Bandleader, percussionist, composer, and arranger. Born Ernesto Antonio Puente, Jr., on April 20, 1923, in New York, New York. Puente was a musical pioneer for mixing musical styles with Latin sounds and for his experiments in fusing Latin music with jazz. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, he took piano lessons as a child and then studied percussion. After being drafted, Puente served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Once he returned to New York in 1945, he used money from the G.I. Bill to study at the famed Juilliard School of Music. He formed a band that would later be known as the Tito Puente Orchestra in 1948. By the 1950s, crowds came to see his band play and Puente became a Latin music sensation. In 1958, his best-selling album, Dance Mania, was released. More hit records followed as the world enjoyed the way Puente put a big band spin on traditional Latin dances, such as the mambo and the cha-cha.
During a career that spanned more than five decades, Puente became a musical legend in Latin music and jazz circles. He made more than 100 albums and created more than 200 compositions. Puente received numerous awards for his work, including five Grammy Awards. Sometimes called the "King of Latin Jazz" or simply "El Rey"—The King—he made an indelible mark on the popular culture. The writer Oscar Hijuelos made him a character in his 1989 novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and Puente appeared as himself in the 1992 film adaptation. He also guest starred on numerous television shows, such as The Simpsons.
Tito Puente died on May 31, 2000, while in the hospital for heart surgery in New York, New York. Adored by his fans, many people waited in line for days to say good-bye to the popular bandleader.