Tito Puente, the Jazz musician, composer, arranger and cultural icon, is known, variously as “king of timbales and mambo”, “sultan of salsa”, and most famously as El Ray - the King - of Latin Music. His Latin identity is often emphasized in a way that is somewhat unusual for Jazz musicians. Indeed, Ella Fitzgerald, or more recently, Diana Krall, do not have their cultural backgrounds so heavily stressed. Perhaps the emphasis on culture stems from the fact that Puente is Latin Music’s most prominent Jazz musician. “Perhaps it stems from more complex issues of nationalism and music culture, as Steven Loza suggests in his fascinating study, Tito Puente and the Making of Latin Music. Nevertheless, a close look at Puente’s background, innovation, and musical style and the general approach to Latin American music suggests some possible answers to the portrayal of Puente in popular culture.”
Ernesto (“Ernestito”) Antonio Puente Jr. was born to Puerto Rican Parents in New York’s Harlem Hospital on April 20, 1923. For most of his childhood, he lived on 110th Street, just off Madison Avenue. This neighborhood of El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, was a multi cultural and bilingual, exposing him to a variety of backgrounds and peoples. As a child, Puente learned to play the piano and timbales at the New York School of Music on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Frank “Machito” Grillo became a key influence on the young music student. Grillo emigrated from Cuba in 1937 and joined musical director Maurio Bauza to create a band.
Combining Cuban, African, and Jazz sounds, Grillo and Bauza played to New York crowds, who had become interested in Cuban music in the 1930s. Puente joined the Machito Orchestra as a drummer in 1942. As part of the ensemble, he recorded many songs, such as the well known "Oye Negra" and "El Botellero." Puente served with the U.S. Navy during World War II. During his service, he played in a band led by swing bandleader, Charlie Barnet. Following the war, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music on the G.I. Bill, and then started his own group, the Picadilly Boys, in New York. The Picadilly Boys, consisting of Puente, Machito, and Perez Prado, eventually came to be known as the Tito Puente Orchestra. Puente and his Orchestra performed at the Palladium and the Village Gate's Salsa Meets Jazz series in the 1950s, where Puente earned his nickname “King of Mambo”. In the 1960s, Puente hosted the television program El Mundo de Tito Puente, and continued creating music, pairing up with vocalists Celia Cruz and La Lupe. During the 1968 Puerto Rican Day parade, Tito acted as grand marshal. He would continue the tradition for the next thirty years.
In the 1970s, Latin Jazz and blues were united in many compositions, creating a new style of playing. It was during this decade as well that Puente’s influence on this new style made singers like Santana famous. Santana and Puente quarreled seriously when Santana sang a version of Puente’s "Oye...