(1923 – 2000)
El Rey de Mambo Caliente
by Mark Allred
As summer rolls around the Puget Sound, the longer days and hotter temperatures can conjure memories of palm trees blocking stunning sunsets. A yearning can be felt for sand, swimsuits, swimming in the ocean, and warm Southern Hemisphere nights with a tropical breeze blowing gently where true summer heat exists. Panama hats are worn with off-white linen suits. Those Gringos wearing sandals might even be tempted to take off their socks. Our taste palates turn toward jalapeños, mangos, and grilled spicy chicken. What better accompaniment to summer than the Latin beats of the Mambo King himself? No matter where you are.
Born Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. on April 20,1923 in New York City, Tito Puente is internationally recognized for his enormous contributions to Latin music as a bandleader, composer, arranger, percussionist, and mentor. Popularly known as the “El Rey del Timbal” and the “King of Mambo”, he recorded 120 albums, composed over 450 songs, and has over 2,000 arrangements to his credit. He appeared at over 10,000 live performances around the world, and won five Grammy awards. Although he played and recorded jazz and salsa, Puente is one of only a handful of musicians who deserve the title “legendary”, primarily for his universally recognized mastery of the mambo. Puente has been credited with introducing the timbales and the vibraphone to Afro-Cuban music, but was also know to play the trap drums, the conga drums, the claves, the piano, and occasionally, the saxophone and the clarinet.
While Puente was perhaps best known for his all-time best-selling 1958 mambo album Dance Mania, his eclectic sound has continued to transcend cultural and generational boundaries. As a testament to his popularity with a younger audience, Puente has recorded with rocker Carlos Santana and has performed regularly at college concerts throughout the country. He has also appeared in several films, received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and performed on television’s The David Letterman Show.
Puente’s artistic talents first developed in the field of dance but after hearing a solo by Cuban pianist, Anselmo Sacassas, Tito began his musical education on the piano. Occasional tutors were Victoria Hernandez, sister of Puerto Rico’s legendary composer Rafael Hernandez, and Luis Varona of the Machito orchestra who later would play with Tito’s orchestra. He also studied drums and idolized Gene Krupa. He later mastered the alto sax and vibraphone. Puente then went on to work with Cuban pianist and bandleader Jose Curbelo beginning in December of 1939. Curbelo became his first music mentor and perhaps more importantly taught Puente the fundamentals of the music business. He then played with Johnny Rodriguez, Anselmo Sacassas, the musician that had inspired his piano study, and the great Noro Morales.
Puente was drafted into the Navy and served in World War II. He played saxophone and drums with the band on the ship. He learned how to arrange music from a pilot that played sax. After his discharge from the Navy in 1945 with a presidential commendation, he returned to New York to work again with Brazilian band leader Fernando Alvarez, featuring Charlie Palmieri (brother to Eddie Palmieri) on piano, and Pupi Campo. He then began study at the Julliard School of Music. There he studied orchestration, conducting and music theory. In 1949, Puente formed his own band the Piccadilly Boys.
In the 1950s during the Palladium era, Tito Puente’s band was one of the top three orchestras in New York City, along with the orchestras of Machito and Tito Rodriguez. Mambo and cha-cha-cha were the rage in the big city at the time. The music with its high energy became a catalyst for bringing together people of all races and ethnicities. Puente rode the wave of the mambo craze and went on to eventually become a household name. Puente had strong leanings toward jazz which he “Latinized”. Puente later led two groups; an orchestra and a jazz ensemble. He recorded both Latin jazz and straight-ahead Latin music with many different artists as well as his own bands.
In 1970, Carlos Santana re-popularized Tito Puente’s compositions with his rendition of Oye Como Va and in 1972, Para Los Rumberos. In 1979, he won the first of five Grammy Awards. Puente was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990 and was featured in the 1992 film “The Mambo Kings”. He was also given the National Medal of Arts by then President Clinton in 1997 and was honored by the Library of Congress in April of 2000 as a Living Legend. The New York Times chose Puente’s Dancemania as one of the 25 most influential albums of the 20th century. Other awards and honorary degrees are too numerous to list.
Shortly before his death, he completed work on an album with Eddie Palmieri released 18 July 2000. The legend died at age 77 on 31 May 2000 in New York City the same city where he was born to Puerto Rican parents.
You can find one of the most excellent Tito Puente CDs, El Rey, here at the library. Highlights include two tasty compositions by Coltrane. That alone is worth the price of admission. Oh, but all you need is a library card. To go with that you may want to try the fantastic Chile Con Soul by percussionist Poncho Sanchez, compliments of the Manieri Jazz Collection. Tito appears on this CD as well and it serves as a seamless transition. Another good choice would be the release Esperanza by Esperanza Spalding the accomplished upright bass player who’s voice brings to mind Flora Purim in the style of Astrud Gilberto. After that, while sipping on fruit oriented umbrella drinks you might want to listen to Argentine pianist, composer, and bandleader, Guillermo Klein Y Los Gauchos, yet another find in the Manieri Jazz Collection that goes together with the music of Tito Puente like chips and guacamole. While you are there at the library pick up the Buena Vista Social ClubCD. Ry Cooder worked with this band consisting of “the” premier Cuban musicians. The documentary movie of the whole experience was cleverly filmed almost entirely in Cuba and released in 1999. The Library has the DVD available.
Other related releases not found at the library at this time but highly recommended for your personal collection are: Sheila E., Pete Escovedo, and Tito Puente, combining their talents in Latina Familia which showcases the true “first” family of percussion, Ya Yo Me Curé by Jerry Gonzalez a phenomenal five star recording, and Mambo Sinuendo by Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán.
Bibliography and resources:
The Latin Jazz Corner – a Blog for Latin Jazz Fans and Musician
Tito Puente while he was recording his guest timbale solo used in the song “El Sabroso Son” by Orquesta La Palabra. The recording was made at the age of 76 — less than a year before he died — but you can see what quick hands and great energy he had, even at that age!
How to Latin salsa dance : free salsa dance videos at addicted 2 salsa
QUE RICO EL MAMBO was the mambo that opened the doors to Perez Prado around the world. It took the whole world by storm. The hit parade charts went through the roof.
Tito Puente – “Ran Kan Kan” (last recorded live performance) 1993 JVC Newport Jazz Festival Oye Como Va (Live)
Carlos Santana shows how to play Oye Como Va and gives credit for the tune and explains how he adapted the tune for his band. “Oye Como Va” is a song written and composed by Latin jazz and mambo musician Tito Puente in 1963.
photo from www.rainbowguitars.com