- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

NEW YORK Band leader and percussionist Tito Puente, who rode to fame on the heels of the 1950s mambo craze and for the next five decades helped define Latin jazz, has died. He was 77.

Mr. Puente, who was treated recently for a heart problem, died Wednesday at New York University Medical Center, his agent Eddie Rodriguez said.

Mr. Puente recorded more than 100 albums in his six decades in the business. In February, he won his fifth Grammy for best traditional tropical Latin performance for "Mambo Birdland." He received a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 1997.

Mr. Puente played the timbales, a pair of single-headed drums mounted on stands and played with sticks. A flamboyant performer, he moved them from the back of the band to the front and played standing up. He also loved playing vibraphone.

"In front of a bandstand, you've got to be a showman," Mr. Puente told an interviewer. "Once, I was strictly a musician with a long face and back to the audience. Now I'm a showman, selling what I'm doing, giving the people good vibes."

Artists who collaborated with him included Celia Cruz, Charlie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Candido, Mongo Santamaria, Cal Tjader, Woody Herman, George Shearing, Lionel Hampton and Machito.

Another was Carlos Santana, whose early hits include Mr. Puente's "Oye Como Va."

"Every time he plays 'Oye Como Va,' I get a nice royalty check," Mr. Puente said.

In 1997, RMM Records released a three-CD, 50-song compilation from Mr. Puente's recorded output, titled "50 Years of Swing." The first cut, "Que No, Que No," is from his "El Rey del Mambo" ("The King of the Mambo") recording of 1946.

"The excitement of the rhythms and the beat make people happy," he said in an Associated Press interview in 1997. "We try to get our feelings to the people so they enjoy it."

One of his most successful albums of the '50s was "Puente Goes Jazz."

"Some jazz bands, like [Stan] Kenton's, had added Latin rhythms," Mr. Puente told an interviewer in 1957. "It sounded good to me. So I figured I might as well do the same thing, in reverse. I start off writing a straight jazz arrangement, then I just add a Latin rhythm section."

"It's the same reason kids like rock 'n' roll. It has the beat. I think bop, which neglected rhythm and neglected dancers, did a lot to kill big bands."

The eldest son of Puerto Rican parents, Mr. Puente was born Ernest Anthony Puente Jr. in New York City on April 20, 1923. (Some references give other years.)

His father, Ernest Sr., was a foreman in a razor-blade factory. His mother called her son Ernestito, Little Ernest, then shortened the name to Tito.

It was his mother who noticed his musical talent and enrolled him in a piano class at 7. Mr. Puente studied drums for years before switching to timbales. He studied conducting, orchestration and theory at the Juilliard School from 1945 to '47 on the GI Bill.

Mr. Puente was released from a San Juan, Puerto Rico, hospital May 2 after two days of treatment for an irregular heartbeat. He canceled all his events in May, including three concerts planned with the Symphonic Orchestra of Puerto Rico.

"I play in jazz festivals all over the world," he said in 1997. "Next year, I'm going to China and Russia. Our Latin sounds are really spreading out.

"As long as I have my health, I'll continue to work as long as I can," he said. "I may have to slow down next year a little, get to the semiretirement stage, but there are a couple of things I want to do first."

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