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On the phone from his home near Stockholm, a proud Bebo remembers when he left the house one day for the Club Tropicana where he played piano. He got as far as the bus stop when he realized he had forgotten his music, and went back to the house to find Chucho, then fours years old, sitting at the piano and pounding out the song he had left on the music stand. "He was destined for greatness," beams Bebo.
By the time he was in his twenties, Chucho had gotten together his first jazz band while working as the pianist in the pit orchestra at the Havana Music Theater. He moved further into the realm of Cuban jazz with the groundbreaking Cuban Orchestra of Modern Music, directed by Armando Romeu. With some musicians from that jazz big band, including Miami resident Arturo Sandoval, Valdes formed Irakere and created a completely different sound. "We were the first musicians to create dance music with the phrasing of Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, and Charlie Parker within Cuban music," he says. He plans to continue such innovations into the next century.
Chucho says he does not think he will permanently leave Cuba, where he is continuing what he says will be a lifelong study of Afro-Cuban religious rhythms. But he is set on creating the conditions in which he and his American colleagues can further the development of the long and fruitful relationship between Cuban music and jazz. "I'm the center of attention now, but we've all been a product of the evolution of Cuban piano," says Valdes. "We've all taken something from what's come before us and all of our influences are present in the music today. In the Thirties there was Jesus Lopez, then Lili Martinez and after that Peruchin, who was an influence in the fusion of jazz and Cuban music at the same time that Frank Emilio Flynn was playing Latin jazz and my father as well.
"And then, beginning in the Sixties," he says with a smile, "came the influence of Chucho Valdes.