Very few musicians of any kind have contributed more to the musical identity of a city than Tito Puente did for New York City.
Certainly, in the early decades of jazz, and with rock-and-roll and hip hop, there are more than a few names that we could mention, but Tito Puente Sr., born and raised in Spanish Harlem, is in a category by himself. Partly, that is because no one gave more of themselves as an artist than Puente.
If you are a New Yorker, and you never saw Puente perform, leading a big band or a small group, you had to be someone who doesn’t get out much.
How could you have missed seeing Tito?
Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, he played somewhere in the city nearly every night of the week. He played the big, famous clubs, but he also played for free in parks, plazas in the city, at fundraisers, at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvas. He was famous enough to have performed on all the big TV talk shows – The Tonight Show, David Letterman, etc. Tito played music like some people breath. He played salsa, and he also played jazz. His approach clearly defined what was different with those two musical styles, and also, when he wanted to, he brought them together in the form we call Latin Jazz. He was a brilliant musician and a brilliant performer. He, more than anyone in history, made Latin Music the music of New York City.
When Tito Puente passed away in 2000 at the age of 77, something irreplaceable was lost. Not only the music he created, which lives on in recordings and also in the work of countless living musicians who play his compositions (every time you hear “Oye Como Va,” no matter who’s playing it, you are breathing in the spirit of Tito Puente), but Tito’s actual presence on the city’s musical landscape was larger than life – the big smile, eyes bugging, often mugging for the camera, playing his music with a sense of exuberance and joy that was infectious. Put simply, NYC is not the same place without Tito doing his thing.
A musician who knows this better than most is Bobby Sanabria. Boricua, born and raised in the South Bronx, Bobby is, in many ways, the keeper of the flame when it comes to Puente’s legacy. He started out as a drummer performing in Puente’s band, and, throughout his career, has embraced and expanded upon the legacy – not only through Tito’s music, but also channeling his joyfulness and dedication to craft.
On Wednesday night, December 18, Bobby Sanabria pays tribute to Tito Puente at one of the most revered jazz venues in town – Birdland. There will be two sets at 7 and 9:45 pm. Bobby and his sextet will be performing downstairs at Birdland Theater, a beautifully intimate venue for this kind of music. It’s going to be a special kind of night not only because the music will be superlative, but also because we will be paying tribute to a man whose contribution to the cultural life of our city is nearly incomparable. And we, as lovers of Latin Jazz, are here to say that the legacy of Tito Puente must never be forgotten.
Please join us. Birdland also has great food, so you can make a meal out of it. Start your holidays off with some tremendous music, NYC-style. It will be a night of entertainment not to be missed.