Latin Jazz Conversation Starters: 10 Fun Facts About Tito Puente

by chip on April 20, 2010

Every April, we celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a thirty day celebration of the great American art form in all its various shapes and sizes. For the serious jazz lovers in the audience, this seems a bit redundant – we appreciate jazz 365 days a year. The reality can’t be avoided though – those of us with a year long love for jazz are in the minority. Most people have a very small understanding of jazz, if any at all, and JAM creates an opportunity for these people to connect with the jazz world. This awareness of jazz won’t happen overnight though; the uninitiated need some guidance to find their way into this wonderful world that we call jazz. As dedicated jazz fans, we have a responsibility to share jazz with everyone possible. This could be a major thing like taking a group of people to a jazz concert, but it doesn’t have to be such a huge endeavor. We could simply begin with a conversation about our beloved art form, jazz.

That can be a bit of an awkward leap though, so you might need a great conversation starter – what about Tito Puente? JAM occurs every April due to the large amount of jazz birthdays during the month, which includes El Rey. Puente was born 87 years ago today on April 20, 1923, and he spent his life making the world a better place with his music. We all know that Puente’s music is fun, thought provoking, and completely addictive – put on some music for a friend and they’ll become an instant fan. You need to break the ice first though, convincing your friend that Tito Puente is worth the listen. Fortunately, Puente lived a full and absolutely interesting life full of unbelievable tidbits that will peak any interest. I’ve gathered some of these juicy bits of info below to help you get the ball rolling. Lay some of these fun facts on your friends then turn them on to some of the great Puente recordings. You’ll guarantee yourself a great time, ensure the prolonged life of jazz, and introduce your friends to some of the world’s greatest music. Enjoy!

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1. Tito Puente Recorded Well Over 100 Albums
In fact, he recorded 118 albums – this is no small feat by any standard. Most musicians will be lucky if they record half that number during the course of their career. In order to show just how impressive this is, start by doing the math. Puente died at the age of 77; if he had started recording right after his birth, he still would have needed to record two albums a year for a good chunk of his life in order to reach 118 albums. As brilliant as Puente was, he didn’t start recording until long after he was out of diapers, which means that he had to record two to three albums a year in order to reach that number. Place this in the context of popular culture. How many albums did The Beatles record? 12. How many recordings did the Rolling Stones make? 39. Puente was an amazingly prolific artist with a track record that’s hard to beat.

2. An Animated Version Of Tito Puente Guest Starred On The Simpsons
The sixth season finale of The Simpsons finds Springfield Elementary striking oil when Groundskeeper Willie digs into the field. With the school rolling in money, Principal Skinner grants Lisa’s request to hire Tito Puente as the school’s new music teacher. Mister Burns takes advantage of the situation, steals the oil, and leaves the school in shambles. Puente gets laid off, the townspeople all find reasons to hate Mister Burns, and the evil businessman ends up with bullet in his gut, ending the season with an important question – “Who Shot Mister Burns?”

When The Simpsons returned for their seventh season, the police search for the shooter, and Puente stands as a prime suspect. Free from his teaching gig, Puente is on the job with his orquesta when the police come to question him. The iconic bandleader guarantees the police that he didn’t shoot Burns, but rather exacted his revenge in the form of a “slanderous mambo.” Puente and his band charge into “Señor Burns” where Puente insists that he’ll “settle the score on the salsa floor.” With an argument like that, the police can’t disagree, and Puente is freed of all charges. The results as a classic Simpsons episode and an unforgettable Puente moment.

3. Tito Puente Led A Band Of Muppets Through A Scorching Mambo On Sesame Street
Puente was one of the most important figures in Latin music, not only due to his incredible musicianship, but also as a result of his reach into popular culture. He understood the value of connecting with every audience – including the future generation of Puente fans. He found a place in the hearts of the younger audience through this appearance on Sesame Street that pit him directly against Oscar The Grouch. As Puente counts off his group of clave driven Muppets, Oscar immediately protests. It seems that Puente’s music was disrupting Oscar’s Grouchkateer meeting, so he suggests to Puente that “you and your little band go and play somewhere else.” Puente remains upbeat though, insisting that he can get Oscar and his gang dancing. Oscar doesn’t believe it, but who can resist “Ran Kan Kan”? The Muppet band tears through the classic tune while Puente sets his timbales on fire with some fantastic solo work. Before you know it, Oscar’s friends hit the dance floor, and in the end, even Oscar can’t resist moving to the rhythm. It’s a great piece that authentically introduces children to Puente and entertains us all.

