Many might assume Tito Puente, Jr. learned his musical skills from his father -the late “King of Latin Jazz” – Tito Puente. However, he says he learned “zero” about music from his dad. Instead, he says he learned how to appreciate Latin music, and most importantly, how to be a father.
Just like his father, Puente, Jr. has a gigantic smile and plays the drums with an ease that makes it seem as simple as tying your shoes. He says when he was young, he was a heavy metal fan and would fall asleep at his father’s concerts, even though 30,000 fans would be cheering loudly. He recalls how he and his father, whom he now calls “the greatest Latin percussionist of all time,” used to clash. When Puente, Jr. was in high school, he says he was into Aerosmith and Phil Collins, and his father didn’t speak the same musical language.
As the years passed, something sparked within him, and he now has his own 13-piece orchestra. He’s working on his next album using his father’s unfinished compositions, and he will be playing with the Celia Cruz All Stars this weekend at Chicago’s Festival Cubano.
“I have been playing Afro-Cuban music just like my dad,” says Puente, Jr., who says he made sure to clear his calendar for this important weekend, which he calls a family affair. “It’s a personal tribute to my dad and to celebrate my godmother – Celia Cruz. She was so loving and a phenomenon. It’s very rare you see talent like that – every 100 years.”
At the Festival, Puente, Jr., says he will be performing some of his dad’s signature pieces, including “Agua Limpia Todo,” which Puente, Jr. resuscitated on his last CD Got Mambo, as well as “Ran Kan Kan” and the famous “Oye Como Va.”
“I love my father’s music, and I keep the integrity of the arrangement to the original form,” says Puente, Jr., 41, when asked about his upcoming performance.
“I think you will see an image of Puente,” says the accomplished son, recognizing he is a spitting image of his father. He adds, though, “I have a different quirky style. You will hear classic mambo music with a new 2012 edge to it.”
Puente, Jr. is grateful for the period right before his college graduation, when he traveled with his father. Before that, he says he did not share much time with him, since he was always on tour.
“He had about 250 shows a year,” he remembers.
He says this time with his father was priceless, because although he would read about his famous father in textbooks, he couldn’t express or explain himself, except through music.
“Being on the rode with him, I got the bug,” says the younger Puente, who is as hyper as if he had an energy drink for breakfast. “I started feeling the rhythm in my heart.”
Eventually, Puente, Jr. says he got his timbale-slapping father to enjoy pop and rock, especially when he heard Santana’s version of “Oye Como Va,” and Puente, Jr. in turn started to develop more than an ear for his father’s Latin jazz and mambo.
Moreover, Puente Jr. says this quality time on the road taught him how to perform, but mainly, how to be a dad. He says he carries with him two pieces of advice, which he will pass on to his own five children, ages 21, 16, 14, 5, and 4.
“If you’re not nervous, it’s not worth anything,” says Puente, Jr. remembering his dad’s words. “In your job, in performance, your humbleness is going to take you further…Also, surround yourself with creative people, and you will be creative.”
One of his most recent ventures is partnering up with trumpeter kin, Mario Ortiz, Jr. to bring music clinics to local schools in South Florida, where Puente, Jr. moved about two decades ago from the Bronx, NY.
“I’ve done a few clinics as of late in different universities and high schools,” says Puente, Jr. adding how he wishes to start a music scholarship one day like his dad. “It’s great to push music and keep these kids in school.”
He’s also working on his next album scheduled to debut in winter of 2013.
“I’m picking up some compositions that my father did that he never got to record,” says Puente, Jr. “He put a lot of music to the side. I’m looking at it now, and I want to finish what he started. I have to get into his mindset.”
He can’t help but wonder if in the future his youngest son, also named Tito, will ever pick up where he left off.
“Right now, he’s completely into ‘Sponge Bob,'” says Puente, Jr. “He came to one of my concerts and fell asleep – just like I did 35 years ago.”
For this weekend, however, he says he only requests what his dad would have asked.
“Bring your dancing shoes,” says the lively Puente, Jr. “It’s infectious. My dad is an angel at my side.”