On his first album in more than 30 years, pianist Bebo Valdes pays musical tribute to two of his lost colleagues: one American, the other Cuban; both, like Valdes, were pioneers in merging Latin music with American jazz. The first track on Bebo Rides Again, "To the Dizzy Gillespie," is a swinging Cubop jam featuring serpentine solos by saxman Paquito D'Rivera. On another cut, Valdes salutes Mario Bauza with rasping gYiro, playful brass, slinky electric guitar, and darting piano work. Bauza, the famed director of Machito's Afro-Cuban jazz orchestra, played trumpet alongside the young Gillespie in the early Forties in Cab Calloway's band and introduced the American trumpeter to Cuban rhythms.
Valdes, who is credited with making the island's first recording of an Afro-Cuban jazz jam in 1952, has lived in Sweden for the past three decades. Bebo Rides Again, released last year on Messidor, follows the long-awaited albums by Bauza (My Time Is Now) and Israel "Cachao" Lopez (Master Sessions I and II), all of which featured now-fabled lineups consisting of other Cuban jazz giants, members of mambo royalty, and their heirs. D'Rivera, who staged his own Cuban jazz summit at Miami's Criteria Studios for 1993's 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session, conceived and produced Valdes's recording in Germany with yet another cast of top Latin musicians, including Juan-Pablo Torres, Patato Valdes (no relation), and guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, of the Cuban jazz group Irakere.
Like other recordings that have heralded an important Cuban music renaissance over the past few years, Bebo Rides Again is a comeback album by a master who faded from view but never stopped making music. And the 78-year-old Valdes clearly had a damn good time all the way. Listening to Bebo is like eavesdropping on a gathering of old friends. The instruments mingle and converse, ceding the floor to one another or shouting joyfully together. On danzón, bolero, and several Cuban jazz descargas, Valdes's arrangements of his own compositions and Cuban classics are as smooth as silk stockings. Also included is a "mambo-cha" dance track arranged by Valdes's son, the well-known piano player and Irakere leader Chucho Valdes, who lives in Cuba.
The album evokes the era of the Forties and Fifties, when a stream of musicians flowed between Havana and New York City, creating an ongoing exchange that resulted in some of the most enduring and influential styles of modern music. And from his piano bench at the Tropicana Club, Valdes was at the center of it all.
Speaking exuberantly from his home in Stockholm, Valdes is eager to relive it all in detail. "The Tropicana was paradise," remembers the pianist. "It was the most modern place that you could ever see, and the most beautiful. Everyone came through there -- Nat King Cole, Woody Herman, musicians and singers from all over the world. And I was the piano player."
Growing up poor in the small village of Quivican, Valdes started out as a singer in a school band. He began studying piano with a private teacher, and at seventeen went off to Havana to attend the Municipal Conservatory. Unlike the more affluent students at the school who had pianos at home, Valdes had no instrument to practice on outside of class, and spent most of his time studying theory and working arrangements out on paper.
After graduation Valdes got a job with a small orchestra that performed pasodobles for the Spanish exiles at Havana's Asturian cultural center. It was a living, but Valdes had started listening to records by American jazz musicians and wanted a chance to try out more modern styles. The opportunity came when he was called to audition for the Orquesta Curbelo, which played at Havana's Cabaret Faraon.
"Bebo Valdes arrived at the cabaret, but he didn't come in because he was black. He waited outside on the sidewalk," bandleader Wilfredo G. Curbelo recalls during a recent phone interview. Curbelo, age 84, has lived in Miami since Fidel Castro took power. He made a living playing in area hotels before retiring in 1979. "The nightclub manager came and got me, and I went outside," he continues. "I said, 'Are you waiting for me?' He said, 'Yes, but you know when one is black, one doesn't go inside.' I said, 'Forget that, I need good musicians. I don't care what race they are.' To try out the pianists I had an arrangement by Count Basie," Curbelo continues. "Bebo didn't play the whole thing, but he understood what it was about. I asked my trumpet player what I should do and he said, 'That black kid hasn't played much but if you give him a chance he will play, because he wants like hell to play. You can tell.'"
The bandleader hired him, and today Curbelo -- who has kept in touch with Valdes since they both left Cuba -- still glows with pride over the accomplishments of the younger musician. "Other pianists just play a lot of notes," he says. "They don't have the technique. They're too rigid. Bebo has a special technique. No Cuban piano player, not even Ernesto Lecuona, surpasses him."
