Tito's Top Percussion

Shortcomings notwithstanding, 50 Years of Swing documents Puente's far-reaching collaborations with dozens of Latin and Anglo artists, pulling together forgotten recordings and highlighting the work of disparate talents. These include the voices of Machito, La Lupe, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Graciela, Celia Cruz, La India, and even Abbe Lane singing a lusty "Babalu." Guest musicians range from salsa innovators Ray Barretto and Johnny Pacheco to Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and conga player Giovanni Hidalgo. More than an anthology, 50 Years of Swing plays like the mother of all tribute albums.

Born to Puerto Rican immigrants in 1923, Puente got his musical education as a boy in his Spanish Harlem neighborhood. "That's where you get your experience, in the street," he says. "In el barrio, as they called it, we heard jazz and Latin. I was always into jazz -- Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington. And the Latin bands -- Casino de la Playa, Arsenio Rodriguez, all the way down the line. Cuban bands. I was really up to date with the Cuban bands."

Puente took piano lessons as a boy, but he really wanted to be a dancer. "I thought I was Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers," he says, pinching his face into a prissy expression and affecting a British accent. "I did the kahn-tinental, the car-i-o-ca, the tango. My sister and I, we danced together." His career as a hoofer was cut short when he hurt his ankle in a bicycle accident, which led him to music instead. He was all of seven years old. First he began playing trap drums, then made the switch to timbales, later revolutionizing their use in Latin bands by playing them standing instead of sitting. The young percussionist played with neighborhood bands, including the orchestra led by the famed Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer Machito, with whom Puente was jamming at age thirteen. Puente formed his first band, the Picadilly Boys, in 1948.

"It made it easier for me when Dizzy Gillespie came out with 'Manteca' with Chano Pozo," he says, referring to the landmark 1947 composition that paired Gillespie with the legendary conguero in an early fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music. "He was always trying to make a marriage between both musics," explains Puente. "Gillespie was pretty successful, and then Machito came along with Mario Bauza. They were my mentors, and what I'm doing now is trying to continue with their tradition."

Puente attributes his success to his early cultivation of a non-Latin audience, in Manhattan and the resort towns around New York. "The truth of the matter is that when Latin bands played up in the Catskills or at the beach clubs, they were always like the relief bands," he recalls. "On Saturdays, there'd be an American band, and then during intermission a Latin band would play with maybe four, five, six pieces -- that's it. But with me, I always had the big band; I played the shows. I played the waltzes and the fox trots, or whatever had to be done.

"Then I knew how to play my nice cha-chas so people could enjoy themselves dancing," he continues. "And the mambos, the merengues, whatever I had to play. [When you have a big band] you cater to more people that understand your music. They dance and enjoy themselves better than with the little bands. The best dancers are the Jews and the Italians. I tell that to the Cubans, they want to start a war with me.

"We did have bilingual problems in those days," he adds. "You'd be singing in Spanish and they didn't know what you were saying. So I tried to play instrumentally as much as I could."

It was during those early days that Puente first came to Miami. "I opened the Deauville Hotel," he recalls. "I played the Casablanca, the Saxony, the Fontainebleau, most all of 'em. Every year I'd come here. I had a big Jewish following here."

Ironically, as Miami has increasingly become a Latin town, Puente has played here less and less. "Most of the places I play, my following is not Latin; the minority are Latins," he notes. "That's why I don't play much in Miami any more. I do concerts. I never come strictly for the Latin dances. They never pay you enough. The band's too big, and I ain't gonna cut it down now."

Last weekend Tito Puente and his band played at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Despite an international popularity that enables Puente to pack places like Carnegie Hall, the center's attractive 600-seat theater was only half-full. There were a couple of obvious reasons for the poor turnout. Tickets were prohibitively priced, from $50 to $100. And the box office personnel did not seem to have been told about the concert. ("Tito Plenty?" a perplexed attendant asked when New Times called to inquire about tickets. "No, I think we're having a children's event that night.") And the evening was marred by a pair of annoying, clueless emcees who could have been losers in a Star Search spokesman's competition. They repeatedly appeared on-stage -- even interrupting opener Juan Pablo Torres's set at one point -- to deliver information about Puente, such as, "Tito has been nominated for ten Grammys and he's won not one, not two, not three, but four!" and "He's played for four presidents of the United States." Puente hardly needs such validation.

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