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Remembering Tito Puente, 13 years after his death

Tito Puente (Courtesy Sony Music Latin)

Tito Puente (Courtesy Sony Music Latin)

This April, Tito Puente, otherwise known as “The King of Latin Jazz,” would have celebrated his 90th birthday; and today, marks the 13th anniversary since his death at 77.

A son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Puente grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem. He became a musician at age 13, learning how to play the piano and then the saxophone, vibraphone and timbales. He was a pioneer in Latin music, known for blending styles and putting a big-band sound on traditional Latin music, in a career which spanned five decades.

In 1948, Puente formed the Tito Puente Orchestra, and a decade later in 1958, he released his best-selling album, “Dance Mania.” However, few may know that he was also a U.S. war veteran. After being trained by the iconic Machito Orchestra, Puente was drafted into the U.S. Navy and served during World War II. In 1945, he used the money from the G.I. Bill to study at New York City’s prestigious music school, Juilliard. Later in life, he gave back to his alma mater by creating a scholarship for Latin percussionists.

“The scholarship was a dream of mine for a long time,” Puente once said in a statement, explaining, “In the Latin community, we have a lot of gifted youngsters who don’t get an opportunity to develop their talent because of a lack of money. Long after, I’m gone, the fund will be helping kids.”

by Kristina Puga, @kristinapuga

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