It was one of those sunny, windy Havana afternoons in April 1977. In Havana, April may be as hellish as August, or as stormy as October. But that particular day there was so much sun in Havana I thought it could crack the rocks. With my brains practically boiling, when I got home from the other side of town, holding on to the bronze doorknocker on our big whitewashed door, I saw the note. Written in pencil on a scrap of paper from a brown grocery bag or something, the brief message, in some kind of Spanglish, more or less said: Hola Paquito, vine lookin’ for you, pero no estabas. See ya soon! Dizzy Gillespie.
I thought it was a practical joke by some of my friends in Irakere, until a kid from the hood passing by told me that “a chubby black tourist dressed like Sherlock Holmes was looking for you.” A chubby what? I asked. “… And he blew his cheeks like a toad too!” he yelled while fading around the corner.
So it was true. Although completely silenced by the Cuban media, those were days when the American cruise ship Daphne, loaded with an all-star troupe of jazz musicians, including Stan Getz, Rudy Rutherford, Earl “Fatha” Hines, David Amram and Dizzy Gillespie, among many others, made a 24-hour stop in Havana. American musicians jammed with their Cuban colleagues for the first time in almost two decades.
Four years later, in October 1981, while on a European tour with Dizzy, on our day off in Stockholm, aware of my old friendship with the Valdés family, the co-composer of “Manteca” and “Tin-Tin Deo” asked me to take him to greet Bebo Valdés at the luxurious restaurant where the great exiled Cuban musician was playing piano bar for many years.
After a long embrace by the two giants, the American, pulling the leg of the Cuban, said to him, “I was there, Bebo, and let me tell ya that they’re still waiting for you in Havana.” “El Caballón”-or Big Horse, like his many friends and admirers used to call him-very seriously, holding the trumpeter’s hand firmly and looking directly at his eyes, replied, “Mi amigo Diz, when I left my beloved island, there was a cruel dictatorial regime in place, so there is no reason for me to go back while those guys are still in power.” Dizzy felt the heat, displayed his famous disarming smile and changed the subject to less painful topics.
In 1994, one year after Gillespie’s passing-and, for Bebo, more than three decades since he’d been in a recording studios-I convinced the German Messidor company to produce the CD Bebo Rides Again, a fresh, vibrant project that makes me so proud as a Cuban-American artist.
“This CD is both historic and quite exciting,” wisely wrote Scott Yanow about that session. “Bebo Valdés (father of Chucho) was one of the giants of Cuban jazz and popular music until he fled the country in 1960. Amazingly enough, he had not recorded since, despite living peacefully in Sweden. This recording is also significant in that it was probably the first time that Cuban exiles had recorded with Cubans still living under Castro, like guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales and percussionist Amadito Valdés. Paquito D’Rivera, who organized this set, deserves a lot of credit for its success, but Valdés is the real star. This is one of the finest Afro-Cuban jazz recordings of recent times, and Bebo composed eight new selections in the 36 hours before the recordings began, although he was 76 years old at the time!”
Dizzy Gillespie had a long and solid human and artistic relationship with Cuban musicians, from Mario Bauzá, Chano Pozo and Chico O’Farrill to Chucho Valdés, Arturo Sandoval and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Bebo Valdés is not an exception, and it is not by accident that the opening cut selected from the eight tunes he composed for the Bebo Rides Again CD is called “Al Dizzy.”
El Caballón, like Diz, will live forever in our hearts.
July 9, 2013