Over the years, Tito Puente's Latin-jazz albums for RCA have been in and out of print. The 2001 Complete RCA Recordings, Vols. 1 and 2 (6 CDs each) are going for hundreds of dollars each—if you can find them. Now, to celebrate the late percussionist-bandleader's 90th birthday, RCA has released Tito Puente, Quatro: The Definitive Collection—a box that features four of his biggest albums remastered on four CDs plus a fifth with bonus material from the sessions.
The music not only documents Puente's rhythmic mastery and passion for section precision but also reflects on the enormous cultural contribution made by New York's sizable Puerto Rican community in the '50s.
Puerto Rico was transferred over to U.S. control after the Spanish-American War of 1898, which all but ended Spain's run as a Caribbean colonizer. To stake its claim to the island during heightened global tensions and make Puerto Rico's male population eligible for military service in World War I, the U.S. granted citizenship to all residents in 1917.
Citizenship also meant the ability to migrate freely to the U.S. But for the next 30 years, most Puerto Ricans remained on the island, with plenty of work to be found in the country's expansive sugar-cane economy.
After World War II, Puerto Rico's economy shifted from agrarian to manufacturing for export as new markets opened—thanks to a government policy known as Operation Bootstrap. In the process, the population there began shifting en mass to the cities as new industries emerged. But with the population growing, there weren't enough jobs, and younger Puerto Ricans saw opportunity in the U.S. Migration to the U.S. from the island averaged 1,800 annually between 1930 and 1939. From 1950 to 1959, the migration rate jumped to 43,000 yearly. [Photo taken in Puerto Rico by Louise Rosskam]
Puente was born in New York in 1923 to parents who had migrated in the first wave soon after the island's change of legal status in 1917. He served in the Navy in World War II, and the G.I. Bill enabled him to study after at Juilliard. Throughout the '50s, Puente recorded steadily and his music was embraced by Puerto Rican emigrees—particularly those in Spanish-Harlem and the Bronx.
With the advent of the 12-inch LP in the mid-'50s along with the mambo, the proliferation of Latin dance halls and spiking interest in Latin music by non-Latin teens, Puente was signed to RCA. The results included four dynamic albums that brought the sound of the dance hall into homes, making his LPs house-party hits.
The RCA albums in question were Cuban Carnival (1956), a Latin-jazz opus that placed an emphasis on frenzied percussion and horns; Night Beat (1957), which leaned into jazz a little more with Doc Severinsen on trumpet; Dance Mania (1958), a tribute of sorts to the Palladium and the fiery beats and competitive steps developed on the dance floor; and Revolving Bandstand (1960), featuring two bands in one studio—Puente's with a Latin rhythm section and trombonist Buddy Morrow's, with a jazz section.
The set's fifth CD features worthy alternate takes as well as takes #1 through #7 of Pa' Los Rumberos from Cuban Carnival, which demonstrates with false starts just how tough this music was to get right—even for seasoned pros. I'm not sure why RCA didn't choose to remaster and better organize its Complete RCA Recordings (there was missing or incomplete personnel listings and a lack of crisp organization). Maybe Sony will re-issue all of the Puente RCA recordings in its ongoing series of complete box sets.
Nevertheless, by listening to these four albums one after the next plus the bonus material, you witness Puente's ascension in the Latin-jazz movement as it shifted from exotica in the mid-'50s to impossibly complex music on par with contemporary bands led by Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. And if you close your eyes, you might imagine immaculately dressed couples moving sensually around the dance floor, inventing new steps to Puente's hypnotic and unforgiving music.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Tito Puente, Quatro: The Definitive Collection (RCA), a five CD set, here.