Famed jazz composer and bandleader Tito Puente was born Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. By the end of his five-decade long career, Tito Puente, sometimes called the "King of Latin Jazz" or simply "El Rey" ("The King"), had made an indelible mark on the popular culture. In addition to making more than 100 albums and creating more than 200 compositions, Puente had become a highly revered musician, regarded as a musical legend in Latin music and jazz circles. He won a total of five Grammy Awards and was nominated for many others.
Puente grew up in New York City's Spanish Harlem and became a professional musician at age 13. The son of Ernest and Felicia Puente, native Puerto Ricans living in New York City's Spanish Harlem. Puente's father was the foreman at a razorblade factory. He learned to play several instruments as a child, beginning with the piano and then moving to percussion, saxophone, vibraphone and timbales (paired high-pitched drums).
As a child, he was described as hyperactive, and after neighbors complained of hearing seven-year-old Puente beating on pots and window frames, his mother sent him to 25-cent piano lessons. He switched to percussion by the age of 10, drawing influence from jazz drummer Gene Krupa. He later created a song-and-dance duo with his sister Anna in the 1930s and intended to become a dancer, but an ankle tendon injury prevented him pursuing dance as a career.
Fans enjoyed the way Puente put a big band spin on traditional Latin dances, mixing Latin sounds with jazz and other genres. Puente later added other Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms to his repertoire, including cha-cha, merengue, bossa nova and salsa, and his continuous experimentation and creativity earned him a reputation as a musical pioneer. Among his most famous compositions are mambo "Oye como va" (1963), popularized by
After an apprenticeship in the historic Machito Orchestra, Puente was drafted into the U.S. Navy and served during World War II for three years. He was discharged with a Presidential Unit Citation for serving in nine battles on the escort carrier USS Santee (CVE-29). The GI Bill allowed him to study music at Juilliard School of Music, where he completed a formal education in conducting, orchestration and theory.
In 1948, he formed a band that would later become known as the Tito Puente Orchestra. By the 1950s, the band was attracting large crowds and Puente, subsequently, became known as a Latin Latin rock musician Carlos Santana and later interpreted, among others, by Julio Iglesias, Irakere and Celia Cruz. In 1969, he received the key to the City of New York from former Mayor John Lindsay. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Congressional Record, and in 1993 he received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian.
During the 1950s, Puente was at the height of his popularity, and helped to bring Afro-Cuban and Caribbean sounds like mambo, son, and cha-cha-chá, to mainstream audiences. Puente was so successful playing popular Afro-Cuban rhythms that many people mistakenly identify him as Cuban. Dance Mania, possibly Puente's most well-known album, was released in 1958.
Throughout his career, which spanned more than five decades, Puente performed with a number of leading jazz performers, including George Shearing and Woody Herman, as well as with many stars of Latin music. In later years, he performed with many symphony orchestras.
Puente received numerous awards for his work, including five Grammy Awards, the first of which he won in 1979 for the album Homenaje a Beny, a tribute to Benny Moré. (His 1976 album The Legend had been nominated for a Grammy in 1977, and he would receive seven more nominations by the mid-1990s.) Puente went on to garner two more Grammys in the 1980s, for the more traditional Latin jazz albums On Broadway and Mambo Diablo, and picked up a fourth in 1990 for Goza Mi Timbal.
In 1999, Puente was awarded an honorary degree at Columbia University. The following year, he received a Latin Grammy Award (best traditional tropical Latin performance)—his fifth Grammy—for Mambo Birdland.
In addition to music, Puente remained dedicated to causes affecting the Latin community throughout his lifetime. In 1979, he created a scholarship fund for Latin percussionists at the Juilliard School. "The scholarship was a dream of mine for a long time," Puente later said, explaining, "In the Latin community, we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don't get an opportunity to develop their talent because of a lack of money. Long after, I'm gone, the fund will be helping kids."
More than a decade later, Oscar Hijuelos created a character based on Puente for his 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Puente appeared as himself in the 1992 film adaptation of the book). Around this same time, the jazz musician guest-starred on several television shows, including The Simpsons.
Tito Puente died on May 31, 2000, at the age of 77, in a New York City hospital where he was awaiting heart surgery. Adored by fans across the globe, supporters waited in line for days to say goodbye to the popular bandleader. He was survived by wife Margaret Acencio, his partner for 30 years; their two children, Tito Jr., a musician, and Audrey, a newscaster; and a son named Richard, also a musician, from his earlier relationship to Ida Carlini.