Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Puente, Tito (Ernesto Antonio Jr.)

Known affectionately as the "Mambo King" and "El Rey," timbalero Tito Puente was an instrumental figure in popularizing Afro-Cuban music. A classically-trained drummer with excellent timing and even stronger chops, Puente was one of the first to successfully combine jazz harmony and song structures with Latin rhythms, and he helped spark the mambo craze of the 1950s with a span of hits which included "Ran Kan Kan" and "Picadillo."

Puente's music, particularly later in his career, was dense in jazz harmony and melodies. His orchestral set-up was similar to a jazz big band with full brass and reed sections and a rhythm section of bass and piano. Puente's playing was full of flavor, combining passion and electricity every time he touched his instrument.

Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr., was born in New York City on April 20th, 1923. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ernesto grew up in East Spanish Harlem, also known as "El Barrio." His parents had moved to New York City from Puerto Rico like so many others following the Spanish-American War of 1898, which made Puerto Rico a U.S. possession.

Puente, like many other children in his neighborhood, soaked up the sounds of the Latin music along with jazz. His first professional experience in the music came as a dancer. Along with his sister Anna, they joined the "Stars of the Future," a local arts organization in Spanish Harlem.

As a teenager, Puente studied the piano with Victoria Hernandez and Luis Varona, a member of the Machito Orchestra and later member of Puente's band. He later went on to study the drums, alto saxophone and the clarinet. Puente was heavily influenced by the drumming style of Benny Goodman's popular drummer Gene Krupa. In December of 1939, Puente joined the band of Cuban pianist Jose Curbelo and also worked with Johnny Rodriguez and Cuban pianist Anselmo Sacassas.

In June of 1942, Puente joined the Machito Orchestra. This group, led by Mario "Machito" Grillo, is considered by many to be the first Latin jazz band, combining Afro-Cuban percussion with the big-band sound of jazz melodies and harmonies. Puente played with Machito before briefly joining the Jack Cole dancers as a percussionist, then rejoined Machito. Puente can be heard on recordings from a 1942 Decca date which featured the Machito band, led by musical director/trumpeter Mario Bauzá, playing "Oye negra," "El Botellero" and "Eco."

These recordings capture Puente's early drumming style, in which he combines the cascara patterns of the timbales with bass drum and cymbals, to "kick" the arrangement. Bauzá had served as the musical director for drummer Chick Webb from 1933 to 1938, and is thought to have adapted this arranging style, which he learned in Webb's group, to Machito's band, where he taught it to Puente.

These early musical experiences were cut short when Puente was drafted in World War II in late 1942 and served for three years in the United States Navy. Puente served in nine battles and was awarded the Presidential Commendation for his active duty efforts. After the war, Puente used the G.I. Bill to pay for college tuition. He enrolled at the Julliard School of Music where he studied composition, theory and orchestration from 1945 to 1947.

During this time, Puente also worked with Frank Marti's Copacabana group and in a Brazilian band led by Fernando Alvarez. In September of 1947, Puente was hired as the drummer and musical director for Pupi Campo's band, where he met trumpeter Jimmy Frisaura, who later served as a conductor for Puente's bands for over forty years.

One of the most important developments in Latin music in the United States occurred in the late 1940s on the second floor of West 53rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. The Palladium Ballroom began as a whites-only ballroom which had only allowed Latin bands to play during the matinee. When the club faced financial problems, it began to book Latin bands to play the night bills. As a result, mainstream audiences were exposed to Latin rhythms, sparking the the mambo craze of the 1950s.

Puente left Campo's band and took a good chunk of it with him to form his own group. At the Palladium, along with the bands led by Tito Rodriguez and Machito, Puente electrified dancers by combining not only Latin rhythms and big band sounds, but also the new harmonies of bebop, forming a hybrid sometimes described as Cu-bop.

Between 1952 and 1955, Puente recorded for Tico Records, the nation's top label for Latin music. He released a string of experimental albums including 1955's Puente In Percussion, an album which featured only percussion and bass. Puente signed with RCA Records in 1956, and began to experiment more heavily with jazz. He released two commercially successful albums in 1956: Cuban Carnival and Puente Goes Jazz. In 1957, Puente was honored by the Cuban government for his contributions to Cuban music, being the only non-Cuban to be honored in the ceremony.

1957's Dance Mania was a commercial and artistic blockbuster, a hybrid recording that featured Puente along with conguero Ray Barretto, pianist Ray Coen and sonero vocalist Santos Colón. The album featured songs written in several different Latin including mambo, cha-cha-cha, bolero and guaguancó. It featured one of Puente's most enduring songs "El Cayuco." As of the early 1990s, the album had sold over a half a million copies, making it the most successful album of Puente's career.

