When the King Became a Doctor

On May 19, 1999, the King of Latin Music Tito Puente became Doctor Puente. During the Commencement ceremony, Ernest Anthony “Tito” Puente, Jr. was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music. The Harlem-born conductor had delighted audiences for decades, but on this day, Columbia also recognized his support for future Latino musicians with the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund.

Tito Puente at Commencement, 1999. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Scan 5311. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

During the 1950s, the son of Puerto Rican parents rose to popularity with the Afro-Cuban rhythms of mambo, son, and cha cha chá. In the Columbia student newspaper, the Spectator, there are ads for Tito Puente and his Orchestra performing at “Long Island’s luxury cabana club” Malibu in 1958; at the Empire State Building’s Riverboat in 1965; and at Lee Canaan’s Revelation Supper Club in 1971. When the Columbia student radio station WKCR focused its programming on jazz, Puente’s Latin jazz was part of its regular rotation. He even performed on campus. In November 1990, Puente and his Latin All-Star Jazz Band played the Miller Theater. In October 1996, together with Cuban legend Celia Cruz, C&C Music Factory, George Lamond and La India, Puente and his Orchestra honored the community and the staff at the Harlem Hospital Center, where Puente was actually born in 1923.

At the 1999 Commencement, University President George Rupp honored Puente’s career and legacy in the presentation of his honorary doctorate in Music:

“Son of Spanish Harlem, joyful composer, incomparable percussionist, King of Latin Music, you move the world to dance as you bridge nations, generations, and musical disciplines. Raised on rhumbas and boleros, you led the mambo movement of the Fifties and recorded jazz with the greats, including a man who would later stand where you are standing now, the late Dizzy Gillespie. As we laud your imaginative film scores, your four Grammy Awards, and your concerts from Monterey to Montreaux to Munich, we also take note of your central role in establishing the Tito Puente Scholarship Fund to support aspiring musicians. Columbia is greatly honored to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.” [1]

Puente was in great company. The year’s honorary degree recipients included boxing legend Muhammad Ali; linguist Noam Chomsky; Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Brion Davis; physics and engineering scholar Mildred Dresselhaus; theater, opera and film director Julie Taymor; National Medal of Science-winner Richard Zare; and psychiatric researcher Lawrence Kolb, who established the Washington Heights Community Service.

[1] Text of the citation for Tito Puente read by President George Rupp, 1999. Commencement Collection (Box 29), University Archives.

Tito Puente armed with an umbrella for a rainy Commencement ceremony, 1999. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Scan 5309. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.
Tito Puente at Butler Library before the Commencement procession, 1999. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Scan 5310. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.