Tito Puente and the making of Latin Music



Tito Puente and the making of Latin Music

Steven Loza (1999)

Pub. University of Illinois Press

This large format 260 page book was written in the mid to late 1990’s and published shortly before Puente’s death. The first authorised publication about the legendary musician, it includes around 50 photographs/album covers, a comprehensive discography, a dozen song transcriptions, a few lyrics and a user friendly index.

This is a well referenced book, author Loza is a musician/producer as well as being a respected academic in the field. You can read about him here.

Why you might buy it:

The first major biographical work of any Mambo musician available in English, contains a full discography of all 116 official album releases, extremely well researched by someone who has spend a great deal of time with TP and many who have known him on a personal level, variety of presentation of materials including full interview transcripts. Despite the relatively high profile of the subject this is a book full of things you probably didn’t know before.

Why you might leave it:

A book written after his death may have given a more balanced (critical) look at the man, some of the transcribed interviews can be a little difficult to follow as they are laid out word for word – but then that’s what a properly transcribed interview should be like. When initially published there were no other books in English about any major figure in this area, there are now other choices including three on TP alone.


1. A Historical Sketch

2. A Conversation with the King

3. The Salazar perspective

4. Joe Conzo: Re-evaluations

5. Reflections on the King:

– Ray Santos

– Chico Sesma

– Jerry Gonzalez

– Poncho Sanchez

– Hilton Ruiz

6. Musical Style and Innovation

7. Identity, Nationalism and the Aesthetics of Latin Music

8. The King and I

Selected extracts (from):

(A Historical Sketch):

During this tour of duty Puente learned a great amount of arranging techniques from a pilot who played tenor saxophone and served as arranger of the big band of Charlie Spivak. Puente recalled “(He) showed me the foundation of writing a good chart, how to lay out voicings and get colors out of the brass and reeds. I began writing at this time”. While still in the navy Puente completed an arrangement based on the tune “El Bajo de Chapotin”. He mailed the arrangement to Machito, who had it performed by his orchestra. It was also while at sea that Puente was informed of his sisters death from spinal meningitis. He was given an emergency furlough. During his one week at home, he escorted his parents to La Perla del Sur, a Puerto Rican social club at 116th Street and Madison Avenue. At the urging of the audience, he sat down at the piano and performed dedications to his mother of Mis Amores (a Puerto Rican danza) and Debussy’s Clair de Lune in memory of his late sister.

Puente served in nine battles while in the navy, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Discharged in 1945 with a presidential commendation, he returned to New York to seek his previous position with the Machito Orchestra (a federal law required that all returning servicemen be offered their pre-war jobs). Uba Nieto, who had taken Puente’s job as percussionist with Machito, had a family to support, and both Machito and Tito agreed that it would be best if Nieto kept the position. Puente proceeded to be contracted by Frank Marti’s Copacabana band. He then worked in Jose Curbelo’s orchestra and in a Brazilian band led by Fernando Alvarez (which featured Charlie Palmieri on piano) before becoming drummer, contractor and musical director for the Pupi Campo orchestra in September 1947. It was in Campo’s orchestra that Puente met trumpeter Jimmy Frisuara, a big band veteran who would continue to perform with and serve as contractor for Tito’s bands for over forty years. The two also became the closest of friends.

(A Conversation with the King):

Loza: Being in the area of Spanish Harlem, and also being near a lot of the African American culture in addition to the other cultures –because there were Jewish, Italian, among others I would imagine in the neighborhoods you lived in – did you confront or did you consider the issue of discrimination? Did you look at what was happening to the blacks and compare that to what was happening as a Latino?

Puente: Well, I was very much into the black people. We used to call them “colored” people in those days, you know. I was involved with jazz, I went to black schools – they were right there in the neighbourhood. I never had any conflict with them, and musicwise, they were my heroes. Some of them were my mentors, like Ellington and Basie at the time, and Lucky Mallinder and Chick Webb…all those bands. I was a young fellow, so I used to listen to a lot of jazz music in those days, and all Latin music. We got that in the neighbourhood because it wasn’t as exposed as the jazz music was. So, I’m very happy I got brought up with both cultures and we really got along and developed all our music together through these years.

