Latin Jazz King Tito Puente Dies at 77

Tito Puente, the "Mambo King" who fused jazz with Latin rhythms, died Wednesday, May 31 at New York University's Medical Center from complications following heart surgery. Puente was 77.

Known to his fans as "El Rey" (The King), Puente recorded 119 albums in a career that spanned five decades. He fell ill in San Juan, where he was to perform with the Puerto Rican Symphony the week before he died. On June 1, the day after his death, the Puerto Rican government declared three days of official mourning. "He put Puerto Rico's name in lights," said the island's US Congressional delegate, Carlos A. Romero-Barcelo. "He incorporated our music in the international vocabulary," said artist Nestor Otero.

An impromptu cortege cruised by Puente's restaurant on City Island in the Bronx borough of New York City, some vehicles flying Puerto Rican flags. The restaurant's bar was piled with roses and carnations left by fans. "This is such a great loss," said Bill Marin, former vice president of Puente's record label, RMM. "He was truly the ambassador of Latin music for the world."

The winner of five Grammy awards, most recently in February for Mambo Birdland, Puente is credited with introducing the music of the Spanish Caribbean to the world. Born in 1923 to Puerto Rican immigrants in New York's Spanish Harlem, he launched his career at the age of 13, playing drums in Ramon Olivero's big band. During the Second World War, Puente served in the US Navy, where he met trumpeter Charlie Spivak, who taught him jazz arrangements. Puente survived nine naval battles and won a presidential commendation for his military service.

After the war, Puente attended the Juilliard School of Music on the GI Bill. He chafed under the school's emphasis on classical music, however, and in 1948 began his own band, the Piccadilly Boys. That group became the Tito Puente Orchestra, which played Latin music to a rapt audience at the Palladium on Broadway at 53rd Street in Manhattan. The mambo craze, for which he is best remembered, is lovingly documented in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings, in which Puente played himself.

Puente performed at venues large and small, sustaining a frenetic pace that included as many as 300 dates annually. Despite his international acclaim, he remained close to his roots in New York, and played at local venues around the Bronx to raise money for the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund, which provides needy students with funds for college.

Puente developed a huge following in areas with large Hispanic populations. San Francisco tango dancer George Kouremetis recalled having attended a Puente concert in Miami several years ago. "It seemed the entire city came out to see him," Kouremetis said. "I have never seen a more beautiful crowd."

Puente was a virtuoso on the timbales, and played vibraphone, piano, congas, bongos, and saxophone in addition to arranging and composing music. He was resplendent in perfectly tailored suits, and his comic but charismatic stage presence, similar to Louis Prima's, instantly won fans. Percussionist Nicky Marrero told the New York Times that "breathing Tito Puente's name was like breathing oxygen . . . he made a lot of people happy."

Besides melding jazz and Latin rhythms, Puente played with and influenced many of the biggest names in the business. Among the many musicians he worked with were Phil Woods, George Shearing, Terry Gibbs, James Moody, Dave Valentin, Hilton Ruiz, Xavier Cugat, Celia Cruz, Buddy Morrow, Woody Herman, Doc Severinson, and Eddie Palmieri. "My first memory of live music was when my mom took me to see Tito Puente," Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart told Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I was a child, and his rhythmic imprint was indelible. His powerful beat captured my imagination and took me on the ride of my life. His rhythm was about life and the joy of living. As long as people dance, his spirit will never die."

Puente's classic song "Oye Como Va" was a huge hit for rock group Santana in 1970. Upon learning of Puente's death, Carlos Santana released a statement saying he felt honored to have known him, crediting Puente with "opening doors for him and other artists."

Puente had a torrid love life. He married his girlfriend, Mirta Sanchez, while he was on leave during the war. Their son, Ronald, was born in 1947. The marriage ended in divorce. In the 1950s, Puente began a relationship with dancer Ida Carlini; their son, musician Richard Anthony Puente, was born in 1953. Puente had a 30-year relationship with Margaret Acencio, who gave birth to a daughter, Audrey Puente, a weather forecaster for New York's Channel 4; and a son, musician Tito Puente Jr. According to a story Puente told the New York Times, he and Ms. Acencio were finally married "four or five years" ago, with their 30-year-old daughter and 28-year-old son serving as their parents' best man and maid of honor.

On Sunday, June 4, as Puente's body lay in state at a funeral home at West 76th Street and Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, photographer and jazz fan Courtney Winston reported that the neighborhood was so clogged with mourners and fans that the police were unable to keep the traffic moving. "El Rey," who once joked that he wanted to live beyond the year 2000 because he wanted to have the "first Latin jazz orchestra on the moon," was about to be laid to rest, leaving behind a legacy of recordings and performances that will never be forgotten.