RIP China Valles, Pioneering Miami Jazz DJ, Friend of Duke Ellington, Dead at 89

China in the studio, the "Purveyor of Swirls," as Duke would say.
China in the studio, the "Purveyor of Swirls," as Duke would say.

Duke Ellington nicknamed Charles "China" Valles the "Maharaja," a Sanskrit word denoting greatness and royalty.

And from his throne behind the microphone and his place at the helm of the Sunshine Jazz Organization, he was indeed a mighty man in American jazz, soul, blues, and R&B. China was a preeminent DJ on South Florida's airwaves, which means that his voice and the music that he played also sailed across the Caribbean, influencing Cubans, Haitians, and Jamaicans.

On Wednesday, December 17, he died at the age of 89. But his life's work and legacy live on through the generations of people he inspired.

See also: Miami's Top Ten Jazz Musicians

Born November 5, 1925 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Valles was a lifelong music obsessive. He loved jazz, soul, blues, and R&B -- but especially jazz. He began his career as the manager for saxophone player Jean-Baptiste "Illinois" Jacquet. But soon, he moved into the world of radio.

He started at a local jazz station in Massachusetts. Then he went on to New York. And finally, he ended up in Miami when a colleague recruited him for the 1963 launch of a new South Florida radio outlet.

Through the decades, Valles worked for WFAB, WMBM, WGBS, and helped make WBUS, as he once told the Miami Herald, "the only 24-hour jazz station this town has ever seen." But most famously, he became a beloved fixture at WTMI-FM 93.1, where he spent 24 years playing bop, blues, and fusion.

In a 1963 installment of his well-respected "Press Box" column for the Miami Times, Archie Pinder, an arts and music journalist who was always in tune with the streets, praised Valles as a truly great DJ for late-night jazz fans.

"[His] show on station WMBM is truly worth listening to any hour," Pinder wrote. "If you are a jazz fan, special kicks are here for you. The way China makes live artists of ever spin is terrific. This surpasses all DJ ratings. On China's show, you can picture each artist there in person. His historical background gives each presentation a wallop of good showmanship and one that's truly worth listening to even after midnight."

Valles was well known to all those in the music industry in Miami, and even used to broadcast live at times from the historic Hampton House Motel and Villas in Brownsville, where some of the best musicians in Miami played multiple sets from night till early morning for some of America's most rich and influential showbiz types, as well as just regular tourists and locals looking to unwind.

Over the years, he interviewed and hung out with Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and dozens of other greats. Meanwhile, China and Duke Ellington formed such a bond, that noted biographer Peter Lavezzoli even thanked him in the acknowledgements of his book The King of All, Sir Duke: Ellington and the Artistic Revolution.

As the century came to a close, WTMI-FM 93.1, Valles' home for a quarter century, changed ownership. It was 2000 and he was fired. Of course, though, that wasn't the end. About a year later, he turned up on WDNA, filling the 2 to 6 p.m. slot with a mix of live studio sessions, classic blues, and swinging jazz. As China told New Times: "What am I going to do, go to the beach? Music is my love; it's my life."

For 89 years and 50 in Miami, Charles "China" Valles was a tremendous force of good in music. He was the one radio DJ that never took a buck from legendary local producer and businessman Henry Stone to play a record. He loved jazz. He loved blues. He loved soul. And he loved surfing the airwaves on a tidal wave of brass. He will never be forgotten.

RIP, China. See you on the other side.

A viewing will be at 4 p.m. Dec. 26 at Church of the Open Door, 6001 NW 8th St., Miami. Services at 1 p.m. Dec. 27 at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 740 NW 58th St., Miami. Reception will follow at a Sunshine Jazz Organization tribute concert in Valles' honor at 6 p.m. Dec. 28 at Miami Shores Country Club, 10000 Biscayne Blvd. Call 305-795-2360. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to The Sunshine Jazz Organization, P.O. Box 381038, Miami, Fla., 33238.

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