Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes dies in Sweden at 94
MADRID — Renowned Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, a composer and bandleader who recorded with Nat “King” Cole, was musical director at Havana's legendary Tropicana Club and a key participant in the golden age of Cuban music has died in Sweden at age 94.
The news of his death was confirmed by Cincy Byram, the agent of Valdes' son Chuco Valdes, who is a well-known musician in his own right. A cause of death was not given.
The senior Valdes studied piano and later taught it to Chucho (Jesus Dionisio Valdes), who went on to become a founding member of the internationally acclaimed Cuban-based jazz band Irakere.
The father began playing accompaniments at Havana's famous night clubs in the 1940s. He then worked with singer Rita Montaner as her pianist and arranger from 1948 to 1957, when she was the lead cabaret act at the Tropicana.
His orchestra Sabor de Cuba also accompanied singers Benny More and Pio Leyva at the club. It was during this period that he and rival bandleader Perez Prado developed the mambo, a rhythmic style of dance music that swept the world. Valdes and his orchestra devised another rhythm called the batanga which he said helped differentiate his sound from Perez Prado's.
The senior Valdes maintained a parallel interest in jazz music and took part in many important sessions, some recorded on Cuba's renowned Panart label.
“I was a jazz musician from a very young age,” Valdes once said. “I started playing like the first jazz pianist I heard, a guy who was popular when I was a kid: Eddy Duchin.” He said other influences were Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Bill Evans.
In 1958, he worked on Nat “King” Cole's album “Cole Espanol,” collaborating with arranger Nelson Riddle on the orchestral backing tracks that were all recorded in Havana. He also worked with singers Lucho Gatica and Mona Bell.
Following Fidel Castro's communist revolution in 1959, Valdes left Cuba, traveling to Mexico in 1960 accompanied by singer Rolando La Serie, but without his children.
Valdes said one day a revolutionary guard went to his house demanding the pianist accompany him to a plaza where Castro was giving a speech. “I asked if there was going to be music there and he replied to me that Castro was music,” he said, adding that he then knew it was time to go.
After a brief stay in the United States, Valdes set off on a European tour.
Valdes went to Stockholm in 1963 for a concert with the Lecuona Cuban Boys and fell in love with a Swedish woman, Rose Marie Pehrson, a cavalry officer's daughter.
They got married the same year and he settled in Sweden. He described it as the most important moment of his life.
“It was like being hit by lightning,” he said. “If you meet a woman and you want to change your life you have to choose between love and art.”
Valdes lived in Stockholm until 2007 where he often struggled to interest people in Cuban music and Latin jazz. He earned a meager living playing in restaurants, on boat cruises and in some of Stockholm's finest hotels, although he said he did once consider becoming a bus or taxi driver.
Valdes was not able to see his increasingly well-known and Cuba-based son Chucho until 1978 when he visited New York for the first time in 18 years and attended a concert.
The father often told an anecdote of how a Cuban regime minder came up to him after the concert and said, “See how well we have shaped your son?”
He said he retorted, “I'm very glad, but when was that? Because Chucho played piano at home with me when he was four years old and at 16 he joined a band called Sabor de Cuba, my band.”
Valdes' career got a late boost in 1994 when he teamed up with saxophone player Paquito D'Rivera to release a CD called “Bebo Rides Again.”
“All musicians want to be famous and I think I've recently experienced some of the biggest moments of my life,” Valdes told Svenska Dagbladet.
Nine years later Valdes worked with Spanish singer-songwriter Diego Cigala on “Lagrimas Negras,” a flamenco-jazz fusion style CD that won Best Record of the Year by the New York Times. The experience attracted him to Spain where he settled after leaving Stockholm.
Valdes then worked with Chucho to release the CD “Juntos para Siempre” (Together Forever) in 2009. The father and son toured Europe at least twice.
Valdes won five Grammy Award in the categories of Best traditional tropical album and Best Latin jazz albums: two for “El arte del sabor” in 2002, one for “Lagrimas Negras” in 2004 and two for “Bebo de Cuba” in 2006.
Asked how he found the energy to keep performing he said, “What else would I do? Watch TV? No, I'd rather play the piano. I will play until I die.”
Valdes is survived by wife Rose Marie, daughters Mayra and Miriam, sons Raul, Jesus “Chucho,” and Ramon (born in Cuba) and Raymond and Rickard, who are Swedish.