It was a summer afternoon in the mid 80’s (sorry I forget the exact year) and a little over 100 salsa & Latin jazz aficionados, grassroots cultural arts and community organizers were excitedly milling around in the “Hispanics Unidos” building. It was Casa de Unidad’s home base for its cultural programming of Latino arts. The great mambo(salsa) band leader Tito Puente was coming to visit! He was going to come through the doors any minute now to participate in a community appreciation dinner they had organized for him. The food cooked by area residents was piping hot and the smell was definitely getting everyone hungry! The Latin jazz band Amigo led by Francisco Mora was playing and they were “smoking”. The air was electrified. Anticipation was high! Here one of our own, renowned on the international stage and a cultural icon since the 50’s, was coming to El Barrio and hanging out with us!
During the late 70s through the 80s and into the early 90s Tito Puente was a regular fixture in the Detroit jazz scene. Besides playing regularly at the Montreaux-Detroit International Jazz Festival, Tito Puente was a regular fixture in the Pontchartrain Hotel jazz series held in downtown for over a decade. With fond memories I remember dancing to his salsa/jazz ensemble on the upper floor “open air” terrace from which you could see and in fact were immersed in the Detroit skyline. It was during this same period, the 80s, that Casa de Unidad was acknowledged as a major player within the Detroit art and cultural scene. Their influence ranged well beyond southwest Detroit as they were a major cultural force in the Detroit area and highly revered by a number of state level cultural institutions like Michigan State University and the Michigan Council of the Arts. Well known for its programming it also was recognized as a top rated advocate for the promotion of Latin music and arts. This influence assured that a request to Tito Puente to come visit our organization during one of his frequent visits to the Pontchartrain jazz series was taken to heart. He wanted to know who these Detroit neighborhood activists were. He was honored by the request of a group so firmly rooted within a Latino community he had yet to become acquainted with.
Puente’s career dated back to the late 40s when as a young man he started his ascendancy. At the young age of 15 he already was performing with the famed Machito orchestra, the founders of the mambo and Latin jazz movement in the U.S. By the 50’s he was known for his frenetic style and musical genius as both a mambo and jazz musician. For decades he along with Machito and sus AfroCubanos and the Tito Rodriguez big band were considered the “Big Three” of the Mambo scene in New York. Their playground was the famed dancehall, the Palladium.
Our community was elated that such a major icon would come visit Casa de Unidad. In walks Tito Puente and the crowd broke into loud applause! You could see he was deeply moved. He worked the crowd, introducing himself to a great many within the hall. He stopped in front of the food, eyed the arroz con glándules (rice with pigeon peas), chicken fricase, lechón asado (roasted pork), numerous sweets and pastries and much more. He hugged a number of the community women/activists who had cooked up this fantastic feast and almost immediately got up on the small stage, approached Francisco Mora and started playing some of his classic tunes, “Cuban Fantasy”, “Oye Como Va”, “Ran Kan Kan” that Amigo had been prepared to do just in case the great one wanted to jam with them! As he approached the timbale drums, they broke out in huge smiles, “high fiving” each other. You know the crowd got up right away and put on their dancing shoes.
In no time it became a truly historic moment. After folks danced a few tunes Tito Puente stated that he was so moved he wanted to do a fundraising dance for Casa. The crowd broke into thunderous applause. Alas, due to a number of unavoidable situations that scholarship fundraiser never came pass but Tito Puente on a few occasions personally told me he was looking forward to keeping his promise.
Recently I was scouring through a pile of old photos, found some from that dinner and I was immediately flooded by these memories… Wow! Tito Puente hung out with us and life was never the same………