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Tito Puente, Legendary Latin Jazz Bandleader, Dies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Percussionist and bandleader Tito Puente, a legendary innovative figure in Latin music and jazz for more than six decades, died Wednesday night. He was 77.

Puente was hospitalized for heart trouble last month while on tour in his parents’ native Puerto Rico. Janet Armand, tour manager for Puente’s son Tito Puente Jr., said Thursday that the elder Puente had undergone heart surgery at New York University Medical Center early Wednesday morning, fell into a coma and died there that night.

Arguably one of the most influential Latin and jazz musicians to ever come out of the United States, Puente’s long career was marked by tireless experimentation with music, forging hybrids of big-band jazz sounds and Afro-Caribbean rhythms--sounds that are now largely taken for granted. He is credited with opening the U.S. public’s ears and hearts to new sounds from Puerto Rico and Cuba, mixed with U.S. pop of the time.

“This is such a great loss,” said Bill Marin, former vice president of Puente’s record label, RMM. “He was truly the ambassador of Latin music for the world.”

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Though he was best known for his energetic, charismatic stage performances, during which he twirled and tossed his drumsticks above his timbales, danced, smiled and made faces, Puente also was a master composer and arranger. He has been compared in stature to artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Puente is often referred to as the godfather of salsa, but he was not fond of the term “salsa,” which was coined decades after he had fused big-band jazz sounds with Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

In a performance in Los Angeles last year, Puente joked about the “Salsa King” title, saying that the only salsa he knew of was food. Puente preferred to call his music Latin, jazz or Latin jazz.

5 Grammys Among Numerous Honors

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Known in Spanish by the nickname “El Rey” (“the King”), Puente recorded at least 119 albums between 1949 and this year, the last of which, a joint project with pianist Eddie Palmieri, will be released this summer. Puente won his fifth Grammy in February for best traditional tropical Latin performance for “Mambo Birdland.”

Puente garnered dozens of honors and awards during his lifetime, among them the Smithsonian National Museum’s Medal of Honor and Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Medal of Arts, the Eubie Blake Award from the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, the ASCAP Founders Award, the Hispanic Heritage Committee Award for the Arts, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In 1997, President Clinton awarded Puente the National Medal of Arts, two years after Berklee College of Music in Boston awarded him an honorary doctoral degree in music.

Berklee associate professor Mili Bermejo, who teaches a Latin music survey course, said Puente was not only a great artist but a dedicated teacher.

“The human aspect of Tito Puente is, to me, the most compelling,” said Bermejo. “As a teacher, he was just amazingly generous. He was also generous on stage. As a teacher, he would gather around him all sorts of young people; as a bandleader he just embraced his people, and taught them.”

Among the young people Puente taught and mentored was singer Marc Anthony, who said in a statement that he was devastated by the passing of “my friend, mentor, godfather and inspiration.”

Puente was born Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr. at Harlem Hospital in New York on April 23, 1923. His father was a foreman in a razor-blade factory. His nickname came from his mother, who called him Ernestito, which eventually was shortened to Tito.

Puente began taking piano lessons at age 7, and began to study drums and percussion at 10. His professional music career began in 1936, when he was hired as the drummer for the Noro Morales Orchestra.

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In 1941, Puente was hired to play with the band led by Frank “Machito” Grillo, one of the first to fuse big-band sounds with Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

Grillo persuaded the charismatic Puente to focus his energies on the timbales, a pair of single-headed drums on stands, played by sticks. Puente was a consummate showman, and soon Grillo moved him to the front line of the band, where he enthralled audiences with his style and humor.

Puente was drafted and served three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, he returned to New York and took courses at the Juilliard School while playing in the bands of Jose Curbelo and Fernando Alvarez.

In the late 1940s, Puente was working as arranger and timbales player with the Pupi Campo Orchestra, and his reputation as a stellar arranger spread throughout New York, prompting even his archrival, Tito Rodriguez, to commission works from him. It didn’t take long for Puente to realize that he had what it took to be a bandleader.

Around 1948, Puente put together a group of musicians and recorded a few songs for Gabriel Oller’s SMC (Spanish Music Center) label in New York. While the group was originally called the Picadilly Boys--named after the Puerto Rican meat hash dish picadillo--Puente soon named the group Tito Puente and His Orchestra.

In 1949, Puente and his group made their first recordings on Tico Records. A single from the session, called “Abaniquito,” became the nation’s first crossover mambo hit, and a superstar was born.

‘Our World Is in Mourning’

Puente routinely sold out the famed Palladium ballroom in New York, and along with Rodriguez and Grillo was one of the undisputed kings of the early 1950s “mambo craze.”

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By the early 1960s, the Latin rhythm of choice was called pachanga, and Puente was on top of that too, releasing an album with Cuban singer Rolando La Serie.

In 1962, Puente released “El Rey Bravo,” a descarga, or jam session album that featured his classic “Oye Como Va,” a song that found a huge audience when the rock group Santana recorded it in 1970. Puente would joke for years after that he got large royalty checks every time Santana’s version was played.

Carlos Santana released a statement Thursday saying that he felt honored to have known Puente, and credited Puente with opening doors for him and other artists.

In the mid-1960s, Puente traveled to Los Angeles, recording and performing with the top Latin and jazz talent on the West Coast, including Ray Barretto, Woody Herman, Mongo Santamaria, George Shearing, Lionel Hampton and vocalist Celia Cruz, who remained one of his closest friends.

Cruz told Associated Press on Thursday that Puente was “more than family” to her, adding that “our world is in mourning because one of the souls of Latin music has died.”

In the 1970s Puente recorded with New York’s leading Latin jazz artists of the time, including Ruben Blades, Eddie Palmieri and many artists from the famed Fania label, which was credited with engineering the New York salsa sound, including Hector Lavoe and Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez.

In the 1980s, Puente focused on jazz, recording on the Concord Picante label. Three albums released during this period garnered Grammy awards. By the early 1990s, however, many critics began complaining that Puente seemed to be recycling his old work.

In 1991, Puente went back to the big band sound, recording with salsa luminaries Tito Nieves, Oscar D’Leon, Tony Vega, Jose Alberto and Domingo Quinones.

Among Puente’s many friends and fans was actor and jazz aficionado Bill Cosby, who released a statement saying, “Tito’s life was like one of his finest solos. He got all he could out of it.”

Puente toured constantly during his entire career. Though friends and family had urged Puente to take it easy in recent years, he flatly refused, playing up to five nights a week until last month. His son said Puente told him that he wanted to die on stage.

But Armand said Puente was looking forward to recovering from his recent heart problems in time to perform with his son at the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York next week.

That Puente remained optimistic and focused on performing to the end is not surprising. In an interview with The Times in 1994, Puente said, “I have a crazy dream: to stay alive in the year 2000 and have the first Latin orchestra to play on the moon.”

A wake is scheduled for Sunday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York. Puente is survived by his wife, Magie, two sons and a daughter.

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* AN APPRECIATION

Tito Puente aimed to be a consummate entertainer, but he was also much more. F2


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