By virtue of his warm, flamboyant stage manner, longevity, constant touring, and appearances in the mass media, Tito Puente was probably the most beloved symbol of Latin jazz.
Famed jazz composer and bandleader Tito Puente was born Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Puente grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem and became a professional musician at age 13 when he began working in Ramon Olivero’s big band as a drummer. He learned to play a number of instruments as a child, beginning with the piano and then moving to percussion, saxophone, vibraphone and timbales, a type of drum that would later become his signature. Puente originally intended to become a dancer but those ambitions were scotched by a torn ankle tendon suffered in an accident.
He played with and absorbed the influence of Machito, who was successfully fusing Latin rhythms with progressive jazz. After an apprenticeship in the historic Machito Orchestra, Puente was drafted into the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. Returning to New York in 1945, Puente used money from the G.I. Bill to study at New York City’s famed Juilliard School. In 1948, he formed a band that would later become known as the Tito Puente Orchestra. By the 1950s, the band was attracting large crowds and Puente, subsequently, became known as a Latin music sensation. Puente also helped popularize the cha-cha and he was the only non-Cuban who was invited to a government-sponsored “50 Years of Cuban Music” celebration in Cuba in 1952.
In 1958, Puente released his best-selling album, Dance Mania, and more hit records soon followed, with notable songs including “Babarabatiri,” “Ran Kan Kan” and “Oye Como Va.” Fans enjoyed the way Puente put a big band spin on traditional Latin dances, mixing Latin sounds with jazz and other genres.
Throughout his career, which spanned more than five decades, Puente performed with a number of leading jazz performers, including George Shearing and Woody Herman, as well as with many stars of Latin music. In later years, he performed with many symphony orchestras.
Puente received numerous awards for his work, including five Grammy Awards, the first of which he won in 1979 for the album Homenaje a Beny, a tribute to Benny Moré. (His 1976 album The Legend had been nominated for a Grammy in 1977, and he would receive seven more nominations by the mid-1990s.) Puente went on to garner two more Grammys in the 1980s, for the more traditional Latin jazz albums On Broadway and Mambo Diablo, and picked up a fourth in 1990 for Goza Mi Timbal.
An indefatigable visitor to the recording studios, Puente recorded his 100th album, The Mambo King, in 1991 amid much ceremony and affection (an all-star Latin music concert at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre in March 1992 commemorated the milestone), and he kept adding more titles to the tally throughout the ’90s
In 1999, Puente was awarded an honorary degree at Columbia University. The following year, he received a Latin Grammy Award (best traditional tropical Latin performance)—his fifth Grammy—for Mambo Birdland.
In addition to music, Puente remained dedicated to causes affecting the Latin community throughout his lifetime. In 1979, he created a scholarship fund for Latin percussionists at the Juilliard School.
Tito Puente died on May 31, 2000, at the age of 77, in a New York City hospital where he was awaiting heart surgery. Adored by fans across the globe, several supporters waited in line for days to say goodbye to the popular bandleader. He was survived by wife Margaret Acencio, his partner for 30 years; their two children, Tito Jr., a musician, and Audrey, a newscaster; and a son named Richard, also a musician, from his earlier relationship to Ida Carlini.
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