Tito Puente (born 1923) is widely considered to be the godfather of Latin jazz and salsa, devoting more than six decades of his life to performing Latin music and earning a reputation as a masterful percussionist. Noted for merging Latin American rhythms with contemporary jazz and big band music, Puente's prolific output encompasses over 100 albums recorded between 1949 and 1994.
Tito Puente was born in New York City's Spanish Harlem in 1923, where the hybrid of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Puerto Rican music helped create salsa music (the Spanish word for "spice" and "sauce" is salsa). By the time Puente was ten years old, he played with local Latin bands at neighborhood gatherings, society parties, and New York City hotels. Puente first performed as a young boy with a local band called Los Happy Boys, at New York City's Park Place Hotel, and by the age of 13, he was considered a child prodigy by his family, neighbors, and fellow bandmembers. As a teenager, he joined Noro Morales and the Machito Orchestra. Puente was drafted into the Navy in 1942 at the age of 19 to fight in World War II, which entailed a three-year reprieve from music.
In the late 1930s Puente had originally intended to become a professional dancer, but chose to continue performing and composing music after injuring his ankle in a bicycle accident. Puente befriended bandleader Charlie Spivak while in the Navy, and through Spivak, Puente became interested in big band composition. When Puente returned from the Navy after serving in nine battles, he received a Presidential Commendation and completed his formal musical education at the Juilliard School of Music, studying conducting, orchestration, and musical theory under the G.I. bill. He completed his studies in 1947, at the age of 24.
While at Juilliard, and for a year after he completed his studies, Puente played with Fernando Alvarez and his Copacabana Group, as well as Jose Curbelo and Pupi Campo. When Puente was 25 in 1948, he formed his own group—or conjunto—called the Piccadilly Boys, which soon became known as the Tito Puente Orchestra. He recorded his first hit, "Abaniquito, " on the Tico Records label a year later. Later in 1949, he signed with RCA Victor records and recorded the single "Ran Kan Kan."
Puente began churning out hits in the 1950s while riding the crest of mambo's popularity, and recorded dance favorites such as "Barbarabatiri, " "El Rey del Timbai, " " Mambo la Roca, " and "Mambo Gallego." RCA released Cuban Carnival, Puente Goes Jazz, Dance Mania, and Top Percussion, four of Puente's most popular albums in the 1950s, between 1956 and 1960. Puente established himself as the foremost mambo musician of the 1950s, and in the late 1950s, fused Cuban "cha-cha-cha" beats with big band compositions.
In the 1960s Puente began to collaborate more widely with other New York City-based musicians; he played with trombonist Buddy Morrow, Woody Herman, and Cuban musicians Celia Cruz and La Lupe. He remained flexible and open to experimentation by collaborating with others and fusing various musical styles such as mambo, jazz, salsa, and the big band sound of the 1940s. Puente epitomized the Latin-jazz crossover movement in music at the time. In 1963 on Tico Records, Puente released "Oye Como Va, " which was a resounding success and is now considered a classic. Four years later in 1967 Puente performed a program of his compositions at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center.
Puente hosted his own television show called "The World of Tito Puente, " broadcast on Hispanic television in 1968, and he was asked to be the Grand Marshall of New York City's Puerto Rican Day Parade. In 1969 Mayor John Lindsay gave Puente the key to New York City as a gesture of appreciation.
Puente's music was not categorized as salsa until the 1970s, as it contained elements of big band composition and jazz as well. When Puente's classic hit "Oye Como Va" was covered by Carlos Santana in the early 1970s, a new generation was introduced to Puente's music. Santana also covered Puente's "Para Los Rumberos, " which Puente recorded in 1956. Puente and Santana eventually met in 1977 in New York City's Roseland Ballroom.
In 1979 Puente toured Japan with his ensemble and discovered an enthusiastic new audience as well as the fact that he had achieved worldwide popularity. After returning from Japan, the musician and his orchestra played for U.S. President Jimmy Carter as part of the president's Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. Puente was awarded the first of four Grammy Awards in 1979 for A Tribute To Benny More. He also received Grammy awards for On Broadway in 1983, Mambo Diablo in 1985, and Goza Mi Timbal in 1989. In the course of his long career, Puente received eight Grammy Award nominations, more than any other musician in the Latin music field before 1994.
Puente recorded his last big band albums in 1980 and 1981. He toured European cities with the Latin Percussion Jazz Ensemble, and recorded albums with them as well in the 1980s. Puente continued to devote himself to composing, recording, and performing music throughout the 1980s, but his interests broadened at this time.
Puente founded the Tito Puente Scholarship Foundation to benefit musically talented children; the foundation later signed a contract with Allnet Communications to provide scholarships to music students nationwide. He appeared on The Cosby Show, and performed in a commercial for Coca-Cola with Bill Cosby. Puente also made guest appearances in the films Radio Days and Armed and Dangerous. Puente received an honorary doctorate degree from the College at Old Westbury in the 1980s and appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1984.
On August 14, 1990, Puente received a Hollywood Star in Los Angles for posterity. Puente's talent was elevated to an international audience in the mid-1980s, and he spent time in the early 1990s performing for audiences overseas. In 1991 Puente appeared—most appropriately—in the film The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which prompted another new generation's interest in his music.
In 1991, at the age of 68, Puente released his 100th album, titled El Numero Cien, distributed by Sony for RMM Records. Puente released Master Timbalero with his Golden Latin-Jazz Allstars—comprised mainly of other band leaders—in 1994, covering classics such as "The Peanut Vendor" and "Nostalgia in Times Square, " as well as the album In Session with a separate ensemble of musicians called the Latin-Jazz Allstars, is his regular touring group. Puente was awarded ASCAP's most prestigious honor—the Founders Award—in July of 1994. Billboard 's John Lannert wrote, "As Puente stepped up to the microphone, a segment of the audience broke into an impromptu rendition of the Puente anthem 'Oye Como Va."'
Further Reading on Tito Puente
Gerard, Charley, Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music, White Cliffs Media Company, 1989.
Americas, January/February 1993.
Atlanta Constitution, March 28, 1997.
Billboard, July 9, 1994.
Boston Globe, June 17, 1996.
Down Beat, June 1992; November 1993; August 1994.
Harper's Bazaar, June 1993.
Hispanic, May 1992; December 1992.
Musician, July 1994.
Newsweek, November 11, 1991; April 20, 1992.
New Yorker, March 2, 1992.
New York Times, December 19, 1996.
Rolling Stone, December 12, 1991.
Time, June 8, 1992.