Celebrating Hispanic Heritage: Tito Puente

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In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we will be showcasing prominent Hispanic artists in history.

The King of Jazz.

Tito Puente, known as the “King of Latin Jazz,” was a pioneering force in Latin music, known for putting a big band spin on traditional Latin dances and mixing Latin sounds with jazz and other genres. During his five decade career he made more than 100 albums and created more than 200 compositions, as well as winning five Grammy Awards. Puente’s warm, flamboyant stage manner combined with his mastery over every rhythmic nuance with old-fashioned showmanship is probably why he was the most beloved symbol of Latin jazz and regarded as a musical legend.

Born in New York City in 1923, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Puente grew up in Spanish Harlem and became a professional musician at age 13. He learned to play a number of instruments as a child, beginning with the piano and then moving to percussion, saxophone, vibraphone and timbales (paired high-pitched drums). 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 where he mastered composition and orchestration. In 1948, now 25 years old, 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 was largely responsible for popularizing Latin dance music in America, including cha-cha, meringue, bossa nova and salsa, and his continuous experimentation and creativity earned him a reputation as a musical pioneer. He managed to keep his music remarkably fresh over the decades and it radiated a joyous, spontaneously danceable party atmosphere. Puente’s songs, such as, Babarabatiri,” “Ran Kan Kan” and “Oye Como Va.” have become Latin classics and are covered by a number contemporary musicians.

Tito Puente died in 2000 in NYC from complications while awaiting heart surgery. Crowds of fans waited in line for hours to attend his wake in Manhattan, and the Puerto Rican government declared three days of official mourning. Throughout his lifetime, he was dedicated to causes affecting the Latin community and he created a scholarship fund for Latin percussionists at the Juilliard School. Puente explained that, “In the Latin community, we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don’t get an opportunity to develop their talent because of a lack of money. Long after, I’m gone, the fund will be helping kids.”