In a film full of touching moments, two that stand out in the landmark Latin-jazz documentary Calle 54 are the duets Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés plays with his eldest son, Chucho, and bassist extraordinaire Israel “Cachao” Lopez. With entrancing virtuosity, the 83-year-old unsung master of Afro-Cuban jazz showed the world what they’ve been missing.
Now with his Blue Note album El Arte del Sabor garnering raves and wide distribution, perhaps Bebo, who has lived in Sweden for nearly 50 years, will enjoy a full-fledged comeback that will put his musical contributions in their rightful place. (Much like El Arte producer Nat Chediak did for rediscovering and promoting pianist Frank Emilio Flynn before he died last August.)
A virtuoso musician, Bebo lived in Cuba at a time when tourism fueled Havana with the magnetism of casinos and cabarets like the Sans Souci, Le Montmartre and the world-famed Tropicana. When the post-Revolution Diccionario de la Musica Cubana (Dictionary of Cuban Music) was written by Helio Orovio, ex-patriots like Bebo were left out of this important musical encyclopedia.
“My father was considered one of the best in his day,” recalls Chucho. “He worked at the Cabaret Tropicana, the most important musical nightclub in the country, and was one of the most sought-after arrangers. Everyone came to him, including Nat King Cole, who hired him to do arrangements for his record Cole Español.”
On board with six-foot, seven-inch Bebo for El Arte del Sabor are fellow musical giants like conguero Carlos “Patato” Valdés, sax wiz Paquito D’Rivera and longtime friend Cachao, who help him deliver an introspective rendering of 16 Cuban classics—and “Route 66.”
“The blues and Cuban music have a lot in common,” says Bebo on the phone from his home in Stockholm, Sweden. “Rhythm and blues and Afro-Cuban music are almost the same with just a slightly different foundation and feel. ‘Route 66’ is a great number that lends itself to both idioms. Cachao was crazy into doing it, and me too. When Nat King Cole was in Havana he had an arrangement of the tune that was lindisima [pretty]. We put the song together on the spot and it’s my favorite on El Arte del Sabor.”
Ramon Emilio Valdés (“Bebo”) was born on Oct. 9, 1918, in Quivicán, Cuba, a small village outside of Havana. He began playing piano at age 12, during the Depression, when a friend of his mother, Moraima González, consented to teach him. Bebo proved to be a formidable student and advanced rapidly. In 1935 his family moved to Havana, where he was enrolled at the National Conservatory.
“At that time a lot of people were getting into jazz in the conservatories,” remembers Bebo. “It was during my school days that I did my first jazz arrangement for the orchestra of Happy D’Ulasia. I was 20 and accompanied two shows nightly with a daily broadcast over Radio Mil Diez or Radio Progreso. It was hard work, but I loved it.”
At a time when Cuban popular music was being modernized, the emergence of pioneering Latin-jazz band Orquesta Casino de la Playa in 1937 proved to be a huge influence on Bebo. The orchestra, which featured greats like vocalist Miguelito Valdés (the original “Mr. Babalu,” long before Desi Arnaz), trumpeter-singer Walfredo de los Reyes and pianists Anselmo Sacasas and, later, Pérez Prado, based itself on the pioneering American swing big bands but with Afro-Cuban percussion and it readapted the montuno (a two-bar chordal-based vamp) from the Cuban tres guitar to the piano.
“[In the 1920s, pianist-composer] Antonio Maria Romeu brought the piano into the danzon charanga orchestras and from there it evolved into the sextetos [traditional son bands with trumpets] and the orchestras,” Bebo says.
In 1943 Bebo joined Wilfredo Garcia-Curbelo’s group, playing pop swing tunes, but his big break came in 1945 when he joined the band of Julio Cueva, a trumpeter who initially gained fame playing with Moisés Simóns, the composer of “El Manisero (The Peanut Vender).” Cueva’s top-notch guaracha band played the cabaret circuit, and Bebo’s association with the group lifted his stature.
“Julio Cueva had some great guarachas. The musicians were older and played in a more tipico [traditional] style,” says Bebo. “The guaracha is a combination of rhythms that is faster than the son. When the son began it was real slow; then the son montuno came in and picked up the tempo. From there evolved the bolero son and the guaracha, which absorbed the montuno into its form. It’s called guaracha because the songs are humorous with double entendre.”
It was with Garcia-Curbelo’s group that Bebo penned his first hit, “Rareza del Siglo,” featuring singer Orlando “Cascarita” Guerra. At the time Bebo always to tried to integrate jazz phrasing into his songs and arrangements. He greatly admired pianist Eddy Duchin but his idol was Art Tatum: “I don’t think there has been another pianist of his stature and abilities,” he says.
In 1947 Bebo took a job as pianist-arranger with Isaac El Fieh jazz band in Haiti, an experience that he says increased his knowledge of African-based rhythms. After his contract ran out he decided to go back to Cuba in 1948. Within days upon returning, Cuban singer and actress Rita Montañer recruited Bebo for the Tropicana Orchestra after she had a falling-out with the club’s regular pianist.
Armando Romeu, the father of Cuban jazz, led the group, which featured five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, a large rhythm section and Bebo on piano. Made up of the best musicians on the island, including Gustavo Mas (tenor sax), Luis Escalante (trumpet), Alejandro “El Negro” Vivar (trumpet), Generoso Jiménez (trombone), Enrique “Kiki” Hernandez (bass), Guillermo Barreto (drums) and Candido Camero (bongo), they backed the biggest names and represented the first generation of Cuban jazz players versed in big band and bebop.
