Bobby Sanabria Remembers Dave Valentin

Percussionist/bandleader pays tribute to Latin jazz flutist (4.29.52 – 3.8.17)

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Dave Valentin (photo by Gene Martin c/o HighNote/Savant Records)

When Dave passed on March 8, 2017, the first thing that came to my mind was a trip we took to Cuba in 2002. We had both been asked by pianist Chucho Valdés to be part of an elite group of musicians selected by him to judge entries for a Best Latin Jazz Composition contest sponsored by the Spanish music publishing firm SGAE. The other judges were the Spanish saxophonist and flutist Jorge Pardo, Chucho’s fellow Cuban and pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and, of course, Chucho. Both Dave and I were Nuyoricans, people of Puerto Rican parentage born and raised in NYC—in our case the South Bronx. We reflected on the fact that despite our humble backgrounds, we had been asked to join such a prestigious and important panel.

For a whole week we met in a conference room at our hotel in Havana, the renowned Meliá Cohíba, listening to submissions, reviewing scores and discussing the works. After Gonzalo offered a lofty analysis of one piece, Dave turned to him with cigarettes in his nostrils and asked him what he really thought. We all exploded in laughter. Dave had deflated the academic, overt pretention that was present with a joke straight out of vaudeville and the streets of Da Bronx. We were now just a group of good friends listening to the music, enjoying it and being honest. That good vibe led us to select for third place a piece submitted by a journeyman, working-class, middle-aged Cuban tenor player who had written a cha-cha-cha. It was simple, funky and the furthest thing from some of the rhythmically and harmonically complex pieces that had been submitted. In that one humorous act, Dave had brought us down to earth. We all agreed that the piece deserved to be recognized because, simply, it moved us.

I remember that gentleman crying when we gave him the third prize. The money awarded to him was more than he would have made in a year in Cuba. Soul and funkiness had won over the pretentious and intellectual. Later, Dave and I performed in an all-star concert at the legendary Teatro Amadeo Roldán, and we brought down the house in our respective segments. Dave reminded me of the importance of what we had done, that we were two freakin’ Ricans from Da South Bronx representing in Cuba, the birthplace of the music that had shaped the Nuyorican ethos.

From a personal standpoint, the loss of Dave is indeed hard. But make no mistake—it is even harder for the jazz community. Dave was a product of New York’s prestigious High School of Music & Art, an elite institution that produced so many notable musicians it’s become legendary in the annals of music education. He was also a thriver and survivor of New York’s “salsa wars”—a time during the ’70s when the sound of Cuban-based music, played with a freakin’ Nuyorican attitude, was the gospel of the NYC streets. But he also embraced the sounds of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, etc., and being raised in the South Bronx, the African-American experience resounded in Dave’s playing and composing, as he would always interject a sense of the blues and bebop. Amazingly, he continued to lead a band of loyal players in a day and age where sidemen change groups like fashion models change dresses.

Today, there is no jazz flutist who was as prominent, influential and technically gifted as Dave, or as representative of the instrument’s historic lineage. That lineage goes back to the great Cuban Alberto Socarrás, who recorded the first jazz flute solo in 1927 on “Shooting the Pistol,” with the Clarence Williams Orchestra in New York. From a Cuban to a native Nuyorican, Dave was yet another example of the great unsung contributions that Latinos have made to jazz history. He applied the multiphonic, vox humana techniques developed by saxophonists John Coltrane, Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to the flute, expanding its expressive vocabulary. No longer was the instrument associated with only lightness and levity. In his hands, it was an instrument of raw power, equal to the toughest of tenor saxophones and the mightiest of brass instruments, and as rhythmically intense as any percussion instrument. As we say in the borough, he was all that and a bag of chips. Rest in power, my brother, oh mighty S.O.B. (Son of Da Bronx).