Through the 1940s and 1950s Bebo Valdes was one of Cuba’s premier pianists, composers, arrangers, and bandleaders. After the Cuban revolution Valdes left, never to return. He continued to play, but did so in obscurity at a Stockholm piano bar. Almost 35 years after his exile, Valdes has risen out of that obscurity to bring the classic Cuban sound to a new generation of fans and musicians.
Born Ramon Valdes in 1918 in Quivican, Cuba, Valdes studied music at a conservatory in Cuba. Valdes explained to Fernando Gonzalez in a Washington Post article, “I was a jazz musician from a very young age. I first started playing like the first jazz pianist I heard, a guy who was popular when I was a kid: Eddy Duchin.” Valdes’s list of other inspirations includes American jazz greats such as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and Bill Evans.
From the 1940s through the late 1950s, Valdes was the musical director for Havana’s most famous music club, the Tropicana. While working there he performed with some legendary artists including Nat “King” Cole and Sarah Vaughn. Valdes was in demand as an arranger as well, working with Cuba’s top talent. He even had his own publishing house. By the late 1950s, however, the Communist revolution in Cuba was beginning to take hold, and life in Havana was changing. As Valdes told Fernando Gonzalez in the Miami Herald, “Things got very bad. People could not go to Tropicana because of the bombs, cars were set on fire… I decided to leave the club.”
After leaving the club, Valdes found it hard to hold a job and claims he was chased from many of them. Frustrated with his inability to find work and with Cuba’s political situation, Valdes decided it was time to leave the country. In 1959 he formed his own orchestra called Sabor de Cuba, telling Gonzalez, “I’ve never really wanted to have an orchestra. It’s way too much work…. But it was a way for [singer Rolando] Laserie and I to leave Cuba.”
On October 26, 1960, Valdes, along with Laserie and Laserie’s wife traveled to Mexico, ostensibly to fulfill a contract. It was a ruse to get them out of the county, and it worked. In Mexico City Valdes was able to get work playing gigs and selling recordings he had made in Cuba so that he could leave the country without having to carry money with him. The recordings were enough for two albums, which were released in Mexico.
Valdes spent almost two years in Mexico City before going to Spain. There he became associated with the Lecuona Cuban Boys. He toured Europe extensively as the band’s arranger and musical director. It was a gig in Stockholm, however, that changed his life.
In the spring of 1963 the Lecuona Cuban Boys traveled to Sweden to perform. Valdes explained to Pulse! magazine what happened, “After a show, I saw this red-haired girl that I liked… I asked her if she liked the performance, and we went to get a cup of coffee. Six months later, we got married. I’ve been in Sweden since then.” Valdes continued to tour with the Lecuona Cuban Boys for about a year, and then decided to settle down with his wife. He played in restaurants and on boat cruises, and in 1971 began playing in some of Stockholm’s finest hotels. By this time, Rosemarie, his wife, and he had a child, and Valdes was determined to make his family a priority.
Valdes played in hotel piano bars until 1990, when he officially retired. Although far from Cuba and not part of any Latin groups, Valdes held on to his history. He continued to compose and never forgot his roots, telling Antero Laiho on the Descarga website, ‘Through all these years, up to this date, I had not forgotten my roots in Cuban music—not at all. After retiring I still play every day and I never quit composing.”
Nor was he forgotten by Cuban musicians. In 1994, Paquito D’Rivera, a famous Cuban saxophonist and clarinetist, sought out Valdes for a recording session. D’Rivera has two connections to Valdes. One is that his father was a good friend of Valdes, who had played with him when he lived in Cuba. The other is that D’Rivera is part of the next generation of Cuban artists making an impact on Cuban music that also includes Valdes’s son from his first marriage, Jesus “Chucho” Valdes.
D’Rivera’s and Valdes collaboration was released as Bebo Rides Again, Valdes’s first album as bandleader
Born Ramon Valdes in 1918 in Quivican, Cuba; married second wife, Rosemarie, 1963; children: Mayra Caridad (daughter, first marriage), Jesus “Chucho” Valdes (son, first marriage). Education: Attended music conservatory in Cuba.
