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Mambo King

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...
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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).

The first golden glimmer of the Puente style can be heard in the 1949 track "El Yoyo," a gorgeous midtempo shuffle with an unorthodox descending melody doubled on piano, bolstered by the irrepressible fire of Puente's timbales and some scorching horn counterpoints. Here, and on a series of sides he cut for Tico Records over the next several years, he took the lessons of his Machito experience into a full-blown fusion of the Latin rhythmic tradition with American jazz's sense of harmonies and dynamics. As huge as Puente's influence was in the Latin-American community, while he was cutting his greatest tracks he struggled to win acceptance on mainstream American radio.

"It wasn't easy with the radio," he concedes. "However, we were developing a big following of people that loved Latin rhythms. They didn't have to be Latin people; there were non-Latinos too. I get asked the question many times, 'Tito, what do you think of the word "crossover"?' I tell them, '"Crossover," man, I'm on my way back.'

"I've been playing this music for non-Latins for years, and they always loved our rhythms. Now we travel around the whole world. We go to Japan. They don't speak English, I don't speak Japanese, but once the music starts, we get 'em all together. Same thing in Europe, all over. So music really gets people together."

Puente's work ethic has been so powerful for so many years that he's built a recording catalogue that even his biggest fans would have a tough time collecting (although RMM Records' three-disc 50 Years of Swing boxed set is the best place to start). He's currently mixing his 117th album, a concert recording tentatively titled Dance Mania: Live at Birdland. Puente sees as his challenge not to venture into new musical terrain but to continue building a base for the Latin-jazz sounds he's done so much to popularize.

"At this point in my life, I don't have to try anything, I've proved myself," he says without a trace of defensiveness. "I just have to maintain myself, keeping the music where it is, and traveling and opening new doors for bandleaders that are coming up."

One of Puente's greatest allies in opening doors for Latin jazz has come from the rock community. Carlos Santana, with his early '70s covers of "Oye Como Va" and "Para los Rumberos," took Puente's name and tunes into the living rooms of the Woodstock-era counterculture. Puente doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the impact that Santana had on his career.

"Of course, Santana was, and still is, a big name in the rock field," he says. "He recorded ['Oye Como Va'] 12 and a half years after I did, but of course he gave it a rendition with the guitar and the drums and the organ which was kind of different than the version that we played. However, he is responsible for making our music more known around the world, 'cause his following is a younger following and much larger than the Latin following. He's still doing it, and he's still great at it. We appreciate him opening up the doors for us, for more people to get hip to these Latin rock sounds and all that."

Puente says the two have formed a close relationship over the years. "We always touch base in Europe, particularly, in the summer. He's out there doing concerts and so am I, and sometimes we do 'em together. So we jam out together. I sit in with him and we do 'Oye Como Va.' We're friends, we're pretty tight."

Around the time that Santana began spreading the gospel of Puente, a new generation of music scribes started grouping the vast array of Latin-jazz rhythms under the strange title of "salsa" music. Over the years, the term has caught on as a catch-all description of Latin jazz, but Puente still hesitates to use the term himself.

"That word is a commercial word, which actually means an ingredient for a food," he says. "You eat salsa, you don't see it, and you don't hear it. It's not a musical terminology. I call my music the mambo, or the cha-cha, whatever the rhythm calls for. Not salsa. However, I'm not fighting it anymore. I just go along with it.

"I'll play like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a cowboy will come up to me, 'Say there, Tito, could you play me a salsa?' I'll turn around and all the guys are laughing and I'll say, 'Damn, even this guy's got the word.' I'll turn around and say to him, 'You want an Alka-Seltzer? Do you have a headache?'"

Such quibbles aside, Puente has little to complain about these days. In the past decade alone, he's received the recording industry's Eubie Blake Award, earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, been inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame, been showered with honorary doctorates, and raised his cinematic profile with a notable part in The Mambo Kings. These honors have been somewhat late in coming, certainly, but--contrary to the Stripes prediction--Puente has lived to see his elevation to legendary status. And he has at least one more boundary he'd like to cross.

"After we get to the year 2000, I'd like to be the first Latin band to play on the moon," he says. "I'd take a rocket up there and leave my timbales up there or something like that. That'll put me in the Guinness Book. People thought I was crazy when I was saying that a couple of years ago, but not anymore. You never know."

Tito Puente is scheduled to perform on Thursday, June 18, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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