The Tropicana, which is still open, is the spectacular outdoor cabaret on the grounds of Villa Mina in the neighborhood of Marianao in Havana. Renowned for its elaborate stage shows and barelegged guarachera chorus lines, it was built by businessman Victor Correa in 1939. In the day it was the Cotton Club of Cuba, where top entertainers like Josephine Baker, Carmen Miranda, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and many others performed for whites only.
Being at the Tropicana gave Bebo a panorama of opportunity. The most celebrated of his pop efforts was “Batanga,” a dance craze he introduced to the public in 1952 via a series of radio broadcasts, featuring singer Beny Moré, on RHC-Cadena Azul. He also was involved in the formation of the independent GEMA Records, where he scored a hit for Rolando La Serie with “Sabor a Mi.”
In October 1952 he also did a series of recordings for Norman Granz that are considered to be the first Afro-Cuban jazz jam sessions recorded on the island. Bebo and his Tropicana bandmates—Barreto (drums), Hernandez (bass), Vivar (trumpet), Jiménez (trombone), Mas (tenor sax) and Rolando Alfonso (congas)—did five tunes in the Panart Studios in Havana that were released on Mercury 45 rpm discs under the name of Andre’s All Stars, after Andre’s record store, a Havana shop owned by Granz’s friend Irving Price. It was Price who had brought Bebo’s group to Granz’s attention. Norman didn’t think Cubans could play jazz, but he liked what he heard.
“Granz had to go back to the States but gave the OK for the sessions,” Bebo says. “Irving Price went in the studio with us and he was the one who took the tapes back to America and promoted them. The recordings got a lot of radio airplay because they were fusing descarga [jam session] with bebop.” Highlights include Bebo’s “Con Poco Coco (Without Much Thought)” along with “Duerme,” “Tabu,” “Desconfianza” and on the spot jams like “Bebo’s Blues.”
In the early 1950s Bebo decided to start his own orchestra, Sabor de Cuba. While he was offered the position of musical director at the Tropicana several times, he wasn’t interested because he was in demand as a big-band arranger. Scoring countless arrangements for recordings and films, and the dance numbers for the famed Mexican film star Tongolele, his work for RCA Victor and GEMA sparked the careers of many now-legendary singers in Mexico and Cuba like Pio Leyva, Cascarita, La Serie, Rita Montañer, Toña “La Negra” and Xiomara Alfaro. It was a vibrant time for Bebo, who became a regular figure on Cuban television with a group that included bongo player Roberto Garcia from the Buena Vista Social Club.
But at the apex of his career, life as he knew it would change dramatically overnight.
“I left Cuba when I went to Mexico City in 1960 to perform with my band,” Bebo says. “We got a great reception at the Cabaret Rumba Casino. It was a tremendous success. But I got in trouble after the Bay of Pigs invasion when I told a newspaper reporter what I felt about the Revolution, that it had no regard for our country’s constitution. It got printed and that was it.”
Bebo joined an exodus of artists and performers like Celia Cruz, José Fajardo and Olga Guillot who fled the Fidel Castro-led revolution, leaving his family behind in search of political asylum. He traveled to Los Angeles, Mexico and, finally, Europe, where in Spain he joined the Bruguera brothers of the famed Lecuona Cuban Boys, who were still performing the guarachas they made popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
“We traveled from Spain to Finland. In Sweden I fell in love with my wife, Rose Marie, and decided to stay. I’ve now been happily married for 39 years. Sweden is a good country, but it’s cold. They don’t really appreciate Cuban music as much now, but when I first came here with the Lecuona Cuban Boys people loved it!”
In Sweden Bebo settled into a quiet musical existence. From time to time he would go on tour through Europe with Latin American singers like Lucho Gatica but mainly he played dance music for Scandinavian audiences. In the early 1970s he played Latin music on the ships between Sweden and Finland and had a solo piano career playing in the best hotels in Stockholm from 1971 until 1990.
In 1991 Latin music scholar Max Salazar wrote a what-happened-to article in Latin Beat Magazine on the whereabouts of the senior Valdés. It sparked renewed attention amongst aficionados. Word spread of performances at the Bass Clef club in London, England, and Jazzclub Fasching in Stockholm. In 1994 Paquito D’Rivera persuaded Messidor Records in Germany to do an album, Bebo Rides Again, that pointed the spotlight back toward Valdés.
In November of 1995, Bebo and Chucho reunited on the stage of the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco as part of a concert called Irakere West. It was called that because many members of Irakere couldn’t get their visas and instead of canceling they rounded out the band with resident talent, including guitarist Carlos Santana. But when Bebo and Chucho pounded out a four-handed montuno introduction to “Dile a Catalina” you realized that even though Bebo left Cuba, and his family, in 1960, his son innately furthered his father’s musical ideas.
“Cuban music started changing in the 19th century with the contradanza, danza habanera and danzon. From there conga, son, rumba, guaguanco, la Columbia, mambo, cha cha cha and many other rhythms emerged,” Bebo says. “Every generation brings in new rhythms and different things. I was part of an interesting transition that at the time still had a strong exchange between American and Cuban musicians. What I think I did was to open up more space for jazz and improvisation in Cuban music.”