"Pitbull says he's from the 305, I'm from the 954!" proclaims Tito Puente Jr., cimbales player, orchestra leader, and son of the famous Latin jazz and salsa composer. Though originally from New York, Puente says of Broward County, "This is my home now."
It seems there's a lot the musician likes about living around here. There's the beach, and a lot of activities for his young kids. When he grew up in the Bronx, all there was to do was roller-skate. But these days, the New Yorker says, "I think I'm a mall rat! I hang out at Sawgrass a lot."
Though his son is only 4-years old, he already, like the rest of the world, knows who his grandfather is. "When he hears Latin music, he says he thinks of his granpappy, and of course his dad too," Puente says. "Hopefully, they'll take after his father and grandfather, keep this dynasty alive."
And it is a living dynasty. Puente started making music in a rock band in high school in the late-'80s. "I sort of gravitated toward my father's music when I traveled with him. Seeing different parts of the world. Feeling that clave beat, that mambo rhythm he had.
"I'm proud to be his son," he says, noting that it's been 10 years since he passed away. "So, I continue his legacy and keep his music alive, best I can."
But as a kid, he remembers that before the age of nine, he used to fall asleep at his father's concerts. "They'd be like stadium concerts, like Yankee Stadium, even here at the Orange Bowl with the great Celia Cruz. I remember coming down here and falling asleep at the show!"
His father's fame didn't phase him until he got older and Bill Cosby and Carlos Santana were calling the house. "They'd call me Little Tito, of course." These elder stars of the screen and stage are like uncles to him. Puente says that the reason he thinks they still reach out to him, his mom, his sister is because of his father's humility, something that's been inherited by his offspring, "He was greatly loved, and he was a humble guy. We appreciate that there are still Tito Puente fans out there."
About two decades back, there was a resurgence in interest in his father's music and Latin jazz that still lingers. When asked how this affected him, he says he has the same attitude as his father. "They asked him, 'Mr. Puente, what do you think of crossover music?' My father's reaction was, 'Crossover? Man, I'm on my way back!' 'Cause he was doing this so many years ago and this music is timeless." Now that Junior travels the world bringing his father's sounds to fans, it's clear there's a reason the sound still resonates with audiences, "Where people don't know the language, they still dance to this music."
Many of his fans though aren't just Latinos, but Italians and Jews who were raised with the big band mambo music, many of whom retired and came to South Florida. But his crowd isn't just golden oldies, he entertains a new generation too. "It's great to see them still remember the music, and for the younger generation, it's great that they're discovering the music from yesteryear, and it feels brand new to them."
Though he doesn't perform down here often, one of his fondest memories takes place in Broward. "It was most exciting when my father was alive, when I performed with him at the Hollywood Beach bandstand at a Latin jazz festival, which was the same year he passed away, in 2000." He's performing tonight at Bienes Center for the Arts and what you can expect is, "You're going to get that nostalgic feeling of being in the 1950, however you'll have that 2013 modern style to it."
Puente works locally, but also on the West Coast and in New York. His last album was called Got Mambo, and he's currently working on his third release with a recent Grammy-winner producer.
Next up, he's touring in Greece, London, and St. Lucia. He admits happily that it's a "very exciting time in the life of Tito Puente Jr."
Tito Puente Jr., 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 1, at Bienes Center for the Arts, 2801 SW 12 Street, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $19.99 with fees. Call 954-513-2272 or visit bienescenterforthearts-sta.org.