Tito Puente 1923-2000

La Ultima Cumbancha

For Tito was a barrio musician. Other important Latin artists went into grooves that wouldn't cut it in the Latin clubs, but not Tito. When he played salsa—a term he detested, because it was a musically bogus marketing gimmick—Tito Puente was truly the King. He was the first authentic Latin musician to become a household word outside of the barrio. The first crossover.

Before Ricky Martin, you'd ask your average non-Latin to name a Latin music star and the response would be Tito Puente. Ask for another, and the response would be: dunno. And, of course, some of those crossover folk would be true fans, like the character played by Bill Murray in Stripes. Tito is all over American popular culture, even The Simpsons.

His 1960 composition "Oye Como Va" made it to the rock canon when Santana recorded it. And Tito always played it. Why not? It's a great number, and Tito was never the kind of prima donna who refused to please his public. From the days when Machito moved him up to the front of his orchestra—timbaleros, like drummers in American bands, were always in the back—Tito performed. He goofed with the audience, he closed his eyes and opened his mouth in a grimace of orgasmic ecstasy, and he did those trademark swings of his arms above his head: Santeria moves for a despojo, a good riddance to bad spirits.

Last week's obits never failed to mention the jazzmen he played with, like Gillespie. But there was no need, for Tito was his own American classic, an artist with more than a half-century of performances and recordings, and a prolific pen for composition. This, however, does not mean that everyone loved him.

All genres of Latin music breed both purists and show-offs. Tito was the latter, and I know timbale aficionados who cringe at the mention of his name. They disliked his clowning—but mostly, they disliked his playing.

The timbales, the purists would insist, are played sparely. No drum rolls—that's grandstanding. You hit hard accents, usually in countertime with the beat. These make the dancers know they have to do something besides the same old steps, the same old attitudes.

The arguments made sense. But Tito was fascinating. My escape from this conundrum always came when Tito moved away from the timbales altogether and played vibes. Ah, here there was no clowning, no noisy drum rolls. Instead, the muffled lingering sweetness of the vibes, and the sticky sexual funk of Tito's riffs in that most subdued of instruments. Pure Caribbean sugar.

I got to know Tito in his last years, thanks to Joe Conzo, his personal manager. Last time I saw them was when Tito sat in with Pete Escovedo's band at this year's post-Grammy party: Conzo stood guard in front, facing the audience, stiff as a bodyguard—a perfect New York cocktail, equal parts Italian and Puerto Rican, he looks the part.

Tito, Conzo, and I met a couple of times at Willie's Steak House in the Bronx, an Italian restaurant that serves great Puerto Rican food. And it was then that I saw how Tito's attitude when he performed was not an act but an extension of his personality. Oh, he could be serious, when dealing with music or his responsibilities—he had established a scholarship at Juilliard—but mostly he was into what Puerto Ricans call in Spanglish "el goofeo." The party that's life.

He was getting old, and I wondered, how much fun can one man have? How many times can he lead a band? Tito and Celia Cruz had become a kind of duo act, the King and Queen of Latin music. I was backstage at one of their concerts, and I saw them climbing the stage, slowly, carefully, like the oldsters they were. Hard to tell who was helping each other more. My heart broke at the sight of those two seniors tottering toward the limelight.

Then they were on. Celia became coquettish and as kinetic as a sassy teen. And Tito rolled his eyes, swung his arms around his head, and went wild on the timbales. They were so young. I knew I would get to party again with that cumbanchero. And I did.

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