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Take Five: Listening For the Asian Influence on Latin Jazz Trailblazer Tito Puente

Tito Puente at the timbales as a young man.
Tito Puente at the timbales as a young man.

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 Timbales”) is a defining titan of Latin jazz, there’s a distinct Asian influence in much of his compositional and arranging style that came out of his service during World War II.

Born and raised in Harlem, N.Y., Ernest Anthony Puente, Jr. was trained on piano for eight years by Victoria Hernández — sister of the legendary Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández, who had been a member of the U.S. Army 369th Regiment Harlem Hellfighters Band in the first World War. Young Ernie studied jazz drumming with an African American show drummer that he could only remember as Mr. Williams, while also learning acrobatic tap and ballroom dancing with his sister Annie.

Applying his jazz training to timbales — the metal drums of Cuban origin, played with sticks — Puente crossed a Rubicon that brought the instrument into the forefront, redefining it as a solo instrument in much the way that Gene Krupa had redefined the drum set. And as if that weren’t enough, Puente also took up alto saxophone and clarinet, and further applied his piano technique to the vibraphone and marimba.

But it was during his time in the Navy that he truly began to display his multi-faceted talent, with a considerable boost from the musical training program at the Navy School of Music. “You got what you would normally study in a four-year music conservatory, but in three months,” Puente told me about this training. “And it was all done with military discipline… it was intense.” His grade point average upon graduation was 3.8.

As was the custom of the day, musicians were assigned to aircraft carriers, battleships and large destroyers to provide moral support for the sailors on their long assignments at sea. Puente reported for duty aboard the U.S.S. Santee CVE 29, an escort carrier. Smaller than a full-size carrier, its mission was nevertheless extremely dangerous. Escort carriers would be assigned to escort troop transport ships — and in the case of the Santee, to the Pacific theater. They were always subject to attack.

Puente played alto sax and clarinet in the ship’s big band, and drum set and piano during mess hall. He was also the ship’s bugler. “When I would play bugle,” he told me, “I would warm up by playing general quarters, which was the call to battle stations. I would always make sure the microphone on the deck was off. I was supposed to play reveille, but I forgot the mic was on. The whole ship went berserk as I started to warm up, and I was yelling that there was no attack. Anyway, the captain wisely told me to stay below deck for a few days because everyone wanted to kick my ass.”

He adds: “My worst time in the Navy? When I would have to play taps for someone who was killed. I remember I lost it once, crying.”

Among the unlikely skills that Puente picked up aboard the Santee was arranging for big band. “The pilots on the ship were the most respected,” he explained. “They had a lot of down time. When they would fly out, even it was on a reconnaissance mission, no one would ever know if they would ever be coming back. Since they had a lot of pressure on them, they would keep to themselves.”

One of these pilots was a Lieutenant Sweeney, who had played trumpet in territorial bands in the Midwest. “He was also an arranger,” Puente recalled. “We hit it off and became friends, and he started coaching me on how to write for big bands. How to lay out a chart, the different sections with the brass and saxes, etc. Everyone on the ship called me Lil’ Ernie because I was short, and my name is Ernest. He’d say, ‘Hey Lil’ Ernie, let me see what you’ve written.’ The first chart I ever wrote was for the song ‘El Botellero,’ which I sent to Machito and Mario Bauzá in New York City.”

While Puente was acting as a multi-tasking musician at sea, he was also contributing 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 commendations.

“When the war ended and Japan surrendered, the Navy gave me a choice,” he said. “There were so many troops that had to be sent back that they had to stagger their return. They asked me if instead of coming back right away, I could take a delayed return by ship, by going to different ports in the Orient. It would take several months. They explained to me that we’d stop along the way in each port city, and I would learn about the music, food, customs, etc. I decided to take that option — and it was great, because I really heard a lot of Asian music and experienced their culture. I learned how they used chord voicings in fourths, writing melodies using their scales, etc. It’s the reason I’ve written all those tunes like ‘Hong Kong Mambo’ and ‘Mambo Buddha.’ It started with ‘Picadillo’ and it’s gone on from there. If I hadn’t made that decision, I probably never would’ve composed those things.”

