Tito Puente (1923-2000), “El Rey de los Timbales” or “The King of Latin Music,” was a New York Puerto Rican whose career as a timbales player, songwriter and record producer spanned the formative eras of both Latin jazz and salsa. Puente, though of Puerto Rican descent, was known for sounding very Cuban.
Take It to the Bridge
Puente means “bridge” in Spanish and he really was a bridge between jazz and Latin music, and between Cuban and Puerto Rican music. He was a dancer before he became a musician. Tito was very entertaining because he danced the timbales, and the music he made was for dancers. He brought a lot of people together.
The Latin Gene Krupa
Tito’s musical idol was jazz drummer Gene Krupa who is remembered for his work with swing legend Benny Goodman and for developing the modern drum kit. Tito loved the way Krupa seemed to go completely insane during a drum solo. Krupa’s reckless abandon became part of Tito’s own stage persona.
It fits the music actually because many Latin music traditions come from West African and Central African religious ceremonies where being overcome with religious ecstasy is part of the tradition.
In the same way that Gene Krupa brought the drums up front to center stage, Puente’s showmanship brought the timbales to the front of the band.
When Machito and his Afro-Cubans lost their drummer to the draft, Puente joined the group. This may be one of the reasons why Tito’s music sounds a bit more Cuban than Puerto Rican.
Julliard School of Music
Puente served in the Navy in World War II. After the war he studied at the Juilliard School of Music, one of the best music schools in the United States. Until his death El Rey sponsored a Juilliard scholarship that brought up some fine Latin musicians who are on the scene today, especially Carlos Henriquez who is a fine leader himself and also holds the bass chair of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Wynton is Julliard. There is a direct line here.
Palladium Ballroom Mambo
The Palladium Ballroom (1946-1966) in Midtown, Manhattan launched the Mambo Craze of 1948 that popularized social dancing to Latin music across the United States throughout the 1950s. The Palladium “Big Three” dance bands were Tito Puente, Machito and his Afro-Cubans, and Tito Rodriguez.
Palladium style dancing is wild. Dancers brag about Palladium style, but people don’t really dance like that any more. You don’t even see people dancing like that in the Caribbean. American mambo was a New York thing of that time.
One of the big takeaways of the Palladium was that it was the first club in the United States where all people could mingle freely regardless of race, religion or social class. All that mattered was how well you could dance.
In 1992, Puente did a cameo in “The Mambo Kings” movie with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas. The film was loosely based on the Palladium Ballroom.
Dance Mania and Oye cómo va
“Dance Mania” (1958) is Puente’s best known album.
His best known song is “Oye Como Va.” He recorded it on his 1962 album “El Rey Bravo” (the Mad King). Mexican-American rocker Santana covered it and made the song even more popular. In a way that’s perfect because the Mexican port of Veracruz is a Caribbean city so Caribbean traditions are Mexican too.
La Lupe and Celia Cruz
In the 1960s Puente worked with the now legendary Cuban bolero singer La Lupe. He also worked with Celia Cruz who took over the New York scene on her way to becoming “The Queen of Salsa” in the 1970s.
Cruz is more a rumba singer than a salsa singer, but like the dancing at the Palladium, Tito Puente’s Latin music is a great mix of rhythms from West and Central Africa; French Haiti; Cuban son, rumba and bolero; Puerto Rican bomba and plena, and New York jazz.
Wynton Marsalis will tell you that jazz comes from New Orleans, and it does, but it arrived there from the Caribbean. In New York artists like Tito Puente, Latin music comes full circle, rising from the Caribbean over land through Congo Square, New Orleans; Kansas City, Missouri, Chicago Illinois; and by sea and air from the Caribbean direct to New York City to the world. “Oye cómo va?”
Tito Puente in New York City
Puente grew up at 53 East 110th St in East Harlem. He used to sneak out of the house to go listen to jazz in Harlem on the other side of Fifth Avenue. One of his best friends Joe Conzo Sr. wrote a book about their experiences together called “Mambo Diablo” (Mambo Devil).
In 2000, just months before he died of a heart attack, Puente was one of the artists recorded in Fernando Trueba’s famous movie “Calle 54.” The movie was titled because 54th Street (Calle 54) was the home of a Sony recording studio used in the film.
Tito’s segment opens with him at the restaurant he used to own on City Island, The Bronx. He starts by calling out the Latin and jazz legends in the painting on the wall. That is the mark of the true king. Regardless of his own power and gifts, he gives credit to those who came before and who worked with him. Tito Puente really is The King of Latin Music because he gave so much, to so many, for so long.
East 110th Street is now called “Tito Puente Way” in honor of El Rey de los Timbales.
Tito Puente Way ends at Duke Ellington Circle on Fifth Avenue, the dividing line between Black Harlem and Latin East Harlem, El Barrio. In the 1940s, it was New York’s center of Latin music and home of the Park Palace and Park Plaza Latin nightclubs. There was also a Boys Club there where kids including Tito started their first bands.
Black or Latin, Latin or Black, like Duke Ellington, America’s most prolific composer famously said, “It’s all music.”