In 1961, Puente left RCA and recorded one album for producer Gene Norman's GNP label. The album Puente in Hollywood was reportedly one of Puente's personal favorites, but he left after this recording he returned to RCA Records. Puente prospered throughout the rest of the 1960s, touring Japan and the rest of the world with other Latin artists. He also recorded albums with the Cuban vocalist Ceila Cruz and La Lupe, who became the featured vocalist of Puente's band from 1965 to 1969.

During the late 1960s the climate of Latin music in the United States began to change. The Palladium shut its doors in 1966, and dancers began to favor a new hybrid of Latin music called Boogaloo, which set aside the complex harmonies and arrangements of Bauzá and Puente to make way for funky grooves. Artists like Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria spearheaded this new idiom, which mixed rock and rhythm 'n' blues with Latin percussion and rhythms.

In the 1970s, salsa began to emerge in New York City as well, as younger Latin artists began to combine elements from the Palladium-era big bands with the electric instrumentation of rock 'n' roll. Puente was never happy with the term, and was to a certain extent sidelined from salsa's rise in popularity. At the same time, this period was also one of prosperity for Puente thanks to Mexican-born guitarist Carlos Santana. In 1970, Santana released the album Abraxas, which featured a cover version of Puente's 1963 cha-cha-cha "Oye Como Va." The song reached number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. More importantly, it introduced Puente's music to a new generation.

The Puente family also welcomed two children as well in the early 1970s. Tito's daughter Audrey, now a well-known television meteorologist in New York City, was born in 1970 and Tito Puente Jr., a musician who plays his father's music, was born in 1971.

Puente and Carlos Santana finally performed together in 1977 at the Roseland Ballroom. Also during this time, Latin music aficionado Martin Cohen's LP (Latin Percussion) company began to produce timbales based on Puente's Cuban-produced design. The company put together a group of leading Latin musicians that toured the world and gave lectures and clinics on Latin music.

In 1979, Puente won his first Grammy Award for his 1978 album Homenaje a Beny, a tribute album dedicated to Cuban singer Beny Moré. The 1980s proved to be one of Puente's most active decades as a musician. He signed with Concord Records in on the recommendation of vibraphonist Cal Tjader, who passed away on tour in the Phillipines not long afterwards. Puente released his first album for Concord, On Broadway, in 1982 and he won a second Grammy Award for his efforts.

In 1985, Puente released his strongest contemporary contribution to Latin jazz with Mambo Diablo. An explosive record with rivong horn backdrops, Puente strengths as a performer shine on the vibraphone. On "Mambo Diablo," Puente states the melody over a solid montuno figure played by pianist George Shearing and delivers a spot-on solo, complete with bounce and rhythmic variations. Other songs of note from Mambo Diablo include "Pick Yourself Up" and "No Pienses Asi."

Puente continued to record and tour at a relentless pace. He clocked in some twenty to thirty dates a month on average during this time. In 1992, Puente assembled an all-star ensemble featuring trumpeter Claudio Roditi, Cuban saxophonist Paqutio D'Rivera and percussionist Mongo Santamaria for some dates at New York's Village Gate. The ensuing shows resulted in the live recording Tito Puente's Golden Jazz Latin All-Stars. Songs of note from the album include "New Arrival."

By this time in his life, Puente had become an iconic figure of Latin music. In August of 1990, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and also recorded an album with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie called Rhythmstick that same year. In 1992, Puente served as the musical director and also starred in the Universal Pictures movie The Mambo Kings, starring Armand Assante. Around this time, Puente recorded his 100th album entitledThe Mambo King.

In the last years of his life, Puente continued to record and perform, and received dozens of awards from colleges and trade associations. He recorded with this son Tito Puente Jr., and also helped oversee several retrospective box-sets by RMM Records commemorating his fifty years in the music industry. Sadly, while on tour in Puerto Rico in 2000, Puente suffered a heart attack. He was able to return to New York City to have surgery but unfortunately he never recovered. "El Rey" died on May 31st, 2000, several months after particpating in director Fernando Trueba's groundbreaking documentary on Laitn jazz, Calle 54.

Tito Puente's legacy can be measured in many ways. He popularized the use of the timbales, and brought Afro-Cuban rhythms into the mainstream of popular culture. Often overlooked, yet no less important, is his role in the Machito Orchestra in the early 1940s, the original kitchen from which subsequent hybrids of jazz and Latin music have come.

Select Discography As Tito Puente

Puente in Percussion (Tico, 1955)

Cuban Carnival (RCA, 1956)

Puente Goes Jazz (RCA, 1956)

Night Beat (RCA, 1957)

Top Percussion (RCA, 1957)

Dance Mania (RCA, 1958)

Puente in Hollywood (GRP, 1961)

El Rey Bravo (Tico, 1963)

On Broadway (Concord, 1980)

Mambo Diablo (Concord, 1985)

The Mambo King (Concord/RMM, 1991)

Tito Puente's Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars (Sony, 1992) Contributor: Jared Pauley