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Tito Puente: Mambo Diablo – His World Through the Eyes of Joe Conzo

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Tito Puente

Tito PuenteIt was Bobby Sanabria who made what is probably the most authentic observation about Tito Puente and his contribution to music. Mr Sanabria said, “Without Tito Puente there would be no Latin Jazz.” This may well be construed as a somewhat over statement but no one who is a connoisseur of the music could doubt the importance of Mr Puente; not only his contribution to the all-pervasive image but, I suspect, his importance in music in general. For anyone who believes this as well as for anyone simply interested in getting to know El Rey – as he was appropriately named – this book, Mambo Diablo – My Journey With Tito Puente as told by Tito Puente’s best friend and confidant, Joe Conzo to David A. Perez, is essential reading.

Tito Puente Mambo DiabloThis is a book dense with detail and inevitably when the life story of your best friend is being recounted it is difficult to leave out even the littlest detail. Why would you. After all you are trying, as Mr Conzo is doing, recreate the character of Tito Puente in his own image and likeness. It is important therefore to tell the whole story and this Mr Conzo tells without pulling any punches. Tito Puente was himself a complex character. This becomes clear when as a young man he is seen growing in a fairly dysfunctional family in which his father is largely absent and his mother is left to bring up a gifted child with the energy of a whole brood of children. Mr. Puente’s journey of discovery of music is not so complex, however. True, he wanted to create himself as if he were fashioning himself in the third person, with every talent for music and dance, and showmanship he admired in his heroes – both musicians and bandleaders – in order to first pay respects to the music and its heritage as well as to entertain audiences, which of course he ended up doing to such an extent that he has become one of the most memorable figures in music.

Tito Puente was a complex man. There was much in the manner of his growing up years to facilitate that. He was a terrific drummer, a fine saxophone player, a truly gifted dancer and an entertainer like few people in his day. Growing up he showed a penchant for this in the relationships he enjoyed with those of whom he associated with. But he was also a private person internalising the pain of his childhood – not only success and failure, but also birth and death, and poverty. Mr Conzo got to know all of this from the man himself. He was more than an important business associate; he was perhaps the closest person to Mr. Puente who called him to tell him his deepest thoughts, fears and to discuss the heady successes as well. Mr. Puente was almost obsessed with dissecting everything that happened to him and we get a sense that Mr Conzo seemed to be right there to experience it all with Tito Puente. He (Mr Conzo) seemed to catch on pretty early on in their relationship that he might one day be called upon to give account of not only his life but Tito Puente’s as well. So he preserved almost every Tito Puente-ism in writing.

Tito Puente Joe ConzoBoth men were also not immune to the excesses of stardom. Tito Puente’s ongoing demons with drugs, especially with cocaine are well documented. The pressure to be at his best every time he took to the stage was probably responsible for his habit – one he could or would not kick until his death. Mr Conzo’s was probably a little darker than that but he was careful not to become dependent to the extent that it would take over his life. Mr Conzo quit the habit before it took control of his entire being. Mr Puente’s habit was what kept his body and soul together it would seem. While Mr Conzo does not make any apologies for this he does not condone the habit either. It just was part of Tito Puente, a salve that he could never do without and this was perhaps one of the most tragic aspects of the great man’s life. Mr Conzo is absolutely clear about it. He makes no apologies for Mr Puente, nor does he pull any punches. He simply tells it like it was.

Lest it be suggested that this is a sensational book about a celebrated musician perish the thought. Joe Conzo might not have been a music critic but he manages to bring the music of Tito Puente to life – not as vividly as one would have liked and certainly not as a critic would have, but there is a rare kind of passion in his account of Tito Puente’s music. It comes from the love of the man and the music. Each and every concert, record and tour is expertly documented and brought to life again. The discography at the end adds an element of completeness to the story. The book’s greatest strength is the passionate manner in which the story is told. The storyteller and the writer cannot resist telling the tale in minute detail with all of the subplots that go along with it. At times this can get tedious but for the most part every detail is quite irresistible. This becomes quite clear not too far into the narrative because the death of Tito Puente occurs quite early in the proceedings but by then the reader is already hooked and the body turns chill when the death of Tito Puente is narrated. However, that is when the story truly begins and this is really smart on the part of Joe Conzo and David A. Perez. Best of all, every chapter makes a case – in all of its density – that this music, this Latin Jazz, could not have happened without the colour and the mind, body and spirit of Tito Puente.

