By virtue of his warm, flamboyant stage manner, longevity, constant touring, and appearances in the mass media, Tito Puente is probably the most beloved symbol of Latin jazz. But more than that, Puente managed to keep his music remarkably fresh over the decades; as a timbales virtuoso, he combined mastery over every rhythmic nuance with old-fashioned showmanship -- watching his eyes bug out when taking a dynamic solo was one of the great treats for Latin jazz fans. A trained musician, he was also a fine, lyrical vibraphonist, a gifted arranger, and played piano, congas, bongos, and saxophone. His appeal continues to cut across all ages and ethnic groups, helped no doubt by Santana's best-selling cover versions of "Oye Como Va" and "Para Los Rumberos" in 1970-1971, and cameo appearances on The Cosby Show in the 1980s and the film The Mambo Kings in 1992. His brand of classic salsa is generally free of dark undercurrents, radiating a joyous, compulsively danceable party atmosphere.
Rooted in Spanish Harlem, of Puerto Rican descent, Puente originally intended to become a dancer but those ambitions were scotched by a torn ankle tendon suffered in an accident. At age 13, he began working in Ramon Olivero's big band as a drummer, and later he studied composing, orchestration, and piano at Juilliard and the the New York School of Music. More importantly, he played with and absorbed the influence of Machito, who was successfully fusing Latin rhythms with progressive jazz. Forming the nine-piece Piccadilly Boys in 1947 and then expanding it to a full orchestra two years later, Puente recorded for Seeco, Tico, and eventually RCA Victor, helping to fuel the mambo craze that gave him the unofficial -- and ultimately lifelong -- title "King of the Mambo," or just "El Rey." Puente also helped popularize the cha-cha during the 1950s, and he was the only non-Cuban who was invited to a government-sponsored "50