Sons of famous fathers take different paths. Some run as far away as they can from their father’s fame and legacy. Others try to emulate it and fail. Some like Tito Puente, Jr., son of the performer known as El Rey, the King, embrace the legacy and work to keep it alive, while making their own kind of music and their own mark.
In an interview, Tito Puente Jr., who was raised in New York and now lives in Miami, spoke about the different influences on his father and himself. “I was born in the suburbs of Rockand County,” he said. “I was suburbanized. New York is a totally different feeling. It’s more urban jazz. South Florida is more mambo, more Caribbean islands, more Afro-Cuban salsa. It’s part of the aura of South Beach, New York is more jazz and big Band.”
Puente noted that his father, who was born and raised in Harlem, was exposed to jazz, blues and the Apollo sound. “My father created a sound and a vision,” Puente said. He added mambo to swing. It was very danceable and was very structured in its way. It had the rhythm. Gloria Estefan was right about that.”
Puente liked and admired his father, who taught him valuable lessons. “He was an incredible man,” Puente said. “He said the main thing was to hone your craft and surround yourself with creative people and you will be creative, too. He was always around musicians. He was a cool cat and spent a lot of time with jazz, Latin and percussion players. I learned that from him and it’s taken me far into a career having that instilled at an early age.”
One thing his father did not teach him was the drums. The younger Puente began his career in the school marching band and he took drum lessons with someone else. “He didn’t have the patience to teach,” Puente said. “He sent me to drum classes and in college, jazz appreciation pushed me to learn more about music. I would come on the road with him from my late teens to early adult, watching and listening. It was the greatest way to learn about Latin jazz music, seeing that mentorship. It got into my heart. He didn’t push me; I gravitated to it.”
Puente has created his own style and it has taken him a long way. He brings a taste of contemporary jazz to the traditional mambo style and performs more than 300 shows a year across the country, from jazz festivals to grand symphony halls. In 2004, he released the celebrated album, In My Father’s Shoes, which inspired a BET Jazz television special. He also appeared on the NPR tribute, The Apollo at 70: A Hot Night in Harlem. His 2010 album, Got Mambo, featuring guests Hansel and Raul and Bobby Cruz combined traditional mambo with new and innovative salsa compositions.
Now 47, Puente is comfortable with his legacy and his own music. “I’m getting to the point where I feel I’ve embraced his spirit,” he said. “He left a catalogue of more than 186 records. I’ve embraced the ‘nepotism.’ I do feel that I honor his name. He shined a light on Latin music as an ambassador and I’m proud to hold that crown highly. What makes my concerts unique is that I have a quirkiness between songs and tell how it was written. I also engage the audience and talk about the great nightclubs and places like Kutcher’s in the Catskills. It’s really nostalgic and your feet will be hurting you.”
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