Puente em­brac­ing his fa­ther’s legacy

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Mark Jor­dan Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

With Fa­ther’s Day just a month away, Tito Puente Jr. is rel­ish­ing the rare chance to play the role of dad.

Just off a string of sym­phony pops dates with Marvin Ham­lisch and Jon Secada, he is back home in Fort Laud­erdale tak­ing care of his son, Tito Puente III, 3, be­fore head­ing out to pick up his daugh­ter Mi­randa, 4, from school.

“You go from sold-out con­certs to com­ing home and try­ing to get your son to pee in the toi­let,” says Puente, 39, laugh­ing. “I un­der­stand now what my fa­ther went through when I was my son’s age, trav­el­ing and per­form­ing a lot of mu­sic. He was home very rarely. So when I do come home, I try to spend as much qual­ity time as I can with my kids. I don’t know if potty train­ing is qual­ity time, but I try to spend as much time with them as I can.”

Puente’s de­vo­tion to fam­ily ex­tends well be­yond his chil­dren. It has de­fined him as an artist as he has picked up the man­tle left by his fa­ther, the late “King of Latin Mu­sic” Tito Puente. Sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion artists are noth­ing new in pop mu­sic, but most try to put some dis­tance be­tween them­selves and their par­ents, to es­tab­lish their own artis­tic iden­tity. Few em­brace their legacy with the gusto of Puente, who per­forms Satur­day at the Buck­man Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter.

“I em­brace it 100 per­cent,” says Puente, who with his broad smile and black curly hair bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to his fa­ther. “I think it was my des­tiny to con­tinue his mu­sic and em­brace the fact that I am his son. I will al­ways be com­pared and look like him and have his man­ner­isms, but it’s OK.”

New York-na­tive Tito Puente was per­haps the bright­est star to emerge from the post-World War II Latin mu­sic ex­plo­sion. The Jul­liard grad­u­ate was a charis­matic stage per­former and prodi­gious mu­si­cian, play­ing the vi­bra­phones, piano, sax­o­phone and most of the per­cus­sion in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing his trade­mark tim­bales. Be­fore his death in 2000 at the age of 77, he recorded 168 al­bums and won five Grammy Awards and a Latin Grammy.

He was posthu­mously awarded the Grammy’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award, and 11 years af­ter his death the hon­ors keep rolling in: In March, Puente, who al­ready has a post of­fice in his old neigh­bor­hood of Har­lem in New York City named af­ter him, was among the five artists se­lected to be fea­tured in the United States Postal Ser­vice’s “Latin Mu­sic Le­gends (For­ever)” stamp se­ries.

Puente Jr.’s ear­li­est rec­ol­lec­tions of his fa­ther are of watch­ing him from the wings of the stage when he was 4 or 5. The fa­ther never ex­pressly sat down and taught the son how to play mu­sic, but Puente learned lots just from watch­ing him. The youngest of Puente’s three chil­dren, he fol­lowed his fa­ther into the life of a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian. (Tito’s half brother, who is re­tired and in his late 60s, plays spo­rad­i­cally and not pro­fes­sion­ally; his sis­ter, Au­drey, is a tele­vi­sion me­te­o­rol­o­gist in New York.) But for sev­eral years Puente re­jected his dad’s mam­bos and salsa mu­sic in fa­vor of newer, trendier forms.

“When I started off in my ca­reer in the early ’90s I was do­ing Latin dance and Latin hip-hop mu­sic, but I al­ways grav­i­tated to­ward the Latin roots,” says Puente, who also played for a time in a heavy metal band called Monox­ide. “My fa­ther knew noth­ing of rock mu­sic or heavy metal. But one of the big­gest rock icons of the world re-did one of my fa­ther’s sig­na­ture stan­dard songs, ‘Oye Como Va,’ and that’s Car­los San­tana. Af­ter that he started lik­ing rock mu­sic.”

Though they were on dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal paths, fa­ther and son did work to­gether, with Se­nior ap­pear­ing on Ju­nior’s 1996 con­tem­po­rary dance al­bum Guarachando. But it wasn’t un­til his dad’s death that Puente fully ac­cepted his Latin mu­sic roots.

“I wanted to con­tinue his legacy,” says Puente. “It’s some big shoes to fill, but you can’t just let a dy­nasty like that just fade away.”

Three years af­ter Puente’s death, his son made his de­but fronting a tra­di­tional salsa band, ap­pro­pri­ately named In My Fa­ther’s Shoes. Since then, he has nudged the tra­di­tion along a lit­tle. His most re­cent record, last year’s Got Mambo, fea­tures seven orig­i­nals that were “a lit­tle more mod­ern, more pro­gres­sive Latin jazz, if you will.” It’s an ap­proach he plans to con­tinue on his in-the-works fol­low-up. He has also lent his tal­ents to records by such main­stream artists as P. Diddy and Cy­press Hill.

But his fa­ther’s work still re­mains very much on Puente’s mind. He is in talks to de­velop a film of Puente Sr.’s life. And the se­ries of sym­phony pops dates he has been do­ing with Ham­lisch as con­duc­tor draws on re­cently dis­cov­ered ar­range­ments the el­der man had de­vel­oped in his fi­nal years.

“Per­form­ing those con­certs is al­most like a call­ing from the grave,” he says.

Mean­while, Puente hopes to pass on his sense of des­tiny to his own son as well.

“I al­ways thought there was some mean­ing of my life, of be­ing here on this planet. Af­ter all, my fa­ther named me af­ter him,” says Puente. “Hope­fully, (Puente III) will con­tinue his grand­fa­ther’s tra­di­tion of play­ing this mu­sic. But first we got get this potty train­ing down.”

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