Cuban Musicians and Bands

Overview Musicians
  • Celia Cruz
  • Rubén Blades
  • Buena Vista Social Club
  • Ibrahim Ferrer
  • Benny Moré
  • Los Van Van
  • Compay Segundo
  • Sierra Maestra
  • Tito Puente
  • Juan Luis Guerra

Tito Puente

Given his warm and flamboyant stage manner, his longevity, his constant tours and appearances in the mass media, Tito Puente is probable the most loved symbol of Latin jazz. But more than this, Puente managed to keep his music notably fresh throughout the decades; like a virtuosos on the timbales, he combined his control over all rhythmic shades with his ways of an older-style showman. Seeing his eyes when he would play a dynamic solo was one of the pleasures he would offer Latin jazz fans.

A trained musician, he was also a great lyrical vibraphonist, talented arranger, pianist, and also played the congas, bongoes and sax. His charm continued reaching out to all ages and ethnic groups, no doubt helped out by versions of Santana’s best sellers "Oye como va" and "Para los Rumberos" in 1970-71, and chance appearances in "El Show de Cosby" in the 80’s and in the movie "Los Reyes del Mambo" in 1992.

His type of classic salsa does not generally carry a darker sub theme, and is filled with a party atmosphere that is joyful, cheerful and compulsively danceable. With roots in Spanish Harlem, as a descendant of Puerto Ricans, Puente originally tried being a dancer but those ambitions were curtailed by a torn ankle tendon.

At age 13 he began working with Ramón Olivero’s big band as a drummer and then began studying composition, orchestration and piano at Julliard and at the New York School of Music. More importantly was the fact that he played with Machito, absorbing his influence; Machito was successfully fusing Latin rhythms with progressive jazz. He formed a band of nine instruments, Piccadilly Boys, in 1947 and then expanded it into a complete orchestra, two years later. He recorded with them for Seeco, Tico and eventually RCA Victor, helping to revive the passion for the mambo, which gave him the unofficial – and ultimately lifelong -title "Rey del Mambo" (the Mambo King) or simply "El Rey" (the King).

Puente also helped popularize the cha-cha-cha during the 50’s and was the only non-Cuban to be invited to the government-sponsored "50 Years of Cuban Music" celebration in 1952. Some of the first rate congueros that played with Puente’s band in the 50’s included Mongo Santamaría, Willie Bobo, Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barreto, which resulted in some explosive percussion shootouts.

Making sure not to paint himself into a tight corner of Latin music, Puente’s range extended to big band jazz ("Puente goes jazz"), and in the 60’s to bossa nova tunes, Broadway hits, boogaloos, and pop music, although years later he tried going back to older Latin jazz styles popularly known as salsa.

In 1982 he began presenting various Latin jazz albums with octets or big bands for Concord Picante which gave him more exposure and respect among the jazz world than he had ever had before.

A tireless visitor of the recording studios, Puente recorded his 100th record The Mambo King, in 1991 amidst much ceremony and affection (a concert with all Latin music stars at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles in March of 1992 commemorated the milestone), and he continued adding more titles to his tally throughout the 90’s. He also appeared as a guest star in countless records over the years and jazz stars such as Phil Woods, George Shearing, James Moody, Dave Valentin and Ferry Gibas played on Puente’s own most recent albums.

A few months after receiving his fifth Grammy, he died on June 1, 2000. Several months later, Puente was acknowledged at the first annual Latin Grammy Awards, winning the prize for the best traditional tropical performance for Mambo Birdland.