Tito Puente 1923-2000


“Tito Puente made money, but he spent it because he was a cumbanchero,” bandleader and East Harlem Music School head Johnny Colon told me several years ago. “Hell, all musicians are cumbancheros. That’s why they don’t have any money. That’s why I don’t.”

Cumbanchero. It was a word from a classic Latin tune, “El Cumbanchero.” A party animal. But Tito didn’t blow it all in cumbancha. After more than a half-century of success, even a cumbanchero like Tito was doing well enough to open his own restaurant in City Island. He just kept working to the end, so he could keep the cumbancha going.

Now it’s over.

I walked in toward the finale, la ultima cumbancha, as they say on the street. Oh, but what I would give to have been there during the mambo era, the era of the Palladium and the duel of the two Titos, Puente and Rodriguez, both Puerto Ricans who had taken the Cuban mambo and made it their music and now were rivals in the New York Latin dance scene. For Afro-Latin music is all about gladiatorial competition, fan loyalty as fierce as that of hometown sports teams.

The ’50s were the Puerto Rican years in New York. Massive immigration from the island transformed the city and gave it a beat of an intensity not heard since the days when the music of Harlem took over. But African American rhythms were cool and subdued compared to this Latin invasion. In the Spanish Caribbean the drum rules. Hand drums, like the sharp bongos and the big-voiced congas. But also the double drums beat with sticks—drums that Cubans call pailas (basins) most of the time, but that are also known as timbales.

Cubans—I’m one—have dirty minds, and there are so many double meanings; you walk through the Spanish language as if through a minefield. You’d never ask a percussionist to play the timbales for you, because that would be asking him (or her—I’d sure ask Sheila E.) to touch your balls. Since Cuban music is the root of so many Latin grooves, Cuban terminology prevails. Yes, Tito Puente has always been known as a timbalero. No slouch when it came to funky humor, he once said that the initials by which he was known, T.P., stood for “tremendo punto“—which when applied to a woman would mean a big slut, but in Tito’s case meant a stud.

In fact, he was known by a diminutive: Tito, from Ernestito—Little Earnest. In 1923, Ernestito was born in East Harlem, El Barrio, where the music we call salsa would also be born from the evolution of the mambo and other Afro-Cuban genres. A working-class child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Tito was definitive New York, in his speech patterns—usually more English than Spanish—and in his mix of old-fashioned courtesy with street gruffness. I look at his old albums and see this young Spanish-looking kid with slicked-back hair, and try to match it to the older, slightly portly man with white curls I knew—in the radical ’70s, he’d sported a full-blown Afro, as did most salsa musicians.

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.

But what amazes me more is the sophistication of the music in those old recordings: intricately arranged orchestrations of hot Latin dance grooves—mambos, cha-chas, and jazz-influenced versions of Afro-Cuban ritual music. The music recalls Ellington and Basie and Kenton, except with the heat turned up. Way up.

It was one of those almost absurdly intricate orchestrations that first got me. Sometime around the mid ’70s, when I was a college teacher, some of my Puerto Rican students decided I had sorry-ass musical tastes for a Latino, so they shanghaied me into a dorm room. They plugged up my mouth with some smoke and my ears with big headphones, while they spun me Latin sides.

In one number, Tito’s band was doing a version of that Hispanic chestnut “Granada.” Corny tenor music. Except Tito’s version broke the song up and gave each handful of measures a totally different Latin dance beat, from Santeria rhythms to danzon, from rumba to son montuno, from mambo to cha-cha-cha.

A decade and a half would pass before I would come in direct contact with the New York Latin music scene. By then, I had heard the stories of the Palladium and the Cheetah, the Caborrojeno and the Corso. This last club was still open, and I caught its last couple of years. But Tito was already in another league. Concerts in major city venues. Jazz gigs. And, of course, the big salsa extravaganzas at Madison Square Garden.

He played with various-sized groups, from a small jazz combo to a big band. In many ways, I’m partial to the latter. And, though I enjoyed his jazz, I loved it when he was just being a salsa journeyman, giving the dancers a good time with traditional beats and letting a sonero carry the tune.

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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