José Curbelo, the Latin jazz bandleader, agent and promoter who helped popularize the cha-cha-cha in the United States, and made Tito Puente a star, died Friday of heart failure at Aventura Hospital. He was 95.
Curbelo, of North Miami Beach, was born Feb. 18, 1917 in Havana, where his American-born father played violin with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.
He was the last of the pioneers of the Latin jazz band era, said Freddy Montilla, whose father Fernando Montilla owned Montilla Records and was Curbelos friend.
Curbelo began formal musical training at the age of 8, said son Rene Curbelo, a Miami web designer. By 16, he was playing with the orchestras of Los Hermanos Lebartard and flutist-composer Gilberto Valdés, and co-founded O rquesta Havana Riverside, his son said.
He settled in New York in 1939 and formed a band that played around Manhattan, the Catskill resorts, Miami and Las Vegas.
The Puerto Rico-born Puente, who became known as The King of Latin Music, got his start with Curbelo, said Rene.
He was one of the first ones educating American people on Latin and Cuban music, Montilla said.
Curbelo was beloved by musicians and disliked by club owners because he wouldnt book a gig unless it paid Curbelos asking price, his son said.
First to sign a three-year contract: the Charlie Palmieri Quintet.
Every music group of importance, including Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, La Playa Sextet, Pete Terrace, Orlando Marin, Ray Barretto, Noro Morales, Vicentico Valdés and Orquesta Broadway followed, Rene Curbelo said.
I remember it was almost like my father was accused of having a monopoly. He changed the whole scenario in favor of the artists and took 15 percent off the top.
He affected the Latin music of today.
A close friend of superstar Cuban songstress Celia Cruz, Jose Curbelo handled all of her Florida engagements even though she had her own managers in New York, Rene said.
Various Latin jazz websites note that Curbelo made enemies by touting Puente, who died in 2000, as the greatest of all the genres musicians, and for insisting he get top dollar and top billing, second only to Cruz.
Hansel Rodriguez, of the popular salsa duet Hansel y Raul, said Curbelo was known and admired by many in the music industry. Some of the biggest promoters in current Latin music learned from Curbelo, he said.
I learned that everybody has to pay in advance in this business, said Rodriguez.
Curbelo worked as a pianist with bands in New York, with the help of band leader Jose Morand, whod later start the Fiesta record label.
Curbelo once told an interviewer: My first job was at La Martinique at 57th Street and Sixth Avenue. Months later in December I was at the union hall when I met a 16-year-old musician named Ernesto Tito Puente. We were hired for the same gig and it was then I noticed what a great drummer he was.
That same week I was offered a job at Miamis Book Club. I recommended Tito for the drummers spot; Tito accepted and we headed for Miami in my car. We roomed in a bungalow for $5 a week. Our septet played Latin, American pop, waltzes and fox trots. After three months we returned to New York.