Music director of Havana’s Tropicana Club, bandleader for Julio Cueva, popular arranger, 1940s-50s; formed his own orchestra, Sabor de Cuba, 1959; fled Cuba, 1960; toured Europe with Lecuona Cuban Boys, worked with Lucho Gatica and Mona Bell, 1961-62; played hotel piano bars in Stockholm, Sweden, 1971-90; recorded Bebo Rides Again, 1994; debuted in Miami with Cuban musicians including singer Rolando Laserie, bassist Israel Lopez, guitarist Juanito Marquez, conga drum player Luis Miranda, bongo drum player Jose Mangual, and clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, 1996; featured in documentary Calle 54, 2000; forms Bebo Valdes Trio with Israel Lopez and Carlo Valdes (no relation), 2001.
Awards: Premios de la Musica Award, Best Jazz Album for Calle 54, 2001.
Addresses: Home—Bebo Valdes, Oxens g. 260, 136 63 Haninge, Stockholm, Sweden.
in over 30 years. It resurrected Valdes’s recording and touring career, something he feels comfortable doing even as he edges towards his 90s. In 1996, at the age of 78, he debuted in Miami, Florida, in a concert that reunited him with other Cuban greats that he once worked with, including singer Rolando Laserie, bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez, and guitarist Juanito Marquez.
Valdes continues to make great music, and is beginning to receive the recognition he deserves. In 2000 he was featured in the film Calle 54, a documentary that brought together some of Cuba’s great musicians. One of the film’s highlights is Valdes playing alongside his son, Chucho, a reunion almost 40 years in the making. In 2001 Valdes won the Premios de la Musica Award for Best Jazz Album for his work on the Calle 54 soundtrack. That same year he released another album as the Bebo Valdes Trio, working with Lopez and Carlo “Patato” Valdes (no relation). The album was nominated for a Latin Grammy Award in 2002.
Valdes is happy to be dedicating his later years to Cuban music. He understands the part he played in Latin jazz and hopes to add even more to that legacy. He explained his primary goal to Jordan Levin of the Miami Herald, “I wanted to do one thing before dying … because I know I’m one of the ancient ones: To do a suite, with original arrangements of mine of the different Cuban rhythms.” Although he spent many years in obscurity, Valdes never gave up his love of music. It’s something he says he could never do, as he told Leila Cobo of Billboard, “My children have grown and gone… But music will stay until the day I die. People talk about heroin and cocaine and opium. I think the addiction to making music is greater than any drug in the world. Those vices you can get rid of. Music, never.”
Con poco coco, Mercury, 1952.
Mambo Caliente, Mambo Riff, Decca, 1955.
Dile a catalina, tumbao, special del Bebo, Gema, 1957.
Me recordaras, solo contigo basta, Gema, 1957.
Todo ritmo, T. H. Rodven, 1992.
Bebo Rides Again, Messidor, 1994.
Mucho sabor, Palladium, 1995.
(Various artists) United Nations of Messidor, Messidor, 1996.
(With Eladio Reinon) Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite, Blue Moon, 1999.
Calle 54 (soundtrack), Blue Note, 2001.
El arte del sabor, Blue Note, 2001.
(Various artists) Descargas Cubanas, Egrem, 2002.
Billboard, October 20, 2001, p. 37.
Down Beat, March 1, 2002, p. 72.
Miami Herald, October 20, 1996, p. 11; October 28, 1996, p.1C; November 20, 2002, p. E1.
Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale, FL), October 29, 1996, p. 3E.
Washington Post, November 18, 2001, p. G06.
“Bebo Valdes: A Sabor to Savor,” Pulse!,http://pulse.towerrecords.com/contentStory.asp?contentld=4339 (February 7, 2003).
“Profile: Our Man in Stockholm … Bebo Valdes Rides Again,” Descarga.com, http://www.descarga.com/cgi-bin/db/archives/Profile27?d2EyqkX5;;140 (February 9, 2003).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
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