You know you made it in the particular world of jazz when no less a legend than Duke Ellington becomes so enamored of your expertise and persona he bestows a lasting nickname on you.
To the world, he was Charles Lomba Valles. To his family and to listeners of jazz radio in South Florida for more than five decades, he was China Valles. To the Duke, he was “The Maharajah, Purveyor of Swirls.”
If jazz had a voice it rumbled across the airwaves, gruff and laced with whimsy and an artful slur— Valles’ voice. If jazz had royalty in South Florida, assuredly it was Valles — or Maj, for short, you dig.
Valles died Dec. 17 at 89. His turntables might have stopped spinning, but his stories and contribution to the American art form endure.
Never miss a local story.
“What made him the man he was? He loved jazz. He lived, breathed and ate jazz. Literally. That was his world. That was his No. 1,” his son Keith Valles said Thursday.
“China’s contribution was enormous,” said Peter J. Maerz, director of programming for WLRN-FM (91.3). “He just about single-handedly provided not only entertainment, but a lot of education about the history and craft of the artists who made jazz. He lived much of that history himself, and had intimate associations with some of the great pioneers of the music.”
Indeed, one of his son’s favorite stories centers on the day Ray Charles came calling on Valles sometime in the early 1970s after hearing the Maj spinning tunes on one of the stations he worked at, WBUS-FM, known as the “Jazz Bus,” or WTMI-FM, or maybe it was even the old AM station, WGBS. The station didn’t matter. The music did.
“My dad happened to have this blues album going on and Ray said, ‘Let’s check that cat out.’”
Charles had his limo driver pull up to the Miami station’s back door.
“My dad looked through the peephole and saw these big bodyguards and thought, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ He didn’t know who that was. When he was brave enough to open the door and sees these huge bodyguards, he sees Ray.”
“You’re playing some good blues in here,” Charles told the surprised DJ who preferred the term, “music programmer.” Valles scored a coup for the small station.
“On that show, Ray did a spot interview with dad,” Keith Valles said.
“Because he had almost unlimited freedom from WTMI’s management, he was able to follow his own muse in choosing artists to play during his program, often times exposing even veteran jazz fans to new artists and conceptions,” said Maerz, who subbed on several occasions for Valles on WTMI’s overnight program, Jazz After Midnight. Valles seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with the music.
“I, and my fellow substitute hosts, would often laugh at China’s method of ‘organizing’ his CDs and albums. Basically, that consisted of creating seemingly random piles of these items, on desk tops, in cabinets and in CD racks. Somehow, though, China knew where every last recording lived, even amid the chaos,” Maerz recalled.
Valles was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on Nov. 5, 1925. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Valles managed music groups and singers. A car accident laid him up for months. While recovering, he tuned into the local jazz station. When he got out of the hospital he turned up at the station, impressed its DJ, and wound up with a job.
Valles worked at other stations in New Bedford and New York, where he met and married his wife, Thelma. A station manager in Washington, D.C., suggested Miami might welcome a new station if Valles was interested in helping him get it started in 1962.
The station, WFAB, became WMBM. Valles would keep moving up and down the dial, turning up at WBUS and making it “the only 24-hour jazz station this town has ever seen” he said in a 2000 Miami Herald profile. When WBUS was sold and changed formats, he went to WTMI-FM (93.1). In 2000, the station changed ownership and parted ways with Valles.
“Jazz is a hard sell in this town. It doesn’t have the history you do in some towns. But we sure started something,” Valles said in a Miami Herald feature in 2000.
“China was the ultimate jazz aficionado who was a pioneer for all things good art,” said veteran press agent Charlie Cinnamon.
All along the way, jazz stars like Nancy Wilson, Phyllis Hyman, Carmen Lundy and Chuck Mangione sang Valles’ praises.
Mangione’s breakthrough in jazz came in 1973 with his tune, Land of Make Believe. Bob Perry, who owned Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach, credited Valles for Mangione’s success with that track.
“China broke that record wide open,” Perry said in the 2000 Herald story. “It became a million-seller, largely thanks to China.”
Valles’ son also benefited from the Mangione association — and learned a valued lesson about his pop from the flugelhorn star.
Keith Valles, who now runs The Sunshine Jazz Organization his father founded, was a teenager at Miami Central Senior High. Because of his dad’s reputation, he had carte blanche to attend any concert he wanted, just by turning up at the back door of the Gusman theater in Miami. This one time, he wanted to impress a young woman.
“I bring the hottest girl with me and we were backstage and Chuck Mangione, he pulled me aside, with this girl on my arm, and he was telling me what a wonderful man my dad was. He made it a point to let me know this.”
Mangione set his gaze on the youngster. “I know you’re a teenager going into manhood but you need to know who your daddy is” the flugelhorn player said.
“I really got to see, even as a teenager and now as an adult, how the jazz world embraced my dad,” Keith Valles said.
In addition to his wife and son, Valles is survived by his daughter Judy, his sister, Mary, and brother, Joseph.
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.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.