grand showman, subtle percussionist, canny arranger
One of the most attractive features of jazz for me always has been its inclusive nature.
And the concomitant quality that attracts me to jazz lovers is their very well-developed
sense of receptivity. I don't know a true jazz fan who rules out a sub-genre of the music
simply because the direction it takes doesn't appeal to his particular taste.
Case in point: I have a limited tolerance for Latin rhythms. It is an idosyncrasy of which
I'm not particularly proud, but there it is, and I have to deal with it. It isn't that I
don't enjoy Latin-tinged arrangements or some of the mainstay tunes of that idiom. It's
simply that I had too much bossa nova in my younger years as a trombonist to let me
appreciate polyrhythms without angles, and two or three tunes in the Latin or Brazilian
mode will provide me with my fill.
But, at the same time, I am one of the former rockers who cites Carlos Santana's
performance at Woodstock as the best moment of the movie -- I dispute the conventional
wisdom that Sly and the Family Stone took the prize way back there in 1969 -- and who sits
in pubs among the admirers of the likes of Counting Crows and Nirvana, in a cloud of pride
in the music of my generation after Carlos swept the Grammy Awards this year.
But on May 31, Tito Puente died, and, as is my habit, I set aside my limited palate for
Latin rhythms and sat down for a retrospective of that amazing percussionist's career. It
occurred to me that, once again, I'd been led back to the real music of jazz through a
winding causeway that somehow kept me in thrall during my younger years, preoccupied with
For, if it hadn't been for Tito Puente, I'd never have heard Santana's rendition of
"Oye como va?" which, of course, is Puente's tune.
At 77, Puente could survey the music scene from an eminence achieved in 60 years as a
musician, showman, and arranger. Significantly, he won a Grammy, his fifth, for best
tropical Latin recording for "Mambo Birdland" in the same Grammy ceremonies that
awarded Santana his breathaking sweep. At the time of his death, it is said, he was
working on a symphonic arrangement of "Oye como va?" I'll bet it would have been
In more than 100 albums, Puente demonstrated the subtlety and raucousness of the Latin
rhythms as he plied the timbales, the vibraphone, piano, other percussion and was ever a
His big splash in 1956 was "Puente Goes Jazz" (RCA), but he built a solid
reputation for the remainder of the 1950s and to the time of his death with an unwavering
belief in the universality of his genre, and he always credited others with helping the
effort along. Dizzy Gillespie was accorded special praise by Puente for Diz's
presentations of such tunes as "Manteca," "Tin Tin Deo" and "A
Night In Tunisia."
Other heroes tended to be percussionists like Chano Pozo and Machito.
As I listened through the limited Puente catalogue in my recording collection, I was
struck by the familiarity of the many of the tunes I'd come to associate with other
musicians in other genres, until it finally occurred to me that his surname in Spanish
That is appropriate. His musicianly facility helped him to grow into his name. It's no
small accomplishment and it proves that I have some work to do in reconciling my limited
taste for Latin rhythms with the great achievement of Tito Puente.