Chuchito Valdés: Through the Generations
Pianist is heir to great Cuban jazz tradition
Jesus “Chuchito” Valdés lives a dream unfulfilled. Though the 42-year-old Cuban pianist enjoys an impassioned worldwide following, a family he visibly adores, and a perpetually-full touring schedule that conveys him to the world’s most glamorous cities, he longs for an accomplishment that’s eluded him throughout the entirety of his life. And the time to achieve it is running out.
“My father, my grandfather and I should all play together as three generations of pianists. They are geniuses and it would make history,” he mourned between performance sets at the Cape May Jazz Festival in New Jersey this past April. “But my grandfather is 91 already. …”
Judging from the number of times he zealously revisited the topic during the conversation, it’s clear he feels helpless and maybe even a touch desperate at the inability to play with his father, Dionisio Jesus “Chucho” Valdés, and his grandfather, Ramón Emilio “Bebo” Valdés. Both musicians have been revered throughout the jazz world for decades: Valdés père for creating the batanga rhythm and for serving as the director of Havana’s Tropicana club, and Valdés fils for founding Irakere, one of Cuba’s most esteemed jazz bands and one Chuchito led for two years after his father’s retirement.
Though these days the men are spread on three continents, with Valdés himself living contentedly in Cancun, his father at home in Cuba and his grandfather settled in Spain, Valdés says the two younger men could easily arrange for a recording session near the eldest. But something is stopping his grandfather and he doesn’t know what – or who.
“It’s a mystery,” he lamented in Spanish. “My grandfather ABSOLUTELY wants to do this. I don’t know if it’s his manager or what but some people aren’t thinking right.”
Because he feels it’s difficult for most children to emerge with a talent that rivals that of a musically famous father and grandfather, he finds his family’s situation to be almost unique, which causes these untraceable barriers to be all the more frustrating and disappointing. He credits his God for his proclivity toward his elders’ instrument and calls his patrilineal heritage “an inheritance that should be continued.”
Despite the futility in attempting to directly connect with his grandfather through collaboration, Valdés honors his legacy by forging his Afro-Cuban sound in a way that he describes as “distinct but along the same path” as that of his two immediate predecessors. Growing up, he absorbed the Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol records that influenced his father and emphatically noted to himself that he’d like to develop the skill to auditorily resemble them. But within his own Mambo, Danzon, Timba, Guaguanco, Classical, Bebop, Danzon, Cha-cha-cha and Son Montuno compositions, he infuses rock and funk rhythms and melodic structures to build upon – rather than repeat – the music of his family.
And to Valdés’ great pride, a fourth generation is poised to make the Valdés family reputation even more robust. All three of his children – ages 9, 10 and 17 – fervently wish to become professional musicians and as such, avidly play piano and violin and compose music and lyrics. But just as Chucho Valdés didn’t require the young Chuchito to take up the piano, the now-grown son doesn’t meddle in the music-making of his children. He claims not to tell them whether their performances or compositions are to his liking, so as not to burden them with undue pressure and so that he doesn’t risk turning them against what some might call their musical destiny.
“My dad did the best thing,” Chuchito said with an earnest tone. “He told me I had to study.
This was the best approach because what happens when a parent tells a kid he has to do something? It’s fatal. If you get used to your dad teaching you something you, you won’t want to do it.”
Despite his hands-off approach, Cuchito feels it’s critical to pass along to his children the activities that nourished him as a child in order to provide them with the self-faith they need to stably journey along their path through a world that’s, according to Chuchito, “a little nuts.”
And music, in his view, is an ideal gift to share across the generations, musing that, “If you have a house with harmony, you have peace and tranquility.”
Now, if he could only attain his seemingly impossible dream, he might finally nourish a complete sense of peace and tranquility within himself.
Originally published in May 2010