Jazz Caliente: 'El Rey,' Tito Puente

Dec 30, 2016

In Tito Puente's musical career that spanned six decades, he earned the nickname "El Rey" (The King), three times:  King of the Timbales,  Mambo King and King of Latin Jazz.  

Puente recorded 118 albums, won five Grammy Awards and was called "the most important Latin musician in the last half-century" when he died in 2000.

He claimed that he was "born in rhythm" and as a child his neighbors in Spanish Harlem begged his parents to get him music lessons, because he was banging on everything in sight:  tabletops, pots and pans, etc.  

He studied piano, drums and percussion.  Somewhere along the way he learned vibraphone.  He was also a great dancer.  Eventually he settled on the timbales, the essential drums for Latin dance music.

When he joined Machito's Afro Cubans, he moved the timbales  from the back of  the bandstand to the front.  From there, he could be the great flamboyant showman.  He loved to dazzle the audience with his performance behind the drums.  The King of Timbales was born.

Puente became the King of the Mambo in the 1950s at New York's Palladium Theater.  Legendary musical battles were held there, primarily between Tito Puente's Orchestra and singer Tito Rodriguez's big band.  Puente usually won.  His orchestra had the fire required by New York's melting pot of mambo dancers.

Always a jazz fan, Tito Puente learned well from Machito's band, the first Afro-Cuban group to play original jazz with Afro-Cuban percussion.  He collaborated with jazz musicians and arranged standards, swing tunes and be-bop for his own band.  

Jazz fans appreciated the high caliber of musicianship, and dancers could still mambo or cha cha cha to Puente's orchestra.  Because he was so visible, often working between 200 and 300 concert and club dates each year, the general public saw him as the representative of the music.  Crown him again: King of Latin Jazz.

Listen for Tito Puente showing off his vibraphone chops on Saturday Jazz Caliente this week.  And do some dancing to usher in the New Year!

Jazz Caliente airs Saturdays at 5:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Robin Lloyd and produced by KNKX Public Radio.