Bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente, who rode to fame on the heels of the 1950s mambo craze and for the next five decades helped define Latin jazz, died June 1, 2000. He was 77. Puente, who was recently treated for a heart problem, died at NYU Medical Center in New York.
Puente recorded more than 100 albums in his more than 60 years in the business. He won his fifth Grammy in February for best traditional tropical Latin performance for Mambo Birdland, and has been nominated for the award 10 times. Puente brought the timbales, a pair of single-headed drums mounted on stands and played with sticks, from behind the band to the front of the bandstand and played standing up.
"In front of a bandstand you've got to be a showman," Puente said. "Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience. Now I'm a showman, selling what I'm doing, giving the people good vibes." Puente joked that he profited off the talent of Santana, whose early hits include Puente's Oye Como Va. "Every time he plays 'Oye Como Va,' I get a nice royalty check," Puente said. "The excitement of the rhythms and the beat make people happy," he said in a 1997 Associated Press interview. "We try to get our feelings to the people, so they enjoy it. It is not music for a funeral parlor."
The eldest son of Puerto Rican parents, Puente was born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. (Some references give other years.) His father, Ernest Sr., was a foreman in a razor-blade factory. His mother called her son Ernestito, Little Ernest, then shortened the name to Tito. It was his mother who first discerned his musical talent and enrolled him in a piano class when he was 7. Puente studied drums for years before switching to timbales. He studied conducting, orchestration and theory at the Juilliard School from 1945 to '47 on the GI Bill.
Talking about his Latin/Jazz fusion, Puente said, "Some jazz bands, like Kenton's, had added Latin rhythms, and it sounded good to me. So I figured I might as well do the same thing. I start off writing a straight jazz arrangement, then I just add a Latin rhythm section."