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Master timbalero, bandleader, composer, arranger
20 April 1923 - 31 May 2000

tito puente

Tito Puente, the legendary master Latin percussionist, composer, arranger and conductor died on the night of Wednesday the 31st of May at a hospital in New York after complications during heart surgery. He was 77.

Puente was undoubtedly one of the best known and most respected exponent of Latin American styles and in particular those from Cuban and Puerto Rican ancestry. He was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents in 1923, and his early years living in the area known as ‘El Barrio’ in East Harlem were spent learning the piano. Inspired by the big bands of the time (one of his heroes was Gene Krupa) eventually took up the drum kit, and applied the skills developed to playing the Cuban twin drums known as timbales.  He was instrumental in their popularity and development — his LP Tito Puente model timbales are the biggest selling set in the world today — and also by changing the traditional big band set up by bringing the percussion section to the front of the bandstand.

He studied big band arranging and composition with Charlie Spivak while in the US Navy and soon after enrolled at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, studying conducting and orchestration. During the late 1940s and 1950s he spent a great deal of his time playing, writing and arranging for some of the most important musicians in the development of what is now known as latin-jazz. During this period he also recorded what are regarded are some of the finest recordings of the Afro-Latin American genre including Dance Mania, Puente in Percussion, Cuban Carnival and Top Percussion.

In the early 1970s the San Francisco based band Santana introduced a whole new generation (myself included) to congas, timbales and bongos. By the time they recorded their second album Abraxas they also introduce the new generation to Tito Puente's music, recording Oye Como Va (one of their biggest hits) and Para Los Rumberos on their third album. In the 1980s Puente signed with jazz label Concord which created the Concord Picante catalogue to promote latin-jazz, releasing many albums and garnering Grammy's for On Broadway and Mambo Diablo. In 1989, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences honored him with its Eubie Award — a lifetime achievement award given in recognition of his more than fifty years of contributions to the recording industry.  In recent years his artistic activities were not only confined to the studio and the stage, as he also appeared in several films, most notably the successful Mambo Kings.

His only visit to Australia took place in March 1996, where he performed at the Adelaide Arts Festival. I had a chance to meet him as I conducted a brief interview which was later published by Drumscene magazine. I still remember both nights vividly. His big band, which comprised many stellar Latin musicians from the New York scene was first rate. Tito Puente performed outstanding improvisations on timbales, conducted the orchestra, performed lyrically on the vibraphone — yet another of his many talents — danced, recounted stories, played the comic, and basically entertained the packed auditorium on both nights. He was an incredibly charismatic performer with a striking presence. In his career he released more than 100 albums, received ten Grammy nominations, and won his fifth Grammy in February for his Mambo Birdland release. He was and will be forever known affectionately as ‘El Rey’ — The King. May he rest in peace.

with the 'king of latin music' tito puente
At the Adelaide Arts Festival in 1996. Image by Peter Grech.

© Alex Pertout. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without prior written permission from the author. This article was first published in Drumscene magazine.

© Alex Pertout. All Rights Reserved.