In 1948 Valdes moved on to Armando Romeu's orchestra at the Tropicana. He was named musical director of the famed club and played there until 1957. Mambo was all the rage; more nightclubbing Americans were heading to Havana than ever before. Influenced by the American jazz men who brought bebop and swing to the Tropicana and other spots, Cuban musicians began holding their own jam sessions. "A bunch of musicians would meet every Sunday at somebody's house. We'd get together to let out the expressions that we had inside," Valdes says excitedly. "What came to be known as descarga I used to call Afro-Cuban jazz. I had my own ideas about the jam sessions. I always included Cuban music -- tumbao and montuno and the like -- when I played jazz."
In 1952 the American record producer Norman Granz, who had been working with Latin jazz musicians in New York through his Verve label, asked Bebo and his musicians to record the first Afro-Cuban jazz session in Cuba, an EP that featured the popular number "Con Poco Coco." Another record, "Holiday in Havana," followed, as did a four-year recording contract with Decca.
Meanwhile, Valdes had been working on a new kind of rhythm -- batanga -- that he thought would challenge the success of the mambo, the creation of which was credited to Cachao and his brother Orestes Lopez. The batanga featured the beat of the bata, the sacred double-headed drums used in the rituals of the Afro-Cuban Yoruba religion. "The bata had never been incorporated into Cuban dance music," explains Valdes. "So that's what I wanted to do."
Valdes wrote his batanga music for a large orchestra that would include five saxophonists and seven percussionists. In 1952 he got the required musicians together, recorded a demo, and took it to the Cadena Azul radio station.
"On July 8, 1952, at one in the afternoon, the station held a press conference to present the batanga," booms Valdes, relishing the memory. A nightly live program, El Batanga de Bebo Valdes, premiered soon after and featured Beny More, just before the now-legendary vocalist formed his own orchestra. Despite the enormity of the show's talent, Valdes had little success attracting sponsors, who were putting their dollars behind programs that showcased the commercially established mambo. The show was taken off the air six months after it had begun.
"The batanga was born and then it died," Valdes sighs. The bata, however, had forever found its place in secular Cuban music. By the Seventies, some New York salsa groups were incorporating it into their percussion sections, and today it is commonly used by Latin groups looking for a roots sound. "A lot of things were born from that," confirms Valdes. "A lot of music sounds like batanga today."
Undaunted by the batanga's failure to take off, Valdes continued playing at the Tropicana. In 1958 he began recording albums with his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. He had taken on a new singer, Rolando Laserie, "El Guapachoso" ("The Dreamboat"), who would become famous throughout Latin America for his vocal stylizing on boleros and guarachas.
But the end of that year would mark the decline of Valdes's career as a musician in Cuba. The political climate had changed, and he had no intention of changing with it.
"If you didn't go along with it you were out," he asserts, remembering the events that led up to his exile. "I had a recording session one afternoon at four o'clock -- I already knew what was going to happen and I was recording material to take with me to Mexico," he says. "An individual came in; he said he was from the militia or something. He had a red shirt on, he had two trucks and a bus parked outside to go to the plaza where that man, 'Mr. Beard,' was going to speak. I said, 'Sorry, I have a session now.' And he said, 'There is no recording session, everything is suspended.' I said, 'I'm not going to any meeting, I'll watch it at home on TV.' He said, 'You must go, comrade.' I said, 'I'm not your comrade. I'm a friend or an enemy or nothing.' He said, 'Listen, you're on the wrong track. If you don't get on that bus you're going to have problems.'" He didn't get on.
On October 26, 1960, Valdes left for Mexico City with Laserie. He worked briefly as an arranger there, then went on a European tour with the Havana Cuban Boys. He met his future wife Rose Marie when the band was playing a park in Stockholm, and the couple settled there in 1964. Valdes became a Swedish citizen, and quietly played piano in a hotel lounge until 1990.
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On Saturday, October 26, 36 years to the day that he left Cuba, Valdes will perform with Laserie, Cachao, D'Rivera, and six other musicians in a reunion concert at the Gusman Center. The piano player hasn't seen percussionist Luis Miranda, a childhood friend, in fifty years. It will be Valdes's first public appearance in Miami. The event is produced by Miami Film Festival director Nat Chediak, who worked with Paquito D'Rivera in organizing the 1993 jam session.
Valdes has been preparing furiously for the event. He says he's written ten new songs, and plans to play material from Bebo Rides Again as well as some old classics. For Bebo, the concert is something of a homecoming: "It's a great honor to be able to play for Cuban exiles like myself. I've always played for a broad audience. This is the first time I'm going to play for [Cuban exiles]. This concert is really like a reunion with my people."
Bebo Valdes performs Saturday, October 26, at the Gusman Center, 174 E Flagler St; 372-0925. Showtime is 8:00. Tickets cost $25 to $35.