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.
He performed with Xavier Cugat, Juancito Sanabria and Oscar De La Hoya before organizing his own band in 1942.
According to an online biography that Rene Curbelo cited, the true Curbelo sound emerged when he cut loose with piano montunos. His arousing rumbas were mentioned by the columnists of New York dailies. His orchestra, along with Machito and the Afro Cubans, supplied music for La Conga Clubs diners and dancers.
A year at New Yorks Havana Madrid (1943-44) was followed by stints at Zanzibar and then an upstate gig at Grossingers Resort in the Catskills. The next couple of years he spent in Miami at the Clover Club and the Latin Quarter...
By 1946, the Curbelo orchestra was among Latin musics Top 10 orchestras and a pioneer of the then-developing Latin New York sound...Famous arrangers for the band included Rene Hernandez, Chico OFarrill, Tito Puente and Al Cohn.
One of Curbelos most popular records was the 1947 RCA Victor release Managua Nicaragua.
For Coda Records, he recorded Llora, Tu Come Pellejo, Canelina and Que No, featuring vocalist Tito Rodríguez .
Jose Curbelo and his Orchestra, Live at the China Doll, in 1946 is considered a classic.
In 1949, Tito Puente and vocalist Vicentico Valdés hit it big with the Curbelo-Bobby Escoto number Abaniquito.
Curbelos Fiesta releases Cha Cha Cha In Blue, Que Se Funan and La Familia, became Latin jukebox standards.
In 1971, Curbelo and his wife, Orchid Rosas, retired to Miami, where he booked bands for the Calle Ocho Festival. Rosas died in 2001.
In a 1985 Miami Herald story about his collection of historic Cuban money, Curbelo said he had $20 to his name when he arrived in New York. He was especially proud of his rare Cuban gold coins.
He said he once spent $2,100 on a 1915, 20-peso coin, and $1,450 for a 1915 4-peso coin.
He sold much of his collection to a Texas publisher in 1969, but in 1985 he still had framed notes on the walls of his home and others in photo albums.
I learned more about Cubas history through my hobby than I ever learned in school as a boy, he told The Herald.
He referred to himself as American to the bone.
In addition to his son, Curbelo is survived by a daughter, Marta Curbelo, of New York.
A funeral will be held at 5 p.m Sunday at Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home, 8215 Bird Rd. A procession leaves from the funeral home at 10:30 a.m. Monday for Flagler Memorial Park, 5301 W. Flagler St., where Curbelo will be buried.
Miami Herald staff writer Erick Lappin contributed to this report.