Bebo Valdes, Cuban pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader died Friday March 22, 2013. He was 94.
He was the father of the “Duke Ellington of Cuba,” Chucho Valdes.
Ramón Emilio Dionisio Valdés Amaro was born in Quivicán, south of Havana. His grandfather was a slave, his father worked in a cigar factory. Bebo studied classical music at the Conservatorio Municipal, and then spent four years as the pianist and arranger for Mil Diez, the Cuban radio station that featured mainly live music.
In the heyday of mambo and at Havana’s height of appeal for American tourism, Bebo was house pianist and musical director at the Tropicana Club, the city’s most glamorous casino and showroom. There he had the opportunity to work with American jazz stars like Woody Herman and Nat King Cole.
Nicknamed El Caballón, (“The Big Horse”) because of his stature and energy, Valdes successfully blended his classical training, his love of jazz and his interest in Cuban music’s African roots.
Leaving Cuba for Mexico after Castro had closed the casinos, Bebo moved to Spain and then to Sweden, where he started his second family. He played piano in hotel lounges there for 30 years, until saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera asked him to record a collection of Valdes’ compositions in Germany in 1994. The CD “Bebo Rides Again” brought Bebo’s talents to a new generation. “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary about Latin jazz, features a touching reunion of Bebo and his son Chucho. Trueba also produced a documentary “Old Man Bebo” in 2008, and engaged Bebo to write the score for his animated film “Chico y Rita.” In recent years, Bebo won three Grammy awards and six Latin Grammys.
Asked how he found the energy to keep performing he said, “What else would I do? Watch TV? No, I’d rather play the piano. I will play until I die.”