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Salsa Sultan Tito Puente Dies At 77

Bandleader revolutionized Latin music in the U.S. by combining it with jazz.

Tito Puente, the great Harlem-born Puerto Rican musician known as the "sultan of salsa" and "king of timbales," died early Thursday during a heart operation, a spokesman from New York University Hospital said. He was 77.

"Tito was for me more than family," Cuban singer Celia Cruz told the Associated Press from Buenos Aires. "I met him in Havana in 1952 and since then I had a brother, and when I arrived in New York (after the Cuban revolution), he continued being my brother. Our world is in mourning because one of the souls of Latin music has died."

Best known as a flamboyant timbales drummer, Puente also was a vibraphonist, pianist, saxophonist and composer. Little has occurred in Latin music in the United States during the past 50 years that Puente did not either create or contribute to, from the swing- and rumba-crazed '40s, through the cha-cha '50s, to '60s salsa and '70s Latin jazz.

"I came out of Spanish Harlem, so I heard a lot of jazz and Latin music," Puente said in an interview last year, "and I felt I knew enough about both [Latin music and jazz] to combine them. I loved the arrangements and the big-band sounds of jazz, and I loved the percussion in Latin music. I was convinced at a very early age that the marriage would work."

"We all owe him so much," said fellow timbales wizard Pete Escovedo, who recorded Familia Latina with Puente. "He brought the timbales to the forefront of Latin music. He made the instrument not only glamorous but musical as well. He was an innovator, and will be missed."

During the '50s, Puente rode the cha-cha wave and recorded some of his most highly regarded albums — including Top Percussion, Mucho Puente, and his best-selling album, Dance Mania. In the early '60s, he moved from cha-chas and mambos to the new pachanga style. His 1962 record El Rey Bravo debuted Puente's composition "Oye Como Va," which became a huge pop hit for Carlos Santana.

Music's Major Scope

Stephen Loza, author of Tito Puente and the Making of American Music, referred to Puente as "our Bach," adding that "One could say that Ellington was the jazz version of Tito Puente. Tito's music brings people together regardless of race, color or creed. It has been said that the mambo has done more for race relations in this country than our government."

Tenor saxophonist David Sanchez performed numerous times with Puente and was scheduled to appear with him at this month's JVC Jazz Festival in New York. "Tito Puente exemplified the essence of a truly great artist by achieving and maintaining creative and artistic consistency throughout his career," Sanchez said in a statement released Thursday from Puerto Rico. "He opened doors and paved new paths for generations, not only in Latin pop and folkloric music, but also by inspiring and influencing musicians in all forms of contemporary music to extend from the tradition and take the music in new directions. Tito Puente was the main ambassador who catalyzed the crossover and exposure of Latin Music to people all over the world."

Puente recorded more than 100 albums, among them Birdland After Dark (1956), Night Ritual (1957) and Mambo Diablo (1986). Some of them, like Dance Mania (1958), broke Latin sales records. In February Puente won his fifth Grammy Award for best traditional tropical Latin performance for Mambo Birdland, released last year.

"It's a lot of work, a lot of years," Puente said after winning his fifth statue. "I'm celebrating 50 years as a bandleader. I feel like this might be my last Grammy. But I wanted to get to the fifth one."

In gaining this last Grammy Award, Puente equaled the accomplishments of longtime Latin music rival, pianist Eddie Palmieri. The two men recorded the recently released Face to Face and were scheduled to perform together in New York in June.

Creation Of Latin Jazz

Carlos Lando, musical director of KUVO-FM in Denver, summed up Puente's legacy. "He was our Ellington. He was the greatest Latin musician ever to come to the States. He played Latin music, but first and foremost, he was a jazz musician."

Ed Martinez, host of KUVO's "Salsa on Sunday" show, said jazz trumpeter Mario Bauzá, Cuban-born Machito and Puente were the three fathers of "El Sonido — The Sound." But it was Puente, on his feet and up front, who popularized it for non-Latin audiences. Latin jazz was born, Martinez said, when Puente's fascination with Charlie Parker's bebop jazz took to the stage, transcending generations and cultural differences.

Born Ernesto Antonio Puente Jr. on April 20, 1923, Puente was considered a child prodigy and was performing with "Los Happy Boys" at the Park Palace Hotel by age 13. He played for the Noro Morales orchestra, and briefly with Machito's Afro-Cubans before being drafted into the U.S. Navy, where he played in a band led by swing bandleader Charlie Barnet.

He took advantage of the GI Bill to attend the Juilliard School in New York, which put him academically and artistically ahead of most percussionists. He recently received an honorary doctorate from New York's Columbia University, his fourth such degree. For the past 20 years he has funded a scholarship program for young musicians.

Puente was released from a San Juan hospital May 2, after two days of treatment for an irregular heartbeat, and he returned home to New York. He canceled all his May events, including three concerts planned with the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico.

(Click here for a time line of Puente's career.)