Published By: Backbeat Books
No. of pp: 481pp
ISBN: 978-1-61713-029-8

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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Book Reviews

Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño

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Boricua Jazz - La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño - Wilbert Sostre

Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Second Edition)

In November 2020, author, journalist, educator Wilbert Sostre Maldonado released the second (Spanish) edition of Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño · Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Boricua Jazz: The Story of Puerto Rican Jazz from Rafael Hernández to Miguel Zenón).

Maldonado was introduced to jazz and other genres when he studied music and guitar in high school. The seed for Boricua Jazz was planted in 2005, when he wrote reviews for a variety of publications, including Jazz Times, Jazz Inside Magazine, and Latin Jazz Network, and realized, apart from random biographies there were no publications that contained accurate, credible information about Puerto Rican artists.

Through the use of existing biographical data, interviews, requests for information, books, magazines, articles, websites, and active participation in Puerto Rico’s music scene Maldonado created the First Edition of Boricua Jazz in 2019.

The Second Edition contains updated biographies, discographies, and new photos. Also, it contains a comprehensive index (which the First Edition lacked) and information about artists and groups that participated in the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival (1991-2017), biographical data, and in most cases, a discography.

Chapter Breakdown

• CHAPTER 1 – Shines a light on jazz in New Orleans (the cradle of jazz), blues, ragtime, black military bands, and Billie Holliday, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, among others. The chapter also includes an excellent selection of early jazz recordings (1940-1960).
• CHAPTER 2 – Summarizes the musical forms developing in Puerto Rico during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Also, it documents the first encounters between American and Puerto Rican music.
• CHAPTERS 3 & 4 – They focus on Puerto Rican jazz and draws from Basilio Serrano’s groundbreaking book, Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz – 1900 -1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015), and other publications.
• CHAPTER 5 – Dedicated to the valve trombonist, composer, arranger, crack shot sight-reader, transcriber, and progenitor of Latin jazz, Juan Tizol.
• Chapter 6 – Documents the interactions between jazz and salsa. Also, it highlights the trajectories of Puerto Rican musicians who made significant contributions to jazz on the island and in the States.
• CHAPTER 7 – Pays tribute to the independent organizations (1960-1970) that exposed the island to jazz, such as the San Juan Jazz Workshop, the Don Pedro Jazz Workshop, and the Caribbean Workshop. The more prominent, international festivals such as the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest would not be possible without these organizations.
• CHAPTER 8 – Focuses on festivals, concerts, and jazz on the island.
• CHAPTER 9 – Proposes the emergence of Bomba Jazz (Afro-Puerto Rican Jazz), which is unique to the island.
• CHAPTER 10 – Brings readers to the present-day and features emerging jazz players who are giving continuity to the history of the Boricua Jazz Masters.

Throughout the book, Maldonado rightly credits the musicians, composers, arrangers, bandleaders, promoters, presenters, educators, universities, websites, radio show hosts, authors, historians, and journalists whose contributions to jazz were critical to its development and popularization on the island.

Boricua Jazz is a primer for readers who are curious about American jazz, Puerto Rican music and culture, and the relationship between the two. On a personal note, it’s an invaluable reference tool. According to Maldonado, an English Edition is in the works.

En Español

En Noviembre 2020, el autor, periodista y educador Wilbert Sostre Maldonado lanzó la segunda edición (en español) de Boricua Jazz: La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño · Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón (Boricua Jazz: The Story of Puerto Rican Jazz from Rafael Hernández to Miguel Zenón).

Maldonado conoció el jazz y otros géneros cuando estudió música y guitarra en la escuela secundaria. La semilla de Boricua Jazz se plantó en 2005, cuando escribió críticas para una variedad de publicaciones, incluyendo Jazz Times, Jazz Inside Magazine y Latin Jazz Network. Para su sorpresa, se dió cuenta de que, aparte de biografías al azar, no había publicaciones que contuvieran información precisa y creíble sobre artistas puertorriqueños. Esto, a pesar de que los artistas puertorriqueños, hombres y mujeres, se “escondían” a plena vista.

