Tito Puente: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist
Showed Musical Talent At Young Age
Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., on April 20, 1923 in New York City's Harlem Hospital, Puente was one of three children of Puerto Rican immigrants Ernest and Ercilla Puente. His siblings both suffered untimely deaths while still children—brother Robert Anthony at the age of four from a fall from a fire escape and sister Anna in her teens. Raised in the Hispanic section of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio, Puente gained the nickname Ernestito—Little Ernesto—because of his short stature. He soon became known simply as Tito. While his father worked as a foreman in a razor-blade factory, his mother stayed home to raise Puente. It was she that first noticed his musical leanings and enrolled him in piano classes at the New York School of Music when he was just seven. By ten, she had switched him to twenty-five cents-an-hour percussion lessons. "I was always banging on boxes, on the window sill," he recalled in with the New York Post. Though he originally wanted to be a dancer and even took lessons, a bicycle accident injured his ankle sidelining his dancing days. Though he later confidently declared to Americas, " I pride myself as being one of the few bandleaders who really knows how to dance."
By the time he reached his teens, Puente was already something of a local celebrity having played as a child with local Latin bands at festivals and functions. By 16 he dropped out of Manhattan's Central Commercial High School to pursue music and was mentored by some of the most important names in Latin music at that time, flutist Anselmo Sacasas, pianist Noro Morales and band leader Frank "Machito" Grillo. In El Barrio traditional Latin music—boleros and rumbas—poured from open windows and street level clubs. But just blocks away in the swanky jazz clubs of Manhattan, big band, swing, and improvisational jazz were the norm. Puente, whose name means bridge in Spanish, was influenced by these two elements and he would spend his career building a bridge between them. "I was always trying to find a marriage between Latin music and jazz … trying to play jazz but not lose the Latin-American authenticity," he would later tell Down Beat.
The next few years were instrumental in helping Puente to form that bridge. He began to develop his trademark showmanship when in 1941 he was called upon to fill in for the regular drummer of the Machito's famous Latin orchestra, the Afro-Cubans. Machito allowed the young prodigy to perform at the front of the stage. "For perhaps the first time in Latin music, the timbales were brought to the front of the bandstand, and Puente played the drums standing, not seated, as had been the custom. That simple change of routine liberated the rhythm section and opened the door for his extroverted style of performing," an article in Americas noted. Puente later was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, "Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience. Now I'm a showman, selling what I'm doing, giving the people good vibes." A few years later Puente was drafted to serve in World War II. He found himself in the U.S. Navy stationed on the USS Santee along with a composer from a noted big band. The composer taught Puente the basics of big band composition. Despite participating in nine battles—for which he earned a presidential commendation—Puente also found time to teach himself saxophone. Finally, in 1945 Puente returned to New York and used his G.I. Bill money to study conducting, orchestration, and theory at the prestigious Julliard School of Music.
- Tito Puente: 1923-2000: Bandleader, Arranger, Percussionist - Formed His First Orchestra
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