Puente in Hollywood, for Norman Granz's GNP label, Tito Puente returned to the friendly environment of his former company Tico. The sixties would be years of achievement and recognition for Puente. He would make the first of several trips to Japan, where he would be instrumental in popularizing Latin music. In 1967 Tito would perform a program of his compositions at The Metropolitan Opera. In 1968 he would host his own show, The World of Tito Puente, on Hispanic TV and serve as Grand Marshall of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. In 1969 Tito would receive the key to the city of New York from Mayor John Lindsay. Tito maintained a busy recording schedule during the 1960s, recording a string of recordings with vocalists Celia Cruz and La Lupe.



Salsa and Santana

Some time during the early 1970s, the music Tito was playing came to be known as Salsa. Like other musicians of his generation, Tito has trouble with the label. "Salsa means sauce, literally; it's just a commercial term for Afro-Cuban dance music which was used promote the music. My idea is that we don't play sauce, we play music, and Latin music has different styles: cha-cha, mambo, guaguancó, and son. Salsa doesn't address the complexities and the rich history of the music that we play. But it's become accepted now and it helped to get music promoted."


The early 1970s also saw the meteoric rise of Carlos Santana and his unique blend of Latin rhythm, blues, and rock. Santana's cover version of Puente's classic composition "Oye Como Va" (recorded originally by Tito in 1962) on the Abraxas album introduced a whole new generation to Tito's music. Santana III included another Puente classic, "Para los Rumberos," which Tito recorded in 1965. Both tunes became cult hits, receiving national airplay and stimulating renewed worldwide interest.


New York's Roseland Ballroom was the site of the first meeting of Santana and Puente in March of 1977. Pablo Guzman, who covered the concert dance for the Village Voice, described the event: "Tito Puente opened his set with 'Salsa y Sabor' (an up-tempo guaracha), a dancer's challenge moving at the speed of the #4 IRT subway between 86th and 125th Streets...the folks went wild." Guzman continued, describing Tito as, "the consummate showman, waving his timbale sticks over his head like a baton to cue the band. He is the Muhammad Ali of Latin music, complete with shuffle and rope a dope. After 40 years, when faced with a challenge, the old man can still put it all together."

Trust the Leader

The late 1970s saw increased interest in percussion instruments in the United Sates and abroad. In response to this need, Martin Cohen, founder and chairman of Latin Percussion, decided to send a group of musicians to perform in a series of educational clinics throughout Europe. "I signed up Johnny Rodriguez, who played bongo with Tito. Johnny got Tito involved. Carlos 'Patato' Valdés played conga and pianist Eddie Martinez and bassists Sal Cuevas rounded out the quintet. I was thrilled to have Tito involved in the project," stated Cohen. "He made a major impact on me dating from the time I first saw him perform at The Palladium back in the early 1960s. It wasn't until a few years later that I got to know Tito on a personal level. By this time Latin Percussion was in its infancy and I used a set of Tito's Cuban-made timbales and timbalitos as a basis for the prototype of my ribbed shell design. I based the 'Trust the Leader' promotional campaign on Tito's supreme skills as a bandleader and musician."


The quintet, which Cohen named the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, gave a series of successful concerts and seminars throughout Europe. Cohen spent several months on tour with the group. "It was a unique privilege for me," he recalls, "hanging out with one of my heroes. Through all the traveling and things that can go wrong on the road, Tito remained a constant source of inspiration. His sharp wit always kept me smiling. Probably the most memorable occasion for me was when Tito performed with Toots Thielman, the jazz harmonica player, in a concert commemorating the 1000th anniversary of the city of Brussels. It was electrifying!"


In 1979, the ensemble toured Japan, where the reception for Tito was tremendous."It was here, I believe," states Martin Cohen, "that Tito realized he had achieved worldwide popularity."


Tito would win his first Grammy award in 1979 for the album Homenaje a Benny. Later that year, members of the Latin music community and Latin NY magazine honored him with a testimonial roast. At the end of the affair, Joe Conzo remembers, "we had received all of these checks given by the patrons of the roast and we didn't know what to do with them. We decided to set up a scholarship fund in Tito's name to help support the education of musically gifted youth. Tito always said that "the scholarship fund was a dream of mine for a long time. In the Latin community we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don't get an opportunity to develop their talent because of lack of money. Long after I'm gone, the fund will be helping kids."


On the recommendation of the late vibraphonist Cal Tjader, Tito signed with Concord Records. Expanding on the concept of the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, he added a small horn section and named the band Tito Puente Latin Jazz Ensemble. The unit recorded a slew of successful albums, garnering two more Grammies for Mambo Diablo and On Broadway.


Tito's artistic activities were not confined to the studio and the stage. He also appeared in several films, most notably, Woody Allen's Radio Days and Armed and Extremely Dangerous with John Candy.


In 1989 Tito garnered top percussionist honors in Downbeat's Reader Poll. In the same year, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored Tito with its Eubie Award, a lifetime achievement award given in recognition of his more than fifty years of contributions to the recording industry. And, few artists have contributed more than Puente. He recorded with virtually every major Latin and jazz artist of his day. In addition, he worked with a wide variety of pop artists ranging from Sugar Hill Gang to Tower of Power. Tito published more than four hundred compositions over his lengthy career.


In 1990, even at 67, Puente was showing no signs of slowing down. He still maintained a grueling international touring schedule. Tito was being approached by singers Frank Sinatra, Rosemarie Clooney, and Abbe Lane to record individual projects. His music was featured in Warren Beatty's film Dick Tracy. Despite all that recognition and acclaim, Tito regularly returned to his roots, performing in clubs in and around New York City. "My music has always been for dancers," he stated. "They are the ones who have supported me over the years. A wise king never neglects his subjects."


Through the end of the millennium Maestro Puente continued building on the bridges he had made. In his cameo appearance in the Mambo Kings movie in 1991 and his constant touring, Tito continued to be a worldwide phenomenon. In this same year, he would also record his 100th solo album. He appeared on the Bill Cosby Show, Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and later on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He was featured on Sesame Street, Nickelodeon and The Simpsons. His popularity rose to the point that even young children from the farthest reaches of the globe recognized this musical titan. He continued to record yearly, reaching the incredible mark of 118 albums by a solo artist, a feat that had long surpassed Frank Sinatra and is in the Guiness Book of World Records.

Living Legend

Numerous honorary doctorates were bestowed on this son of "El Barrio," and it was great to see Tito revel in the recognition he so richly deserved. This also included his image being used on a limited edition postage stamp in 1995 and in 1997 receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton. By the year 2000, Maestro Puente had received his fifth Grammy for Martin Cohen and Tito Puente Mambo Birdland, a retrospective of the Mambo Kings' most exciting material from the 1950s recorded in front of a live New York audience. In 1998, the prestigious Berklee College of Music gave Tito a tribute concert, which yours truly conducted; featuring a big band made up of a rainbow coalition of talented students. If this were not enough, in April 2000 Tito was officially given the title "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress.


On June 6, 2000 Ernest Anthony Puente, the son of a Puerto Rican foreman and a Puerto Rican homemaker, was buried in St. Anthony's cemetery, near his home in upstate New York. In a moving eulogy Felipe Luciano mentioned that Tito represented excellence. He posed the question. Would we be ready to make the same kind of commitment to excellence in our profession, in our lives, just as Tito did?


Tito Puente, the child of Puerto Rican parents, born in "El Barrio," New York City, was a true American icon that experienced everything this country had to offer and rose to become a king, Maferefún or hijo de Obatalá.


© Latin Percussion. Published by permission on 1 October 2014 [Originally published in Voices 26 June 2011].