Mediante el uso de datos biográficos existentes, entrevistas, solicitudes de información, libros, revistas, artículos, sitios web y participación activa en la escena musical de Puerto Rico, Maldonado creó la Primera Edición de Boricua Jazz en 2019, una nutrida base de datos de 500 páginas y una valiosa herramienta de referencia.

La segunda edición contiene biografías y discografías actualizadas y fotos nuevas. Además, información detallada sobre artistas fallecidos. También contiene un índice completo (del que carecía la Primera Edición) e información sobre artistas y grupos que participaron en el Festival de Jazz de Puerto Rico Heineken (1991-2017). Boricua Jazz también contiene datos biográficos y, en la mayoría de los casos, una discografía.

Desglose por Capítulo

• CAPÍTULO 1 – arroja luz sobre el jazz en Nueva Orleans (la cuna del jazz), el blues, el ragtime, las bandas militares negras y Billie Holliday, Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong y Sidney Bechet, entre otros. El capítulo también incluye una excelente selección de primeras grabaciones de jazz (1940-1960).
• CAPÍTULO 2 – Resume las formas musicales que se desarrollaron en Puerto Rico durante el siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX. Además, documenta los primeros encuentros entre la música estadounidense y puertorriqueña.
• CAPÍTULOS 3 y 4 – Se centran en el jazz puertorriqueño y se basan en el innovador libro de Basilio Serrano, Pioneros puertorriqueños en el jazz – 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse, 2015), y otras publicaciones.
• CAPÍTULO 5 – Dedicado al trombonista de válvulas, compositor, arreglista, visionario, transcriptor y progenitor del jazz latino, Juan Tizol.
• Capítulo 6 – Documenta las interacciones entre el jazz y la salsa. Asimismo, destaca las trayectorias de músicos puertorriqueños que hicieron importantes aportes al jazz en la isla y en Estados Unidos.
• CAPÍTULO 7 – Rinde homenaje a las organizaciones independientes (1960-1970) que expusieron a la isla al jazz, como el San Juan Jazz Workshop, el Don Pedro Jazz Workshop y el Caribbean Workshop. Los festivales internacionales más destacados como el Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest no serían posibles sin estas organizaciones.
• CAPÍTULO 8 – Se centra en festivales, conciertos y jazz en la isla.
• CAPÍTULO 9 – Propone el surgimiento del Bomba Jazz (Jazz Afropuertorriqueño), único en la isla.
• CAPÍTULO 10 – Lleva a los lectores a la actualidad y presenta a jazzistas emergentes que están dando continuidad a la historia de los Boricua Jazz Masters.

A lo largo del libro, Maldonado acredita con razón a los músicos, compositores, arreglistas, directores de orquesta, promotores, presentadores, educadores, universidades, sitios web, presentadores de programas de radio, autores, historiadores y periodistas cuyas contribuciones al jazz fueron fundamentales para su desarrollo y popularización en la isla. Additionally, Maldonado deserves credit for being up to the task in this dedicated investigative endeavor.

Boricua Jazz es un manual para lectores curiosos por el jazz, la música y la cultura puertorriqueña. En una nota personal, es una herramienta de referencia invaluable a la que me refiero a menudo. Según el autor, se está preparando una edición en inglés.

About the Author

Wilbert Sostre Maldonado is a freelance contributing writer, creator of Jazzin’ magazine and the author of the book Boricua Jazz: Desde Rafael Hernández a Miguel Zenón, La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño. Also, he is the host and producer of Puerto Rico Jazz @ Radio Vieques, Brave New Radio, William Paterson University & Radio Procer, 1380am, 98.5FM Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. His writings appear on Latin Jazz Network, Vid 90 magazine, All About Jazz, Jazz Inside Magazine, Jazztimes, and other publications.

Author, journalist, educator Wilbert Sostre Maldonado

Reference

• Lapidus, Ben – New York and the International Sound of Latin Music – 1940-1990 (University Press of Mississippi-Jackson, 2021)
• Maldonado, William Sostre – Boricua Jazz, La Historia del Jazz Puertorriqueño (First Edition)
• Serrano, Basilio – Juan Tizol, His Caravan Through Life and American Culture (Xlibris)
• Serrano, Basilio – Puerto Rican Pioneers in Jazz, 1900-1939 – Bomba Beats to Latin Jazz (iUniverse)
• Sublette, Ned – Cuba and its Music, From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press)

© 2021 Tomas Peña – ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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