Latin Sound Is Alive and Well : Music: 'The Mambo Kings' propels Tito Puente into prominence. He will appear at the U.S. Grant tonight.

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Tito Puente wasn't giving interviews. Too busy, according to his publicity agency. Burned out on writers, the agency rep claimed, after scores of interviews in conjunction with the new movie, "The Mambo Kings," which uses three of Puente's songs and includes a performance by him.

But Puente, relegated to reclusive, hard-to-reach star status by his PR people, turned out to be more amenable than they had painted him. A last-minute call from a San Diego promoter found Puente was ready and eager to talk about Latin music from the Los Angeles hotel where he was on layover earlier this week during a series of California concerts.

And Puente, the undisputed king of timbales who plays the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego with his nine-piece band tonight, even picked up the phone himself. Asked about the smoke screen put up by his agency, Puente shrugged it off and proceeded to give a friendly, generous interview.

But the PR agency was right about one thing. "The Mambo Kings" has helped propel the superb percussionist to an all-time popularity high. But he still doesn't think Latin music gets its due. The movie is a lively account of two musical brothers from Cuba trying to make it in New York City during the 1950s.

"I'm just happy to be involved with the movie," said Puente, 68, a logical choice to appear in the movie, since he reigned over the mambo scene at New York's Palladium club during the 1950s.

Capitalizing on the movie, Puente's new recording, released in March, is titled "Mambo of the Times" and includes two original Puente mambos.

The new wave of public recognition includes a star last August on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--"Right between Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne," he said. He'll also receive an honorary doctorate degree from Hunter College in New York on June 3, and later that month will headline a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Still, he says, Latin music hasn't achieved parity with other musical forms. For instance, Puente has earned three Grammys, the most recent for "Lambada Timbales," a cut from his 1990 release "Goza Mi Timbal." Yet the awards program still doesn't have a Latin jazz category.

"I've lost out on quite a few Grammys because of that," Puente said. "They have 'tropical' or something. But they don't have Latin jazz, and that's what they need.

"Am I mad? Not at all, except they don't know what the hell they're doing there, and that can get me upset. I've lost out because they put me in the jazz category. I don't want to compete with Dizzy (Gillespie) and Wynton (Marsalis)."

A voice for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in Burbank, which organizes the Grammys, said there are three categories covering Latin music: tropical, Latin pop and Mexican-American. Puente's Grammys have come under the Tropical heading. The spokesperson added that there are not enough Latin jazz entries to justify a separate category.

Puente and his longtime right-hand man, Joe Conzo, are insulted when they see the attention the awards program lavishes upon a relatively new musical idiom such as rap. When Puente received his last Grammy, he wasn't even asked to appear on the nationally televised awards program.

"Our music has been in this country longer than most idioms around," Conzo said. "Rap just came the other day. The most pure form of American music besides jazz is country and Western, and even that gets the short end of stick."

But, even if the Grammys don't do full justice to Latin music, the recording industry is awakening to the huge potential for Puente and other Latin artists.

Puente is among the top musicians on Concord Picante, the Latin jazz subsidiary started by the Concord Jazz label 12 years ago. Since then, Concord Picante has built a catalogue of more than 50 titles by Puente, Poncho Sanchez, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto and other Latin legends.

Since signing on with Concord Picante in 1982, Puente has released nine albums, including his three Grammy winners, with his 10th Concord recording due later this year.

Concord President Carl Jefferson wouldn't give sales figures for Concord Picante, but he acknowledged that the division represents a "significant" portion of Concord's total business.

Puente's popularity runs in cycles, following popular interest in Latin music.

The first peak came during the national mambo craze of the 1950s. Puente's 1957 album, "Dance Mania," remains the bestseller among his more than 100 releases. It has sold more than 500,000 copies to date.

A second big burst of attention came during the late 1960s, when the rock group Santana had a hit with Puente's "Oye Como Va."

Shortly after "Oye Como Va's" original release, though, the hope that the Santana exposure might launch Puente and other Latin artists in a big way faded, to reawaken with Latin-ized popular music during the 1980s and "The Mambo Kings" during the 1990s.

"In the 1970s, things were at a standstill," Puente said. "Our audience didn't get bigger, but we never lost any, either. We had a lot of influence in rock and disco, with Latin percussion, but we were never given recognition."

Puente formed his first band in 1949 and was involved with several key Big Bands during the 1950s (Kenton's, Basie's and others) as a composer and occasionally as a guest player.

All along, Puente has pioneered a happy marriage between Latin music and American jazz, Latin-izing jazz standards, writing his own jazzy Latin tunes. He hates it when his music gets called "salsa." He says what he plays is mambo, or Latin jazz, a term Concord's Jefferson says he coined when he named Puente's group the Latin Jazz Ensemble to distinguish it from salsa groups and Latin Big Bands.

As a result of the movie, Puente's busy career--he spends more than 300 days a year on the road, away from his home in Upstate New York--is carrying him to some places he never thought he would see, spreading Latin music across the country.

"I'm playing cities I've never played before because of the movie: Cheyenne, Wyo.; Winnepeg, Canada. We're going to Idaho, Iowa, North Dakota. The movie has hit places we don't usually appear," he marveled.

His broadening Latin jazz kingdom is a hard-earned reward for a long-reigning King.

Tito Puente and his group will play the U.S. Grant downtown at 8 and 10 p.m. tonight. Tickets are $20, available through TicketMaster. His niece Millie Puente, a vocalist and percussionist who was to perform with him, will not make the date because of illness.

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