Whether leading his 17-piece dance orchestra or his nine-man Latin Jazz ensemble, appearing on television with Bill Cosby or in films with Woody Allen, Tito Puente maintains a modest credo:
"I'm a percussion man," says Puente, known to devotees of his dynamically charged salsa music as "El Rey" -- the King. But he looms much larger than a mere beater of drums. And the Grammy-winning composer and arranger stars (with Cuban expatriate saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera) in the Capital City Jazz Festival's Afro Latin Fire concert Friday at the Washington Convention Center.
Puente is a short man, and, at age 62, a bit thicker than the dark, grinning fellow holding a baton on so many record covers starting in the late 1940s. His curly hair has whitened, too.
But he has kept his open smile. And his unstoppable energy remains the same, which is perhaps why he has kept such a high profile over the years of rhumba, mambo, pachanga, cha-cha and boogaloo. What Puente effected was a musical fusion, creating an ethnic crossover long before either concept was understood.
"I grew up in New York, in Spanish Harlem, what you might call the barrio," Puente recalls in a rush that resembles a break he might take on his timbales -- resounding double tom-toms, perched waist-high on stands, played with sticks. (He's credited with introducing them in dance settings.) "I was brought up with all the Latinos around my Spanish neighborhood and with the influence of jazz around at the same time. So I grew up with both musics.
"I always try to make my music rhythmic," he says, "even the Latin jazz. Jazz harmonies and jazz melodic concerts keep my music very modern, but I keep the authenticity of our Latin rhythms going underneath that all the time, because that's what makes the music exciting. I'm trying to maintain a marriage between Latin music and jazz."
Since the late 1930s, when Cuban-born conga player Frank (Machito) Grillo and trumpeter-arranger Mario Bauza brought the clave' (an instrument used to create the characteristic Hispanic rhythmic unit of five accents over four beats) to the United States, the union of Latin elements and the jazz has been fertile, giving rise to generations of popular and innovative musicians on both sides of the family. Puente is but one of Machito and Bauza's descendants to break through the barrio barrier to nationwide attention.
Bandleaders Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz, for all their watering down of traditional motifs (how many "I Love Lucy" viewers realized Ricky Ricardo, singing "Babaloo," was calling upon a deity of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba religion?) are two such descendants. Be-bop founders Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie became fascinated in the '40s by Latin rhythms, while orchestra leader Stan Kenton achieved commercial success appropriating the Latin song "The Peanut Vendor." By the mid-'50s, British pianist George Shearing regularly supplemented his rhythm section with a Latin percussion player.
Today, Puente frequently is asked to give seminars in Latin percussion theory and practice at conservatories and universities along his tour route.
Ernest Anthony (Tito) Puente Jr.'s family wasn't especially musical -- "I have one uncle from Puerto Rico who plays a terrible violin, sounds like a cat sometimes," Puente says. But he was given piano lessons at age 7, and five years later took up weekly trap drums lessons at the New York School of Music. In his early teens Puente joined a group called the Happy Boys that played on weekends near his home at 110th Street on Manhattan's East Side. By this time he was proficient on timbales, an instrument of which Puente says, "I know very little; I've read quite a lot.
"I understand it was a French instrument, originally, considered like little kettledrums," Puente explains. "Then it was brought down to the Caribbean area, where it developed, naturally, into a more syncopated instrument, in the family with conga drums and bongo drums. . . . It can carry the whole band, keeping time along with the cowbells, and right now it's very popular in the rock 'n' roll field because many of the drummers carry it as part of their drum sets for solos."
Dropping out of high school to join a band in Miami Beach, Puente set his course at age 15. Upon his return to New York, he started gigging with such early stars of the Latin music circuit as Noro Morales and Jose Curbelo, then joined the Navy for three years of World War II, during which he became more familiar with progressive jazz.
Having taught himself saxophone while in the service, Puente enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music on the GI Bill and was soon in demand as an arranger, composer and sideman. He formed his own first ensemble in 1948 and is currently credited with more than 120 recordings.
Puente's songs are flexible, as the San Francisco-based rock guitarist Carlos Santana discovered in the late '60s, turning the King's "Oye Como Va" into a scorching song that helped launch his career.
Santana still turns to Puente when he needs a lift -- "He may use me as a special guest artist on his next album for Columbia," El Rey says. "And he would probably reciprocate, record one for me in the future."
Puente has won two Grammy Awards (for "On Broadway" and "Mambo Diablo," both issued by Concord Records) and travels from jazz club to jazz concert to jazz festival, around the world.
El Rey is also finding new ways to leave his mark for posterity. Recently, Puente composed the score for an off-Broadway play by the critically acclaimed writer Irene Fornes. Last February he appeared as himself on "The Cosby Show," with jazz players Art Blakey, Slide Hampton and Percy and Jimmy Heath. In the upcoming John Candy comedy, "Arms and Despair," his music is featured while he and his band mime it on screen. Puente was made up to resemble Xavier Cugat, complete with Chihuahuas, for Woody Allen's next, as yet untitled film, a '40s period piece.
Though the King plans to limit his road trips after two more years, he has no desire to stop. He will continue composing and arranging, and intends to produce records by himself and others. He's "in the talking stage" of preparing a bilingual record for Rosemary Clooney.
Perhaps most significantly, he's endowed the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund, which has awarded 27 grants since 1980 for the continuing musical education of students of Latin American heritage (his yearly scholarship fund-raising concert is June 21 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center). And Puente is very aware of the younger generation of Latin ethnic Americans, too.
"These war babies, they're older now," he says. "The kids will say, 'Gee, Tito Puente's playing a concert,' and their parents will say, 'Oh, I grew up on his music, we used to dance to it . . . ' "The thing is," Puente says, "I don't just play for the Latin community. We don't have a bilingual problem anymore, because people don't care about the lyrics. People love the rhythm. They dance to the drums, to the beat. That's what makes them happy. Even if they don't know how to dance they jump up and down and they're happy.
"I've heard 'Oye Como Va' sung in Arabic," says El Rey. "I've heard it sung in German, in Italian. It's funny, but people love it, all over the world. That's what I'm happy about."