Cuban pianist, arranger and composer Bebo Valdés, 94, a multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy winner who was one of the last major figures of the golden era of Cuban music, died Friday in Stockholm. The cause was pneumonia, according to Nat Chediak, a producer and author who worked extensively with Valdés and became a close friend.
Valdés, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his last years, had retired to the town of Benalmádena in southern Spain, and his son Chucho Valdés, 71, a pianist, bandleader and star in his own right, had moved nearby to care for him. But two weeks ago, Valdés was taken back to Sweden, where he had remarried and started a new family during the 1960s. His second wife, Rose Marie, died last year.
Valdés had already lived a full life and had a stellar career when Cuban saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D´Rivera lured him out of retirement in 1994. The resulting album, Bebo Rides Again, was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary second acts in music.
“Helping to bring back Bebo after 30-something years and helping start a new life is one my proudest achievements,” said D’Rivera, who was reached backstage at the Arsht Center, where he played Friday night.
ORIGINS OF ‘CUBOP’
“The importance of his contributions to Cuban music is enormous. His piano approach was quintessentially Cuban, but he loved jazz piano so he had the perfect combination. And as an arranger he had a very distinct way of writing for large orchestra. He led one of the great orchestras in Cuban music history. And on top of that, he was a true gentleman.”
Valdés’ revived career gathered momentum after his appearance in Calle 54, a 2000 documentary about Latin jazz by Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba. The collaboration was the start of a remarkably productive relationship.
Trueba and Chediak became the producers of recordings including El Arte del Sabor with Valdes’ old friends Israel “Cachao” López and Patato Valdés (no relation); Lágrimas Negras, a collaboration with flamenco singer Diego el Cigala that became an international hit; Bebo de Cuba, Valdés’ panoramic view of Afro-Cuban music, and the emotional Juntos Para Siempre, a duet recording with son Chucho. Those albums earned Valdés three Grammys and six Latin Grammys.
Valdés appeared in other Trueba films including The Shanghai Spell (2002) and The Miracle of Candeal (2004), in which he had a leading role playing himself. He was the inspiration and provided the music for the Oscar-nominated animated film Chico & Rita (2012), his final work.
Chediak, author of the Diccionario de Jazz Latino (the Latin Jazz Dictionary), pointed to two notable moments in Valdés’ career:
“In 1952 Bebo recorded for [American producer] Norman Granz a descarga, the first Cuban jam session. His song Con Poco Coco was an Afro-Cuban bebop jazz tune, what was then called Cubop. And 50 years later he recorded his magnum opus, The Cuban Suite … which stands as one of the landmark extended compositions in the history of Afro-Cuban jazz.”
AN AMERICAN AFFAIR
Born Ramón Emilio Valdés Amaro in Quivicán, a town near Havana, Valdés had classical conservatory training — and a fascination for American music.