We were fortunate enough to have been present when Tito Puente performed at the "PAINT IT JAZZ 2000" FESTIVAL in the beautiful Caribbean country of Barbados. It was January 15, day four of the festival. The venue has shifted to Farley Hill Park for an afternoon "Concert on the Hill". The grand stage was erected in front of the ruins of an ancient great house, flanked by lawns and trees. Thousands of music lovers from tiny tots to grandmothers brought blankets, chairs and picnic baskets to sit on the hill and have a party. Smoke gently drifted up from barbecues in the tents selling chicken, flying fish, and spicy beef on rice. Just behind the hill was the whole western countryside with lush green hills, rolling white surf in the distance, and a perfect cooling breeze.
Few in the sea of people remained sitting on their chairs or blankets when Tito, the 77-year old Latino of the jazz world, stood surrounded by his drums ready for a solid hour of Latin rhythms that ranged from salsa to sambas. "I know this is a jazz festival," he shouted, "but I'm not going to start with jazz. I'm going to start with salsa." When the set ended the crowd demanded more and Puente, a member of the International Jazz Hall of Fame, gave them what they wanted. After 50 years in the music business (over 400 compositions and 120 recordings) Puente didn't seem to show any signs of either creative or physical fatigue.
Being members of the international press, we were fortunate enough to go backstage to Tito's dressing room/tent for a lively exchange. No formal sitting at a table with microphones in front for Tito. Joking with members of his staff, he fielded questions as he relaxed in a chair for a few moments. When asked why he had selected Latin music for a jazz festival, he replied: "I am a Latin jazz artist, that's why I came here to play, but I have a repertoire of both kinds of music, so if I find people that love typical Latin rhythms, you know, I go for that, I played one Latin jazz today, 'Mambo Inn', the third number, but the rest I went down to our own typical rhythms."
One reporter asked him how old he was. With a funny grin he offered, "When people ask me how old I am I tell them I am twelve years old, they ask me a dumb question I give them a dumb answer!" Another member of the media wanted to know what plans he had for the future. Without hesitation came, "I said this five or seven years ago, I'll say it again and people think I am crazy: I want to get into the Guinness Book, I want to be the first Latin American band to play on the moon! What's crazy about that? Five years ago they said, he is crazy! And I will take Julio Iglesias with me! Let him set up my timbales!"
Tito was asked how he developed his music and unique style. "For many years I was playing at the Palladium Ballroom, the home of the mambo in New York City, we had no ethnic goofs in those days, everyone came to the Palladium to listen to the fine music of Machito Orchestra, Tito Rodriquez, Charlie Palmieri, Eddie Palmieri, Pacheco, all the bands, and I think, Tito Puente was there, too! So that, we always tried to give our musica bigger, higher rhythmic, harmonic concept, more modern than Cuba. Cuba had the basic cultural thing which is wonderful, but there in New York we were giving the music. And people asked me a lot in the newspaper, what do you think about crossover? Crossover! I am on my way back, are you kiddin'? I did my crossover years ago playing for non-Latin people for many, many years, and they feel our rhythms. I have no bi-lingual problems, it's beautiful so I play instrumentals and I play vocals and I play cha-chas, I still do. My latest album I have two or three cha-chas, so I want people to get into the dancing like we used to have in the old days. Because when you play Latin jazz, it is mostly for listening, it is not for dancing, Latin music is for dancing!"
There were a few more general questions such as, "Where are you playing next?" Then, after a few more minutes he had to end the questions as he had to get ready for a return flight to New York. But as a parting comment, with a huge smile, he told us all, "And listen! Do me a favor: write good about me!" Tito, the world will always "write good" about a man who gave so much to the world of music. He will be missed but his music will live on forever.