(The Salazar perspective):

Salazar [talking about NYC clubs] :Yeah. You see, the blacks had the Savoy Ballroom at 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue and the Latinos had the Park Palace at 110th Street and Fifth. The Puerto Ricans, the Latinos used to go up to the Savoy Ballroom in the afternoons – I think from one to five or something like that – pay a quarter, and jitterbug there. Then at a certain time when it ends they went down to 110th Street to the Park palace, and a lot of Afro-Americans went down there with them. And I understand they could dance just as well as any Latino. But that’s as far as it went. Until these other little places opened up and closed because they didn’t have a license and that. But at the Palladium, it was in 1947 when it happened, it was a success. I mean they cleaned up.

So then the guy says “look, what I want to do, I want to continue this. I want Latin music here. We’re going to do it on Sundays” because they made a lot of money. He sold his liquor; he sold sodas. He’’ never dome anything like that before. So fine. But then Machito had to go out of town. So they got other bands. They told Federico, the promoter, they said “Look, get some vente tu groups”. You know what vente tu is? Vente tu – you come here. All these guys (a pickup band). One night it didn’t make it. So he says no, get the best groups. If you can’t get the good guys, the best there is to keep this thing going.

Well, Tito Puente was with either Frank Marti or Pupi Campo, and Federico wanted to talk to them and said “Look, get me a pickup group cause you’re going to start at the Palladium”. So he’s sitting down, and Tito goes over to the pianist, who is Joe Loco, and says something to him, or sings something to him in his ear. And he hands out this music, something new that Tito wanted to try out, which probably Pupi Campo said it’s all right. They did it and the guy says “Wow you should have seen that! That was out of sight!” So he goes up to Tito and says “Tito, what was the name of that tune there?” And he says “I don’t have any name yet. It’s something that I pushed together mish-mash. Es un picadillo”. So Federico says “Look, I want you to take this group, pick a group and go down there, and I’m going to introduce you as the Picadilly Boys”. So the following Sunday Puente opens the Palladium for the Sunday matinee with the Picadilly Boys. And one of the tunes written there, you know like.

Loza: “Picadillo” – that became a big one, yeah?

Salazar: To this day. So that’s how it started for him.

(Reflections on the King – Ray Santos):

Loza: Do you think the fact that he did the keyboards made him a little different from the other bands: Rodriguez; Machito; Bauza?

Santos: Tito had a great knowledge of how to write piano parts and how to get those great jazz harmonies.

Loza: He was also, unlike Machito, Bauza or Rodriguez, not only able to deal with the piano conception context on vibes as part of the rhythm section, but he was a percussionist. This had to have a whole different relationship in writing, or in using arrangements, or even working with his musicians. Did you ever feel that? You played with him.

Santos: He was always first, last and always a first-class percussionist. Everything to this day that he does with his band has got to go with his percussion playing.

Loza: There is always going to be a solo somewhere.

Santos: Exactly. And parts of the arrangements always synchronize with certain beats that he does.

Loza: He featured great soloists like Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo.

Right. Always great rhythm sections…heavy percussion players.

Loza: Did the charanga style of playing and orchestration penetrate Puente’s concept?

Santos: It had been in Havana, but it started to break here in New York in 55-56. So the bands approached it still with that bib-band feel as opposed to the Orquestas Aragon and America and their strings and flute, good rhythm but not as heavy and loud, more relaxed, a lighter type of rhythm section compared to the rhythm sections that they needed here to propel those big saxophone and trumpet sections. But Aragon was the original concept. They didn’t do the heavy breaks back then. That’s Puente’s thing. He likes breaks because naturally they give him a chance to do his thing with the band on timbales. He also approached the cha-cha differently. The New York style of cha-cha was different. The charangas didn’t catch on here until the sixties.