When he returned stateside, Puente took advantage of the G.I. Bill and studied orchestration and conducting at the Juilliard School. “My conducting teacher was Japanese,” he said. “You could imagine my surprise!”

Eventually Puente traveled many times to Japan on tour. “I always think about my time in the Navy, and how they were trying to kill me and me them,” he reflected. “But like I said, if it wasn’t for the war I never would’ve been exposed to that music and culture. Go figure. Now they play and study our music in Japan and they’re good at it. I guess you could say that even in war, [the power of] music, art, dancing, food… always eventually wins.”

Here are five tracks that illustrate the Asian influence on Tito Puente.

Tito Puente's Piccadilly Boys, "Arthur Murray Rumba"

Built on just one chord, this is the first version of one of Tito's best-known pieces, which eventually would become known as "Picadillo." It was the first example of Maestro Puente's forays into composing something that came directly from being exposed to Asian music during his naval service. Recorded on June 1, 1949 for Gabriel Oller's SMC (Spanish Music Center) label, Tito wisely named it after the most well known ballroom dance teacher in the country, Arthur Murray. As Puente once said, "For any type of music to become really popular it has to have a dance associated with it." By the year this was released, 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 closing piano and bass tumbao (repetitive rhythm) eventually became the tune's intro in later versions of the song.

"Hong Kong Mambo"

Another classic composition by El Maestro that is directly tied 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 transmit the Asian musical spirit while the bravura trumpets blast a majestic shouting fanfare. And of course, you can dance your butt off to it!

Tito Puente, "Lotus Land"

From another masterpiece album, Puente Goes Jazz, recorded for RCA in 1956, the same year Tito recorded and released Cuban Carnaval. "When I studied at Juilliard I had one goal in mind, to learn to compose music for movies," he said. "But there was one problem. I got sidetracked as a bandleader." His haunting arrangement and vibes playing, combined with jazz elements on this composition by impressionistic composer Cyril Scott, hints at what Tito may have accomplished if he had been given the opportunity to score music for movies. It also demonstrates the depth and expansive breath of knowledge of his musical skills.

José Mangual, "Chinatown" (feat. Carlos "Patato" Valdez and Tito Puente)

Here is Tito’s ode to New York City’s Chinese enclave in Lower Manhattan — set to the rhythm of mambo, with his contribution on marimba. It appears on the 1977 album Buyú, by the legendary bongo player for the Machito Afro-Cubans, José “Buyú” Mangual. In the 1970s and ‘80s, during the heyday of NYC’s salsa war, A-list bands like Puente’s frequently did up to three gigs in one night. It was a Tito Puente Orchestra tradition that after the last gig, the entire band would meet to eat at a place in Chinatown called Wo Hop’s, at which I have fond memories.

Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, "Mambo Buddha"

Originally appearing on Cuban Carnaval, Puente’s 1956 RCA debut, this is a tribute to Budai, the historical Chinese monk who is venerated as a deity in Chinese Buddhism and also exists in Japanese Buddhism. Like a master chef, the Maestro deftly applies his multiculturalism magic as he combines the Afro-Cuban rhythm known as Afro with the harmonic, melodic, spiritual side of Asia without making it a cliché. This version was recorded back in 2008 for a mega concert conducted by yours truly in tribute to Maestro Puente’s large works with the student orchestra I taught at the Manhattan School of Music. Dig a young Christian Sands’ brilliant piano work as he beautifully interpreted my instructions that Budai was the aimless wanderer who was always boisterously funny.

Bobby Sanabria is an eight time Grammy-nominee as a leader, drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, documentary film producer, educator, activist, and bandleader. A native son of the South Bronx born to Puerto Rican parents, he has performed and recorded with such legends as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Cándido, Henry Threadgill, Larry Harlow, and the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz, Mario Bauzá.