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 most dynamic albums for the label 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 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. In March 1917—to ensure America's claim to the island was unmistakable during growing global tensions—the U.S. granted citizenship to all residents of the protectorate. Two months later, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act, about 20,000 Puerto Ricans were drafted during World War I.
Citizenship also meant the ability to migrate freely to the U.S. But for the next 30 years, most Puerto Ricans remained on their native island, since sufficient work could be found in the country's expansive sugar-cane economy.
But 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 began shifting en masse to the cities as new industries and better-paying jobs emerged.
As the island's population grew and costs climbed, there weren't enough better-paying jobs to meet demand, and younger Puerto Ricans saw opportunity in the U.S, in New York where previous generations had settled. The migration was significant. Relocation to the U.S. from the island averaged only 1,800 annually between 1930 and 1939, but from 1950 to 1959, the migration rate jumped to 43,000 yearly. [Photo above 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 for free at Juilliard. In the late '40s and throughout the '50s, Puente recorded extensively, and his music was embraced by Puerto Rican emigrees—particularly those living in Spanish-Harlem and the Bronx.
With the advent of the 12-inch LP in the mid-'50s along with the mambo and cha-cha-cha, the number of Latin dance halls in New York grew—arousing greater interest in Latin-jazz by a swelling population of Puerto Rican and non-Latin teens. Puente was signed to RCA in 1956 and began recording extensively for the label.
The results included four dynamic albums that brought the sound of New York's ballrooms like the Palladium into homes—turning his LPs into house-party favorites. Interest also spread as Jewish families spent summers in the Catskill Mountains north of the city and bands like Puente's appeared there. House bands at resorts that were made up of New York musicians were soon being asked by dancers to play mambos and cha-cha-chas.
The four heat-seaking albums in this RCA box are Cuban Carnival (1956), a Latin-jazz opus that emphasized 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 bands were arranged to exchange ideas in thier respective idioms.
The fifth CD features worthy alternate takes—including takes #1 through #7 of Pa' Los Rumberos from Cuban Carnival. The song's evolution here, complete with false starts, illustrates 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 Tito Puente: Complete RCA Recordings from 2001. When originally released, the two box's notes had missing or incomplete personnel listings and there was an overall lack of crisp organization. Perhaps Sony will re-issue all of the Puente RCA material as part of its ongoing series of complete box sets. If so, I'll let you know.
Nevertheless, by listening to these four remastered 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—putting the band on par with contemporary orchestras led by Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. And if you close your eyes, you might even imagine immaculately dressed couples moving sensually around the dance floor, inventing new steps to Puente's hypnotic and unforgiving percussion and brass.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Tito Puente, Quatro: The Definitive Collection (RCA), a five CD set, here.
JazzWax clips: Here are samples from the new box...
From Cuban Carnival....
From Revolving Bandstand...