(Musical Style and Innovation):

…….Puente immersed himself in a project of musical innovation and complexity. In his own words, it had for years been his “contention that jazz and Latin could be combined into a powerful force in music where listeners and dancers could enjoy these great rhythms together”….snip….Puente proceeded to team up with Buddy Morrow, a bandleader and trombonist, in a project culminating in Revolving Bandstand, a series of recording sessions where both Puente and Morrow simultaneously performed arrangements shifting, or “revolving”, from one orchestra to the other…snip……The double arrangements of an assortment of standards were scored independently by Puente and George Williams. Each arrangement, none of which incorporated vocals, literally shifted from one band to another, changing in rhythmic and harmonic style from jazz swing to Latin rhythms, including mambo, cha-cha and bolero. The transitions between these sections usually occurred at strategic points – for example, the change from principal theme to bridge. A well developed logic and structure emerged to a strong and uniquely moulded synchronous and contrasting effect.

[end of extracts]

Other reviews:

Latin American Music Review (journal) by Lise Waxer (2000)
Steve Loza’s book…represents an important contribution to the growing body of literature on salsa, Latin jazz and Cuban music…..The Making of Latin Music is concerned with Latinio musical expression in the United States…based on the close professional friendship and relationship that Loza had cultivated with Puente over the course of fifteen years.Richly laced with photographs, interviews, musical illustrations, and a complete Puente discography, this volume effectively combines oral history and style analysis to give us an understanding of Puentes life and work. The extensive twenty-two page interview with “El Rey” is almost worth the price of the book itself. [extract of full review]

Descagra.com by Bruce Polin (1999)
The best book on Puente to date. This is the real deal, with information not available anywhere else – not just on TP, but about Latin Music’s rich history. Very highly recommended

Amazon.com by anonymous 1 (1999)
As a longtime fan of “El Rey,” I enjoyed reading about Tito Puente. He is not only a Latino icon but an American institution, even if English-only America refuses to recognize his cultural and musical contributions. The author does a workman’s job in exploring Puente through various interviews with musicians, dance promoters, writers, and friends who know Puente well. The book offers good insight into how Puente developed his great sound and establishes the fact that he is a true musical genius like Gershwin and Ellington before him. While the book is the first true biography of Puente, I’m disappointed that it will not reach more people than it should. Unless the reader has an established grasp of Afro-Cuban music and is familiar with musicians in the field, my fear is that the general reader will get lost and lose interest in the book. It’s not an accessible book for those who know little to nothing about the music. Still, it’s a vital contribution to our understanding of Puente, Afro-Cuban music and the critical role that Latinos have played in developing America.

Amazon.com by anonymous 2 (1999)
I loved this book! Admittedly, I am a huge fan of Tito Puente, so my opinion may be a little biased. However, in light of his many achievments and the joy his music has spread throughout the world, it is only fitting that we honor Tito Puente while he is still with us. Thanks to the author, Steven Loza.

The book gives us an overview of Tito’s life then proceeds to zero in on various aspects of Tito’s career through interviews with Tito and various musicians who have shared the spotlight with him.

I was particularly impressed with Joe Conzo’s honesty. Joe Conzo is a historian, close friend of Tito’s and his “curator.” Many of the musicians interviewed are able to speak volumes about Tito’s awesome musical talent. However, Joe Conzo manages to humanize Tito and show us a side of the man we rarely see.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this book is that one cannot read it without being in awe of Tito Puente’s many accomplishments. From the Palladium era in the 50’s to Salsa in the 90’s, Tito has done it all. As he often says, he has been there and back.

The author’s closing thoughts dwell on the spiritual aspects of Tito’s music and the joy his music brings. 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!

This book is an important part of Latin music history. Also, it is now an essential part of Tito Puente’s legacy. We all know Tito Puente’s music, or at least we all should! Allow Steven Loza to introduce you to the man.

Tito Puente recently celebrated his 76th birthday and is going strong. Palante Tito!


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