Take Five: Listening to the Asian influence on Latin jazz pioneer Tito Puente
Tito Puente was still a teenager when he was drafted into the United States Navy in 1942. And while the man we remember as El Rey de los Timbales (“The King of the Timpani”) is a defining titan of Latin jazz, there is a distinct Asian influence in much of his style of composition and arrangement which went out of service during World War II.
Born and raised in Harlem, New York, Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. was trained on the piano for eight years by Victoria Hernández – sister of the legendary Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández, who had been a member of the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Band of the United States Army . World War I. Young Ernie studied jazz drums with an African-American show drummer he could only remember as Mr. Williams, while also learning acrobatic tap and ballroom dancing with his sister. Annie.
Applying his jazz training to timpani – the metallic drums of Cuban origin, played with sticks – Puente came across a Rubicon who brought the instrument to the fore, redefining it as a solo instrument in the way that Gene Krupa had redefined. battery. And as if that wasn’t enough, Puente also took to alto saxophone and clarinet, and then applied his piano technique to vibraphone and marimba.
But it was during his time in the Navy that he really began to show off his multi-faceted talent, with a huge boost from the Navy School of Music’s music training program. “You got what you would normally study in a four-year music conservatory, but in three months,” Puente told me of the training. “And it was all done with military discipline… it was intense. His grade point average at the end of his studies was 3.8.
As was the custom of the time, musicians were assigned to aircraft carriers, battleships and large destroyers to provide moral support to sailors in their long missions at sea. Puente reported to duty aboard. USS Santee CVE 29, an escort carrier. Smaller than a full-size transporter, its mission was nonetheless extremely dangerous. Escort carriers would be assigned to escort troop transport ships – and in the case of the Santee, the Pacific Theater. They were always subject to attack.
Puente played alto saxophone and clarinet in the ship’s big band, as well as drums and piano during the mess. He was also the ship’s bugle. “When I was playing the bugle,” he told me, “I would warm up by playing at headquarters, which was the call to combat posts. I would always make sure the microphone on the turntable was turned off. I was supposed to play when I woke up, but forgot the mic was on. The whole ship went mad as I started to warm up, and I was screaming that there was no attack. Anyway, the captain wisely told me to stay under deck for a few days because everyone wanted to kick my ass.
He adds, “My worst time in the Navy? When I had to play taps for someone who was killed. I remember I lost him once crying.
Among the unlikely skills Puente learned aboard the Santee was organizing a big band. “The pilots of the ship were the most respected,” he said. “They had a lot of downtime. When they flew, even if it was a reconnaissance mission, no one would ever know if they would ever return. Since they had a lot of pressure on them, they would be left alone.
One of these pilots was a Lieutenant Sweeney, who had played trumpet in territorial orchestras in the Midwest. “He was also an arranger,” Puente recalls. “We hit it off and became friends, and he started training me on how to write for large groups. How to draw a map, the different sections with the brass and saxes, etc. Everyone on the boat called me Lil ‘Ernie because I was little, and my name is Ernest. He was like, “Hey Lil” Ernie, let me see what you wrote. “The first painting I wrote was for the song ‘El Botellero’, which I sent to Machito and Mario Bauzá in New York.
While Puente acted as a multitasking musician at sea, he also contributed to the mission in his role as a machine gunner on the ship: he participated in the Battles of Leyte and Midway. Seeing action in a total of nine naval battles, he and his shipmates received numerous naval accolades.
“When the war ended and Japan surrendered, the navy gave me a choice,” he said. “There were so many soldiers to be sent back that they had to stagger their return. They asked me if instead of going home immediately, I could take a delayed return by boat, going to different ports in the East. It would take several months. They explained to me that we would stop along the way in each port town and learn about music, food, customs etc. I decided to take this option – and it was great, because I really heard a lot of Asian Music and experienced their culture. I learned how they used the quarter chord voices, writing melodies using their scales, etc. That’s the reason why I wrote all these tunes like “Hong Kong Mambo” and “Mambo Buddha”. It started with “Picadillo” and it continued from there. If I hadn’t made that decision, I probably would never have composed these things.
