A Cat Who's Been Around

Veteran band leader Tito Puente champions the fusion of two great musical styles - often to wild applause

`I GREW up with jazz and Latin music,'' says Tito Puente, ``and I've always wanted to make a marriage between the two musics.'' A Latin band leader and master timbal player, Puente is often called ``el Rei de la Musica Latina'' (the King of Latin Music). This pioneer of the form in the US has gained the reputation of a leader in the fusion of jazz and Latin music - the first to introduce the timbales and vibraphone to the Latin style. His 1958 album ``Dance Mania'' has become a classic.

With his impish expression and silvery hair, he is as energetic as ever and is continuously strengthening this musical marriage. Three times a Grammy winner and now approaching his 50th year in the music business, Puente recently appeared with his Latin jazz ensemble - a smaller and jazzier version of his famous Tito Puente Orchestra - at the Blue Note, New York's plushest jazz emporium, where he played with his usual flair to a wildly appreciative audience.

Meanwhile, Puente's 99th album, ``Goza Mi Timbal,'' has been released, and he's now busy working on his 100th. (``I'm trying to make the Guinness Book,'' he said. ``I don't think even Frank Sinatra has 100 albums.'')

On March 25, Puente and his orchestra will perform at a special tribute to Nelson Mandela, ``Unity,'' at the Apollo Theater here. Mandela is expected to attend, and the program will feature South African artists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier will also be part of the tribute.

Puente will also celebrate the 10th year of the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center on April 7. Jazz pianist Billy Taylor and Latin band leader Johnny Pacheco will join Puente.

Puente is always well-received in New York - his home town, so the reception he got at the Blue Note was not surprising.

``It started in the 1940s, with Dizzy Gillespie and [percussionist] Chano Pozo,'' Puente told me in an interview.

Since then, the word ``crossover'' has been bandied about in reference to Puente and his music. ``I've been asked to comment on that word,'' said Puente. ``Well, I've already crossed over, and I'm on my way back! Non-Latino people have always loved our rhythms.''

Puente has made a point of bringing his fiery jazz-inflected music to all kinds of audiences. He's played Italian weddings, Jewish bar-mitzvahs, and just about everything in between.

Puente was born in Manhattan in 1923 of first-generation Puerto Rican parents. He heard plenty of Latin music while growing up in Spanish Harlem, and before long he started hearing jazz, too. His musical career got off the ground in the '40s, when he was a drummer and arranger for the Latin bands of Xavier Cugat, Noro Morales, and Machito (another artist who fused jazz with Latin music). Puente put his first band together in 1948, the Picadilly Boys, which later evolved into the Tito Puente Orchestra.

After World War II, 52nd Street in New York became the jazz center of the world and the spawning ground for bebop. Puente, who had spent some time studying at the Juilliard School of Music, was by then playing in both jazz and Latin clubs and becoming increasingly involved with the new sounds in jazz. While most people of that era viewed jazz and Latin music as coming from two very different worlds, Puente was constantly trying to find ways to combine them.

Today, Puente's music is evidence of the success of his quest. Over the years he has taken songs once associated only with jazz and given them a Latin treatment. The ``Goza Mi Timbal'' album contains Latin versions of saxophonist Sonny Rollins's ``Pent Up House,'' Miles Davis's ``All Blues,'' and Thelonious Monk's ``Straight, No Chaser,'' among others.

Now Puente is beginning to see the influence of Latin music in rock, as well. ``I think there's a young generation coming up now - people from Latin America are moving into this country - [whose] kids want some Latin representation in the music. A lot of rock stars are going into Latin production because it's a new concept. There are more polyrhythms in Latin music than in rock. Also, there are more instruments in Latin music: You have the bongos ... congas ... timbales ... all kinds of cowbells. And they're being utilized by a lot of rock bands now, too.''

He applauds groups like Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, Santana (Puente wrote Santana's big hit, ``Oye Como Va''), and performers like Paul Simon and David Byrne, who have crossed over into African, Latin, and Brazilian music.

``Their music has become accepted worldwide, because they already had a following in the rock field,'' he says. ``So that's good for me - it opens doors.''

On the other hand he disapproves of some music - especially Byrne's on the album ``Rei Mono,'' where Byrne sings original compositions backed by a Latin ensemble. ``It's not the real McCoy,'' says Puente. ``What he's singing doesn't go with what's happening behind him. He doesn't really know anything about the culture. He just knows what they tell him. They could tell him the wrong thing! I couldn't be doing the Latin jazz if I didn't know anything about jazz.''

About that 100th album Puente is getting ready to record, he says, ``A lot of people are getting confused. They're calling it my 100th anniversary! I said, `No baby!''' The landmark album, which will feature his big band, marks a return to a more traditional Latin style after a string of recordings with his jazz ensemble.

Referring to the Mandela tribute and his scholarship fund, Puente says, ``These are cultural things that people don't know I'm involved in. They think I just play the timbales, and that's it!'' he adds with a laugh. ``If they do a little research, they'll find out - hey, this cat's been around!''

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