Master of the Rhythm
Latin-music legend comes to town
By Michael McCall
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: In the 1992 movie The Mambo Kings, actors Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas portray the Castillo brothers, two Cuban expatriates who move to New York City in the 1950s with hopes of establishing themselves as Latin musicians. Banderas plays the artistic Nestor Castillo, a romantic, sensitive, somewhat tortured composer and trumpeter; Assante plays his less talented brother, Cesar Castillo, a timbale-playing bandleader and handsome hustler.
Shortly after arriving in New York's Spanish Harlem, the two stride expectantly into the Palladium Club, at the time the nerve center of Latin music in America. Cesar checks out the glamour and the action, eyeing the women, the big-shots, and the fancy clothes. But Nestor's attention immediately locks onto the man onstage, Tito Puente, who leads his big band through a smoking rendition of his hit "Ran Kan Kan." The sight of Puente stops Nestor in his tracks; the young man gasps and instinctively crosses himself. To him, it's a blessed moment: Here is his hero, the King of the Mambo, onstage and in person, and he's every bit as good as his legend. For all Nestor cares, he has just entered heaven.
It's a great scene, and it's one that captures the Latin music community's reverence for Puente. The bandleader been called the King of Latin Music, the King of the Mambo, the King of the Cha-Cha, and the King of the Timbales. To many Spanish-speaking Americans, he's EI Gran Maestro. In Latin music, his stature is comparable to that of Louis Armstrong in jazz, B.B. King in blues, Chuck Berry in rock, or James Brown in R&B. In other words, he's a master musician who emerged at the forefront of a developing sound and took it in a forceful, new direction. As a composer, arranger, and musician, he created classic licks and standard songs; his rise gave Latin music greater popularity while expanding its artistic possibilities. That said, however, Puente is an entertainer first and foremost--just like Armstrong, King, Berry, and Brown.
Now celebrating his 50th year as a bandleader, the 74-year-old Puente--still vital and engaging--makes his Nashville debut this coming Thursday, when he brings his band into Caffé Milano for a three-night, six-show stand. That he has never performed here in the past says more about Nashville than it does about Puente. As one of music's hardest-working entertainers--he has recorded 114 albums and has toured incessantly since the late '40s--the gregarious Puente is quick to go where he's invited. That he's cha-chaing into town in 1997 signifies the growth of the Latino population in America's heartland.
In a way, Puente has been making similar advances all his life. Born Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr., the legendary musician grew up in East Harlem's El Barrio district, a region roughly centered between East 100th and East 116th streets in New York City. His Puerto Rican parents arrived in America just prior to his birth, and Puente was raised in an era when Latin music began to work its way into the American mind-set as a rhythmic adjunct of big band music.
This same era serves as the basis for Woody Allen's 1983 movie Radio Days, another film in which Puente makes a cameo. An homage to Allen's New York youth, the film captures how the radio broadcasts of the '40s opened up a world of romance, passion, and possibility to shy, self-conscious kids. Big band tunes assume a starring role in the film, and whenever Allen wants to liven up the action, he switches from the smooth tones of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller to the fiery rhythms of Xavier Cugat or the exotic sounds of Carmen Miranda. When the director needed a live band to serve as a backdrop for a nightclub scene involving a case of double infidelity, he put Puente onstage.
The same music that fascinated Allen captured a young Puente's imagination as well. He grew up surrounded by the boleros and rumbas of East Harlem immigrants, but he also absorbed the brass-driven arrangements of the era's big bands. Inspired in part by Gene Krupa, he took piano and drum lessons before forming a pubescent song-and-dance team with his sister Anna. A torn tendon ended his dancing career, but the innate sense of syncopation served him well later. ("I pride myself on being one of the few bandleaders who really knows how to dance," Puente says in the liner notes of 50 Years of Swing, an outstanding, three-CD retrospective released earlier this year on RMM Records.)
By the mid-1940s, the gregarious Puente joined a big band led by Machito, Latin jazz's most famous bandleader prior to his own ascension. The young Puente's flashy style of drumming--"We were all exhibitionists," he has said of the early days of Latin music--proved to be popular with crowds, and Machito made the unprecedented move of putting his timbale player at the front of the stage. This was a crucial and groundbreaking decision that eventually gave Puente the reputation he needed to start his own band.
Puente's emergence as one of the most popular bandleaders of the 1950s coincided with the rise in popularity of the mambo. As a performer, he engaged and entertained crowds with outlandish mugging and clowning, but he never let his desire for fame overshadow his devotion to the music. He galvanized his musicians with challenging arrangements, and like his former boss, he let his band members share the spotlight. At the height of his fame, he created his most memorable and most intensely creative music--albums like 1957's Top Percussion and 1958's Dance Mania rank among the most exciting and complex music of its time and of Puente's career.
Through the years, Puente has continued to balance commercial moves with artistic strides. Even at his most aggressively accessible--as on the catchy '50s hits "Para Los Rumberos" and "El Cayuco"--he always manages to put a distinctive personal mark on the music. His talent lies not only in the catchy meter of "Oye Como Va," a song made famous by Santana. It's also in the mind-bending percussion workout of "Ti Mon Bo" and in the propulsive swing of "Mambo Herd," his collaboration with Woody Herman. It's in the elegance with which he reconfigures Tommy James' "Crystal Blue Persuasion" into a lush, sensual ballad.
It's a shame that America's cultural myopia has limited Puente's at-large success to a few waves of Latin fads over the past few decades. In America's Latin communities, however, he has earned his status as the best-loved bandleader of the latter half of the 20th century. His legend reaches beyond his monumental musical contributions; he's also loved for the largeness of his heart and for never leaving behind the culture and the community that gave him life.
One story in Beats of the Heart, Jeremy Marre and Hannah Charlton's study of music and its impact on society, illustrates Puente's mythical connection to Latinos in America. It tells of a young Puerto Rican man in the South Bronx who decided to kick heroin. His family knew he loved Puente's music, so they bought and borrowed every album they could, playing the songs endlessly to help the young man cope with the physical pain and mental anguish of kicking his habit. Puente learned of the man's struggle and went to meet him; not long afterward, the bandleader stood alongside the cleaned-up fellow at his wedding and performed at the wedding reception for free. It wasn't a media event; no television or print reporters were present. It was simply an act of largesse--the sort of thing for which Puente is famed.
The King of Latin Music will give back to the Nashville community as well, even though it took us five decades to invite him for a visit. The 7:30 p.m. dinner shows on Friday and Saturday include special V.I.P. tickets, which will benefit the Nashville Entertainment Association's Music and Arts Foundation for elementary-school children. The V.I.P. package includes preferred seating, a four-course dinner, and an opportunity to meet Puente in a post-show reception.
Last week, when Stephen Seagal arrived in Nashville for the premiere of a minor action movie, the city blocked off downtown streets and rolled out the red carpet for him. This week, a joyful cultural ambassador of the first order arrives, yet there will be no official reception; daily newspapers won't herald his appearance with front-page stories. That's fine, of course. Puente's stature derives from his ability to connect with a segment of America that has largely been ignored by the media. But the diverse crowds who'll flock to Caffé Milano know what Puente's arrival in Nashville signifies: that the city's musical menu is beginning to reflect its increasingly multiethnic, multicultural makeup.
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