Back in the United States, Puente took advantage of the GI Bill and studied orchestration and conducting at the Juilliard School. “My conducting teacher was Japanese,” he said. “You can imagine my surprise!”
Eventually, Puente traveled to Japan several times on tour. “I always think about my time in the navy and how they were trying to kill me and me,” he said. “But like I said, without the war I would never have been exposed to this music and this culture. Go figure it out. Now they play and study our music in Japan and they are good at it. I guess you could say that even in times of war [the power of] music, art, dance, food… always wins in the end.
Here are five titles that illustrate the Asian influence on Tito Puente.
Piccadilly Boys by Tito Puente, “Arthur Murray Rumba”
Built on a single chord, this is the first version of one of Tito’s best-known pieces, which would later become known as “Picadillo”. This was the first example of Maestro Puente’s forays into composing something that had just been exposed directly to Asian music during his naval service. Recorded on June 1, 1949 for Gabriel Oller’s Spanish Music Center (SMC) label, Tito wisely named it after the country’s most famous ballroom dance teacher, Arthur Murray. As Puente once said, “in order for any type of music to become really popular, there has to be a dance associated with it”. By the year of its release, the Palladium Ballroom had become known to fans as the Home of the Mambo, with the orchestras of Machito, Puente and Tito Rodríguez its reigning kings. The piano and the closing bass Tumbao (repetitive beat) eventually became the tune intro in later versions of the song.
“Hong Kong Mambo”
Another classic El Maestro composition directly linked to Asian culture, “Hong Kong Mambo” first appeared on his legendary 1958 album. Dancemania. Here, he displays his virtuosity on the marimba. With its wooden bars, the instrument is the perfect vehicle to convey the Asian musical spirit while the trumpets of bravura ring out a majestic fanfare of screams. And of course you can dance your butt on it!
Tito Puente, “Lotus Land”
From another masterpiece album, Puente goes jazz, recorded for RCA in 1956, the same year that Tito recorded and released Cuban Carnival. “When I studied at Juilliard, I had one goal in mind, to learn to compose music for films,” he said. “But there was a problem. I was hijacked as a conductor.” Its haunting arrangement and vibes, combined with elements of jazz on this composition by Impressionist composer Cyril Scott, hint at what Tito could have accomplished had he had the opportunity to make music for films. It also demonstrates the depth and expansive breath of knowledge of his musical skills.
José Mangual, “Chinatown” (with Carlos “Patato” Valdez and Tito Puente)
Here is Tito’s ode to New York’s Chinese enclave in Lower Manhattan – to the beat of the mambo, with his contribution on the marimba. He appears on the 1977 album Buyú, by legendary Afro-Cuban Machito bongo player José “Buyú” Mangual. In the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Salsa War in New York City, prominent groups like Puente often performed up to three concerts in one night. It was a tradition of the Tito Puente orchestra that after the last concert, the whole band got together to eat at a place in Chinatown called Wo Hop’s, which I have fond memories of.
Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, “Mambo Buddha”
Originally appearing on Cuban CarnivalPuente’s RCA debut in 1956 is a tribute to Budai, the historic Chinese monk who is revered as a deity in Chinese Buddhism and who also exists in Japanese Buddhism. Like a chef, the Maestro skillfully applies his magic of multiculturalism by combining the Afro-Cuban rhythm known as Afro with the harmonic, melodic and spiritual side of Asia without making it a cliché. This version was recorded in 2008 for a mega concert conducted by yours, truly a tribute to the great works of Maestro Puente with the student orchestra I taught at the Manhattan School of Music. Dig into the brilliant piano work of a young Christian Sands by beautifully performing my instructions that Budai was the aimless wanderer who was always loud and funny.