Tap! Tap! Tap!
Tito Puente’s sticks pounded on the drums. And tap! Tap! Tap! His feet beat on the stage. For Tito Puente, each was about more than just music; it was a show. And 100 years after he was born, the world is still listening to — and learning from — his music.
Tito Puente was born in Harlem, New York, on April 20, 1923. His full name was Ernesto Antonio Puente. His parents were from Puerto Rico. The music of Puerto Rico and Cuba filled Puente’s life as he grew up in New York City. He listened to big band music on the radio and watched jazz musicians in Harlem.
Puente became a professional musician at age 13. In his 20s, he played with an Afro-Cuban group called Machito Orchestra. He left to join the U.S. military from 1942 to 1946. As a navy sailor, Puente fought in important battles during World War II. When he returned, he went to music school — then created his own band in 1947.
Puente played many instruments, including the piano, saxophone, and vibraphone. But the most special to him were the timbales. Timbales are shallow drums with open bottoms and metal casings. There is often a cowbell on the side. Timbales are a big part of Latin music. They keep the beat and inspire people to dance.
Usually, a stands at the back or side of the stage during a show. Instead, Puente played his timbales front and center. And he performed often, sometimes playing 300 shows in a year. Puente danced while he played music. He painted his timbales, wore sparkly jackets, and did tricks with his drumsticks. Puente felt it was part of his job to entertain people and make them dance.
The word puente means “bridge” in Spanish. True to his name, Puente became a bridge for people around the world. Puente’s son, Tito Puente Jr., told News-O-Matic how he did that. Puente Jr. said his father crossed “barriers, borders, and cultures to bring people together for one common purpose: to dance.”
Puente died on May 31, 2000, but he left a lasting mark. Many people learned about Latin jazz through Puente’s music. He recorded about 120 albums. He also won five Grammy Awards.
Some people called Tito Puente the “King of Latin Music” or the “King of the Timbales.” Others called him the “King of Mambo.” (That is a style of Cuban dance music.) His son explained how he got the royal nicknames. He was called a king “because of what he did for others,” said Puente Jr.
Tito Puente has been gone for many years. But his impact can be felt today. As Puente Jr. explained: “I’m still inspired by the great Tito Puente.”
Updated April 19, 2023, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Hannah Marcum