For the Love of the Mambo

A documentary by Marsha Baxter
On a muggy spring morning in 1995, I heard the Tito Puente Orchestra live for the first time. The venue – an auditorium crowded with public school elementary students and teachers on Manhattan’s Upper Westside. The band generously included in their program a descarga with my fifth grade percussionists and riffed along to their West African inspired piece. Among Puente’s sidemen were Jose Madera, Johnny Rodriguez, Sonny Bravo, Bobby Porcelli, and Mitch Frohman, who had arranged the concert and whose three daughters were my music students at the school.

Years later, I invited Mitch to perform as guest artist with the Latin ensemble I direct at the Crane School of Music. Our concert led to a collaboration much larger in scope, an on-going project with the newly formed Mambo Legends Orchestra, composed of many of Puente’s musicians I had first heard in Manhattan. Throughout 2010, my students traveled to New York City for master-classes and private lessons with Mitch Frohman, Pete Nater, Johnny Rodriguez, Jose Madera, Kevin Bryan, John Walsh, and Bobby Porcelli. Following multiple trips to New York City, the Mambo Legends Orchestra performed and presented master-classes in Potsdam at the Crane School of Music. Our ensemble opened the concert, playing La esencia del guaguanco in honor of Mambo Legends Orchestra vocalist Cita Rodriguez and in memory of her father, the celebrated sonero Pete ‘El Conde’ Rodriguez.

Tito Puente has come to signify the Latin musical experience. His legacy lives on through the Mambo Legends Orchestra – musicians who, night after night, shared the bandstand with him over the course of decades. Our documentary traces the story of these legendary artists reaching out to a new generation of young performers, who uncover the intricacies – and essentials – of playing Latin music and, along the way, transform as learners and musicians.


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