Pianist Bebo Valdés, giant of Cuban music, dies at 94


Special to The Miami Herald

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.


“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.”


Born Ramón Emilio Valdés Amaro in Quivicán, a town near Havana, Valdés had classical conservatory training — and a fascination for American music.

“I’ve always been a lover of American music,” he said in an interview with The Miami Herald. “God gave me some talent, but I owe a lot to Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton, Glenn Miller, Dizzy Gillespie and all those great musicians. I knew their scores by heart and I adore them even now.’’

His early career included a stint as a music consultant for Havana’s Tropicana club, where he arranged for Cuban artists such as Rita Montaner, Rolando Laserie and Beny Moré.

“Bebo was the Quincy Jones of his day,” Chediak said. “If you wanted to be in the jukeboxes you went to Bebo and you were as good as gold and he did it for the cream of the crop in the golden age of Cuban music.”

He also composed memorable pieces such as La rareza del siglo, now an Afro-Cuban standard; created the batanga, a dance style; and accompanied visiting stars such as Nat King Cole.

But as the political climate in Cuba changed in the late 1950s, he found himself “chased’’ from job to job, he said in an interview with The Miami Herald. So in 1959 he organized his own orchestra, the fabled Sabor de Cuba, as a way to leave the island. On Oct. 26, 1960, Valdés left with singer Laserie for Mexico “to fulfill a contract that didn’t actually exist.” He left carrying tapes of the orchestra and enough music for two albums.

“I couldn’t take money out of Cuba, so I took the tapes to sell in Mexico,” he recalled. As for so many Cubans, what began as a temporary departure became a lifetime exile. Valdés never returned to Cuba.

He lived in Mexico City for 18 months, stayed briefly in Spain and toured Europe. On a stop in Stockholm, he met Rose Marie Persson, settled in Sweden and started a new family and a new life. For more than 30 years, Valdés lived in musical obscurity, first touring but, later, as his older son started school, playing hotel lounges. Then came the call, and a dazzling final act.

Survivors include daughters Mayra and Miriam and sons Raul, Jesus “Chucho” and Ramon, born in Cuba, and Raymond and Rickard, who are Swedish.

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