Bebo Valdés’ Cuban and Jazz favorites


When Bebo Valdés passed away at age 94 in 2013, he not only left behind a legacy as one of the founders of Latin jazz; he had achieved one of the greatest late=life musical comebacks ever. One of Cuba's most celebrated pianists in a country of keyboard kings, Valdés, sat at the piano of the Tropicana during the club's heyday. The composer and band leader left Cuba in the early 60s and lived quietly in Sweden before a spectacular second act of Grammy-winning albums and world tours. I first interviewed Bebo, when he was on the cusp of his comeback in the early Nineties, and for years after the old-school galan sent me an annual Christmas card . One afternoon in a hotel bar in New York, I asked Bebo to describe for me a soundtrack of his life; he told me his Latin and Jazz favorites and the stories behind them.

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Mario Bauza, "Cachondo"; “Chano Pozo”, Chico y Rita New York Band; Machito “Congo Mulence”,

"In the beginning, Latin Jazz was called Afro-Cuban jazz, the way Machito and Maurio Bauza called it – and played it – in New York in the 1940s. The story of Latin jazz is really a very long story. It began when the Europeans didn't bring white women with them to the Americas; mulatos were born from the female slaves. And European music similarly combined with the African rhythms, a fusion of races that has created all of the rhythms that we have today in the Americas – from American jazz to Cuban music – where don't you see a conga on stage today? Latin jazz is the mix of those things, and it's kept on evolving in many different ways."

Sergio Alejandro, "El Pañuelo de Pepa" (Composed by Manuel Samuell)

"I always like to perform compositions by Samuell; he was the father of Cuban music. This gentleman was a pianist, violinist, bass player; he played a million instruments, and he was a super intelligent composer, arranger and teacher – an incredible man! Black slaves who came to Cuba from Haiti brought the contredanse style to Cuba, and Samuell wrote his own compositions incorporating the rhythm, which became known in Cuba as the contradanza. At that time, music that wesn't classical – black music- was called profane music. I don't agree with that. "

Bebo Valdés, "Siboney", (Composed by Ernesto Lecuona)

"Lecuona was the best pianist to ever come out of Cuba. He took the sound of the conga players and other forms of popular Cuban music. Proof that geniuses find their inspiration in the streets."

Art Tatum, "Tiger Rag"

"For me the ideal pianist of all of the American pianists is Art Tatum. There's never been another like him."

Tito Puente, "Son de la Loma" (Composed by Miguel Matamoros)

"This song is by Miguel Matamoros. My parents loved his music. I like to play Cuban classics like this one, but always in my own style."

Bebo Valdés, "Con Poco Coco"; “Nocturno en Batanga”

"The Tropicana nightclub was a special place. The orchestra I played with there, directed by Armando Romeu, was a good jazz orchestra, but at the club our purpose was to accompany the floor show. We played Cuban music. I wrote songs, like 'Con Poco Coco,' which I recorded for [Verve's] Norman Granz in 1952. I played it every Sunday at the Tropicana for ten years."

Nat King Cole, "Cachito"

"I coached him in Spanish when I did arrangements on his album [1958's Cole en Español.] He was a great singer, but he was a better piano player. I still have some pictures of him partying in Havana."

Chucho Valdés, "El Rumbón"

"I have seven children from three different women, and they all carry my name. Among those who are musicians is Chucho Valdes. Some of Chucho's children are musicians also, so there might be something genetic to it."

Bebo Valdés, “A Mayra”; Mayra Caridad Valdés, “Besame Mucho"

"My daughter, Mayra Caridad Valdes, has recorded with Chucho's group Irakere. My daughter Miriam is a pianist who specializes in Bach. My son Richard. who was born in Sweden, is a percussionist."

Bill Evans, "If You Could See Me Now"

"Bill Evans is the most modern musician today, even if he's no longer alive."

Bebo & Cigala, "Lagrimas Negras"

"This is a great, sad, love story, the kind we more or less all go through sometime in our lives. I've been playing this song by Miguel Matamoros since the forties, but it's never been so popular as when I recorded it with Cigala [on the 2003 Grammy award-winning album Lagrimas Negras.] At my age, the success of that album was a blessing from God. Everything changes with each generation, and I agree that music should keep changing too, but we should never forget our cultural roots. I'm 87 years old now, and I know that I don't have much time left, but the time I do have I'm going to dedicate to keeping Cuban music alive."