4. Tito Puente Was An Honored American Veteran
At the age of 19, Puente was drafted into military service and served three years in the U.S. Navy. Puente saw action during World War II, and just like most things in his life, Puente excelled during his military service. He was discharged with a Presidential Commendation after serving in nine battles. He returned to New York, but the story doesn’t end there. As a result of his military service, the GI Bill funded Puente’s studies at The Juilliard School of Music, where he studied theory, composition, arranging, and more. This undoubtedly helped push Puente to a higher level of musicianship and allowed him to capture that elusive mixture of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms that he heard in his head.

5. Tito Puente Has A Star On The Hollywood Walk Of Fame
Puente wasn’t just one of the biggest stars in Latin music, he was one of the biggest stars in the world. It only seemed logical that he should be immortalized with some of the most well known names in movies, music, and television on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On August 14, 1990, this became a reality as Puente’s star was unveiled. He sits right between Guy Madison and Jerry Moss at 6811 Hollywood Boulevard. It’s a tribute to Puente’s influence across the country and a cool tourist attraction. Next time that you’re in Tinseltown, check it out.

6. Tito Puente Owned A Restaurant In New York
By 1995, Puente was doing very well in his musical career, and his finances allowed him to reach into other business areas. Always one to follow his passions, Puente combined two loves of his life – seafood and Latin Jazz – into a popular restaurant. Located at 64 City Island Ave in the Bronx, the night spot, appropriately named “Tito Puente’s,” paid tribute to the percussionist’s loves with class and wit. It was an upscale restaurant, featuring dishes such as paella, mofongo, and more, where people could spend a few dollars and get a great meal. Music filled the space, both through live performance and environmental touches. The bar didn’t simply use stools for their customers; when you hung out at the bar, you sat on a conga. The wall was a giant mural that featured some of the Latin Jazz greats – as you ate, Puente, Machito, Chano Pozo, and more all stared down at you, reminding you of the living history. During the documentary Calle 54, Puente actually takes viewers on a walk through the restaurant, filling in all the details. It was a great connection to the Puente legacy, and quite popular for a while. These days, the restaurant is under different ownership.

7. Tito Puente Appeared In A Number Of Movies
Puente was affiliated with a number of movies throughout his career – in more ways than you might think. His music was used extensively in soundtracks, finding a spot in everything from Along Came Polly to My Super Ex-Girlfriend. He also appeared in several documentaries and concert films, including the exceptional Calle 54 and Roots of Rhythm. The most interesting placements arise when Puente worked as an actor in several movies. Maybe thinking of these roles as acting is a bit of a stretch – Puente basically played a version of himself – but they were fictional roles. He leads a smoking band and rips through a massive timbale solo in the 1992 film The Mambo Kings. He appeared as a bandleader alongside John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Meg Ryan in the 1986 comedy Armed and Dangerous. Puente worked with fellow jazz lover Woody Allen, once again appearing as a band leader in the 1987 film Radio Days. Puente led a diverse career, and movies played a recurring part in his story.

8. Tito Puente’s Timbales Are On Display At The Smithsonian
Puente was really one of the great musical figures of the twentieth century, and fortunately, we’ve got some ways to remember him. The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. keeps Puente on display for all to see . . . well, actually not Puente, but a set of his timbales. Puente performed at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics, and after the gig, he donated his timbales to the museum. In addition to the instrument, Puente signed the heads, one in English and one in Spanish – a clever symbol of the way that he touched both sides of the musical world.

9. Tito Puente Received Awards From City, State, And National Government Organizations
Too many musical legends die before the world recognizes them for all their accomplishments – fortunately this wasn’t the case with Puente. He loved the world, and the world loved Puente. Throughout the course of his career, organizations from all across the country showered Puente with honors. Mayor John Lindsay awarded Puente the key to the City of New York in 1969, due to Puente’s years of dedication to the city’s culture. He received Grammy Awards on four occasions for the albums Homenaje a Beny Moré, On Broadway, Mambo Diablo, and Goza Mi Timbal. The Recording Academy also awarded Puente with a Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 2000. He received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal in 1990. A few years later in 1997, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. This list is just the beginning; especially in the later years of his life, Puente received many honors. Here at LJC, he was the voted as the first entry into our Latin Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008!

10. There’s A Street Named After Tito Puente In Spanish Harlem
On August 20, 2000, three months after Puente’s death, the city of Harlem renamed a piece of East 110th Street as “Tito Puente Way.” The stretch of East 110th Street reaches from 5th Avenue to 1st Avenue and houses the tenement where Puente spent the first ten years of his life. It’s a great tribute to the environment that created Puente, guaranteeing that El Rey’s name will remain a vital piece of the New York community.

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Check Out These Related Posts:
8 Tito Puente Albums To Kickstart Your Latin Jazz Record Collection
7 Great Latin Jazz Albums From Ralph Mercado And RMM Records
6 Latin Jazz Tracks That Feature Guitarist Edgardo Miranda
Weekly Latin Jazz Video Fix: Salsa Meets Jazz At The Village Gate

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