The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra performing “Avisale a mi Contrario” led by Tito Rodriguez Jr. (Sammy Gonzalez, vocals; Jimmy Bosch, trombone)

No place impacted the development and popularity of Latin music in the United States more than the Palladium Ballroom, the fabled Home of the Mambo. Located at the northeast corner of Broadway and 53rd Street, it started as a dance studio in 1946, and the following year, it added a live show on Sundays. The response was such that soon after, the Palladium was hosting live Latin music Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.

As the rumba craze took over the country in 1948 and through the 1950s, the undisputed kings of the Palladium  – and mambo, cha-cha-cha, and the world of Latin music bubbling up to the surface in American culture –  were Machito and his Afro-Cubans, the Tito Puente Orchestra and Tito Rodriguez.

They were The Big 3 and not only set the bar by which Latin orchestras have been judged since, but their innovations changed the sound and accents of American music.

The 2023 South Beach Jazz Festival (Jan. 5 through Jan. 8 ) promises a compelling sampler of styles and talent, from established veterans to future stars. But a particularly intriguing highlight is the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra conjuring the sound of the Palladium Ballroom in New York City. The orchestra, led by three musicians with famous fathers and artists in their own right, Mario Grillo, the son of the great sonero Francisco “Machito” Grillo, Tito Puente Jr., and Tito Rodriguez Jr., performs Mambo Night in Miami Beach at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7 at the Miami Beach Bandshell (7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach).

“Everything we play is from the original book,” says Grillo, percussionist, and bandleader. “Keep in mind that Machito recorded nearly 100 albums, and that’s a thousand arrangements. Tito Puente recorded 100 albums, and that’s another thousand arrangements. Unfortunately, Tito Rodriguez (who died of leukemia in 1973 at the age of 50) only got to record maybe 50 albums, but that’s another 500 tunes. So, we have a choice of 2,500 pieces to play. We could start playing today, and we wouldn’t finish until next year,” says Grillo breaking into a laugh.

The 90-minute program might include classics such as “Mambo Inn,” “Babarabatiri,” “Mama Guela,” “Chévere,” “El Cayuco,” “Complicación,” and, of course, “Oye Como Va.”

“At the beginning, the dance studio was using phonographs,” says bandleader and percussionist Tito Puente Jr. and he recalls his father telling him that “they were dancing so much while learning the steps that the records would skip, so someone said ‘Why don’t we just bring in some live music?’ and eventually that’s what they did. That could be just a story, but that’s one of the stories that my father told me.”

The original bands developed distinct sounds and had faithful followings — “At that time each band had a signature sound,” says Grillo. “From the first note, you knew if it was Tito Puente, Machito, or Tito Rodriguez.” — and while the competition between the bandleaders would, at times, get intense, their friendship prevailed.

“According to my father, it was a friendly rivalry,” says Puente. “But it really helped bring people to the Palladium. He loved Tito Rodriguez. And Tito Rodriguez was a very, very good timbal player. Mario Bauza [Machito’s music director and a key figure in the creation of Afro-Cuban jazz] was one of my father’s mentors. And Machito was the one who brought Dad to the front of the orchestra to play the timbales. [Machito] was highly regarded as one of the pioneers and leaders of the Afro-Cuban music movement.”

Tito Puente Jr. at the timbales (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Grillo recalls that Puente “came into Machito’s band when he was still in high school. Mario [Bauzá] recruited him. The association between the three of them (Puente, Rodriguez, and Machito) was longstanding. Yes, they were competitors, but they were friends, too, which made it unique.”

In those days, the bands would perform four or five sets per night, notes Puente, “and they would go back and forth, Puente and Rodriguez, and sometimes they would work in different clubs all around the five boroughs of Manhattan. And the competition was about who was bringing in more people, and where were the fans going? Who can make people dance more? That was the rivalry between Rodriguez and Puente.”

Bandleader and percussionist Rodriguez concurs. He notes that his father, a crooner with a devoted following, was closer to Machito and was using Machito’s orchestra to accompany him before he passed away.

“You got to give credit to Machito and Mario Bauzá because they were the ones that put the American jazz horn lines to Afro-Cuban rhythm. They were the innovators, and I would say that Tito Puente and my father improved on it a bit and put a different sound to it. That’s why the three big bands sound differently. It really worked out,” says Rodriguez.

The three bandleaders, who grew up on the sound of their fathers’ bands and lived the excitement the bands created, emphasize the role of the orchestras as the foundation of so much of the Latin music heard since the beginning of the salsa explosion in the 1970s. “As the tides change and the generations change, we tend to forget the work of the pioneers that opened the doors for this music,” notes Puente.

Much has happened in music and American mainstream culture since the days of the Palladium, and yet, says Rodriguez, “some of these arrangements are 50, 60 years old, and they don’t sound dated. Now, that’s a pretty amazing thing to pull off, isn’t it?

An edited version of this story appeared in Artburst Miami