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Remembering the Mambo King

The late Tito Puente was a familiar, well-loved visitor to Tampa.

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 9, 2000

Even though he was one of the world's most famous Latin musicians, Tito Puente still wasn't recognized by a doorman at the Jazz Cellar.

The late timbalero was paying one of his intermittent visits to the defunct Ybor City jazz club two summers ago when he got the regular Joe treatment. Did he cause a scene? Become indignant and start throwing his weight around?

"He paid," said the former club's owner and house band leader, Dick Rumore. "He was that kind of guy. Of course," Rumore laughed, "I quickly made up the difference, you know, and took care of him."

In defense of the doorman, Puente often conducted himself like a regular Joe, and not like a winner of five Grammys, a National Medal of Arts recipient, executor of 118 albums, and the most important Latin musician of the last half century.

"Besides being a guy who did so much for us all over the world in our music," said St. Petersburg Latin percussionist Frank Pineiro, "he was a down-to-earth guy."

The May 31 passing of Puente sent shockwaves throughout the music world that resonated with these and other area musicians. His death will even influence Sunday's La Fiesta de San Juan 2000, a daylong Latin music and cultural event at the Tampa Port Authority (see Weekend story). Many of the scheduled music acts will perform tributes to Puente.

Pineiro, who also hosts Latin music programs on WRMD-AM Nueva Tropical 680 and WMNF-FM 88.5, doesn't think anyone can fill the musical void left by Puente. "I very much doubt it. Tito was not only a percussionist. He was an arranger, big band leader, an innovator. All these years he always stayed ahead of everybody else. He changed with the times, but always kept the traditional thing going."

Local Latin percussionist Gumbi Ortiz has many things in common with Puente. He grew up in the South Bronx, just over the Third Street Bridge from Puente's Spanish Harlem. And like Puente, Ortiz is an American of Puerto Rican descent enamored with Cuban-based music and instruments such as the timbale and conga.

"Especially growing up in New York, (Puente) was the total inspiration," Ortiz told the St. Petersburg Times in 1998. He recalled two early Puente records, Puente Percussion and Dance Mania. "My uncle used to play me those records, and they were the definitive Latin dance records."

Ortiz added that whenever he takes a timbale solo on stage, he often thought of Puente. "He made timbale playing an art form that not even Cuban percussionists have brought it up to. He was real true to the Cuban culture, which is very rare among Puerto Rican New Yorkers." Though no longer regarded as the epitome of speed and power on the instrument, as a septuagenarian Puente maintained a timbale facility that impressed many. "The guy was unbelievable," said Pineiro. "On Mambo Birdland (from his last album) he did a timbale solo that freaked everybody out. I thought he was somebody else. He kept on growing musically. He wasn't just playing the same thing all the time. His solos were all different."

Puente refused to slow down in other ways. "He was a party dude," said Pineiro. "He would drink and he would hang with the rest of the dudes. He always said if he passed away, he wanted to die on stage."

"He would stay to the end, man," Rumore said of Puente's late-night visitations at the Jazz Cellar.

Aside from playing the timbales, vibraphone, saxophone, piano, and being a respected composer and arranger, Puente played the broader role of musical ambassador. He did it in the '50s Mambo surge, successfully marrying Latin rhythms and percussion with American jazz orchestrations. And he did it toward the end of his career, playing a succession of symphony orchestra engagements with his own band.

In 1998, Puente and company joined forces with the Florida Orchestra at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Resident conductor Thomas Wilkins led the evening's show. "The guy had an incredible amount of energy for someone his age," Wilkins recalled. "(Puente's) band did the second half by themselves, and the whole backstage was littered with orchestra players who just wanted to stick around and hear some more of it." Wilkins got a taste of Puente's famous lack of pretentiousness during a 1996 engagement with the Richmond Symphony. "His plane had arrived late," Wilkins said. "So everybody in the orchestra was sitting around waiting for him to get there. He walked out on the stage and said, "Hello everyone. I am Tito.' "

Puente also took care to introduce himself during an impromptu Tampa performance atop two flatbed trucks in June 1994. He was in town to help his cousin Millie Puente, a Tampa resident and musician, open the beauty salon that stood behind the makeshift stage. Puente took the stage and shook hands with everybody in Guisando Caliente, the Pinellas Latin jazz combo that was called on to back up Tito. "At the end of the concert he knew everybody's name," said Pineiro, the leader of Guisando Caliente. "He never forgot."

Not even well after the performance, Pineiro said. Whenever they crossed paths, "He would always say, "Frank, how you doing? How's the radio show? Call me, so I can do a plug for you.' "

"He was a genuine guy, and a heck of a musician," Wilkins said. "We lost a lot."

Michael Canning can be reached at (813) 226-3408 or at canning@sptimes.com.

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