Mambo King

After half a century of percussive brilliance, Tito Puente still wants the moon and stars

There's a scene in the 1981 Bill Murray Army comedy Stripes that's always stood out for me. It comes after a depressed Murray admits to his girlfriend that he's once again lost his job and had his car repossessed. In response, she blows up at him for his chronic slacker ways, which include watching Rocky and Bullwinkle all day, driving a cab for a couple of hours and ordering a pizza every night for dinner. Finally, she screams in his face, "And then you play those stupid Tito Puente albums until two in the morning."

Murray's character doesn't argue with most of the complaints, but he does take umbrage with the last issue. Flashing that famous lazy smirk, he responds, "Tito Puente's gonna be dead, and you're gonna say, 'Oh, I've been listening to him for years, and I think he's fabulous.'"

Well, 17 years later, at the age of 75, Puente is still alive and kicking, to the tune of some 200-plus shows a year. But Murray's Stripes prophecy is otherwise on the money, as Puente has spent the past decade acknowledging one belated honor after another for the decades of percussive brilliance that often flew beneath the radar of mainstream America.

Born in New York City to parents who'd recently arrived from Puerto Rico, Puente grew up with the dual influences of American big-band jazz and the rumbas and boleros that ignited his East Harlem neighborhood. Today, he cites the Cuban band Casino de la Playa as his first big inspiration. After developing his drumming skills with a local band called Los Happy Boys, he got the gig of his dreams, replacing the recently drafted drummer for the legendary Latin-jazz group Machito. Even today, Machito is cited by many musicians as the finest Latin-jazz band of all time. Puente still recalls that the members of Machito were mentors for the fledgling percussionist, and it's likely no coincidence that he's spent half a century as a bandleader offering young musicians the same kind of guidance and support he got from Machito. In fact, at this week's Phoenix show, Puente will feature 16-year-old Mesa violin prodigy Quetzal Guerrero.

While with Machito, he developed a unique approach to the drums that forever altered the shape of Latin-jazz ensembles.

"I was sitting in the back of the band and it was hard for the horn players to get their cues 'cause they had to turn back to look at me," Puente recalls, his quirky mix of Puerto Rican and New York accents making him sound vaguely like an Italian Mafia don. "So someone suggested why don't I go up in front. So I moved the whole percussion section--congas, the bongos, and the timbales--in front of the band.

"It made it easier for everybody to get their cues, and the same time it encouraged the dancers to feel better because they do dance to rhythms, not to horns. And that's the way everyone's been doing it for a long time. In the old days, all the jazz bands always had the drummer in the back. But now the Latin bands put the percussion up front, and that causes a lot of excitement for the dancers."

Puente's musical development was hardly hindered by a three-year Naval stint during World War II on an escort aircraft carrier called the Santee-29. While in the Navy, he expertly played the straight big-band music of people like Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich, without a trace of Latin rhythms. Already a versatile performer, he switched off from drums to saxophone without a problem.

After the war ended, he used the G.I. bill to study at the Juilliard School of Music, a tenure that later proved invaluable. "That was important, when I went to Juilliard," Puente says. "It helped me with my orchestrations, my conducting, my arranging, of course, and all my performing. That helped me to become more of an arranger."

Unquestionably, Puente's gifts as an arranger are what have most set him apart from his contemporaries over the years. Though several of his compositions--such as "Oye Como Va," "El Yoyo" and "Para los Rumberos"--have become classics, Puente more often than not has rummaged through the songbook of great Latin-American standards and emerged with fresh, rhythmically exciting arrangements. In this sense, he's closer to a Count Basie, a brilliant arranger, bandleader and instrumentalist, than a Duke Ellington, a restlessly ambitious composer.

Puente's comically bug-eyed visage and his flamboyant timbale work have also helped to make him an international ambassador for his music, adopting much the same role that Louis Armstrong did for Dixieland, B.B. King for the blues and Dizzy Gillespie for bebop.

Puente particularly loves the Gillespie comparison, crediting Diz's groundbreaking collaborations with Afro-Cuban musicians as a huge inspiration to him. But in truth, his career shares much with all three of the other ambassadors. Like the others, he's had a long, remarkably consistent career, defined by an aesthetic of nonstop work and relentless quality control. Like the others, his recorded work featured a few years of youthful innovation that coalesced into a solid, endlessly appealing style that he's only rarely strayed from. As with the other ambassadors, Puente's sound is so well-defined, it can incorporate all kinds of seemingly incongruous material, such as a Spanish-language cover of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion," a smooth, George Benson-inspired version of "On Broadway," or a 1995 instrumental recasting of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry About a Thing" (with Lionel Hampton on vibes).

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