[JPL] Listening With: Bebo Valdés

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Oct 16 18:33:45 EDT 2006

October 13, 2006
Listening With: Bebo Valdés
Far From Cuba, but Not From His Roots 

THE Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, who will receive a
proper welcome from Jazz at Lincoln Center this
weekend, lives here, just outside Stockholm, with his
wife, Rose Marie, in a small ground-floor apartment.
Its shelves and walls serve as a kind of index to his
remarkable life. 

There are books of sheet music by Rachmaninoff and
Chopin; a photo of him in a tuxedo, tall and
commanding, on the cover of “Cha Cha Cha & Mambo for
Small Dance Bands,” a book he wrote and published in
Havana in the 1950’s, aiming at the English-language
market; paintings by Haitian artists; Joseph
Schillinger’s “System of Musical Composition,” the
dense theoretical books beloved by intellectual
musicians of the 1940’s and 50’s that break down
melody, harmony and rhythm into mathematic logic.
There is, incongruously, a shelf of pop-music
lead-sheet books like “100 of the Greatest Easy
Listening Hits,” all well thumbed. Then there are some
recent awards, including several Grammys, and a
ceremonial key to the city of Miami.

To explain all this requires going back a bit. Slavery
officially ended in Cuba in 1886. Ramon Valdés,
universally known as Bebo, was born in 1918. His
mother came from a Spanish family, and his paternal
grandfather was a slave. Afro-Cuban jazz is the
ultimate mixture of African, European and New World
culture. It is not at all uncommon for a Latin jazz
group now to put the batá, the two-headed drum of
Yoruban religious music, alongside elements of
European harmony and American swing. But hand drums
were effectively prohibited in Cuba in the early 20th
century, and Mr. Valdés remembers a time when the batá
was never, ever used in dance music. He reckons he was
the first to do so, in 1952.

He graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal in
Havana. “It was the poor man’s conservatory, and the
best,” he insists. A gifted arranger, he worked with
his hero, Ernesto Lecuona — probably the greatest
Cuban composer of the 20th century — after graduating
in the mid-40’s.

Mr. Valdés was in the inner circle of musicians who
developed the mambo, along with the
multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez and his brother,
the bassist Israel (Cachao) Lopez. For much of the
1950’s, during the height of the mambo’s popularity,
Mr. Valdés was the pianist of the house orchestra at
the Tropicana, the biggest nightclub in Havana, and
the club’s musical adviser. He played with, or
arranged for, most of Cuba’s star singers and
musicians, including Beny More (who sang with the
orchestra at Tropicana), Miguelito Valdés, Pío Leyva
and Chano Pozo. When Nat King Cole, a habitué of the
Tropicana, came to Havana to record his
Spanish-language record “Cole Español,” Mr. Valdés
played piano and arranged the album. He was the
epicenter of a thriving world.

He had five children in Cuba, including Chucho Valdés,
who has since become one of the greatest pianists in
the world. In 1960, after the revolution, the senior
Mr. Valdés fled Cuba — first to Mexico, where he
worked in television and in the recording studios, and
then to Spain. In Stockholm, on a European tour with a
group called Lecuona’s Cuban Boys, he met and fell in
love with Rose Marie Pehrson. He was 44, and she was

It was 1963. He wanted to relocate to New York, but,
as a black man with a white wife, he was warned by
friends against moving to the United States. For a
while he bided his time: he remembers being of the
opinion that Castro’s regime would not last much

He has never returned to Cuba. He stayed in Stockholm,
starting a new family and playing piano in hotel
lounges for more than 30 years. (Hence the
easy-listening songbooks.) He has a working musician’s
pride, and no regrets. 

His reputation flourished again at a point in his life
when most musicians are busy resisting decline. In
1994, at the behest of the Cuban jazz saxophonist
Paquito D’Rivera, he recorded “Bebo Rides Again,” his
first album in three decades. It was to be a loose,
jam-session record, but Mr. Valdés insisted on
structure. He arranged nine of his own songs for a
nonet in two days. 

In 2000 he took part in “Calle 54,” Fernando Trueba’s
documentary film about Latin jazz. Subsequently Mr.
Trueba formed a record label with the film and music
historian Nat Chediak and made a series of recordings
involving Mr. Valdés. One of them, “Lágrimas Negras,”
an album of boleros by Mr. Valdés and the flamenco
singer Diego El Cigala, sold nearly a million copies,
mostly in Europe. In Madrid and Barcelona
particularly, crowds have started to applaud him on
the street and in restaurants. He has done better
financially in his 80’s than at any other time in his

He has released three more albums since “Lágrimas
Negras,” including “Bebo de Cuba,” a double disc that
won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy last year. It includes
his “Suite Cubana,” which will be performed tonight
and tomorrow at Rose Theater with Jazz at Lincoln
Center’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. 

Mr. Valdés turned 88 on Monday. He and Rose Marie live
not far from their two Swedish-born sons, Rickard and

He is cheerful, and extremely punctual. He takes small
steps and moves quickly, especially toward his piano.
He claims he is never tired. (“And I’m not bragging,”
he said.) He practices scales and arpeggios for 30
minutes daily and prefers to eat one meal, around
lunchtime. He talks about rhythm analytically and does
not dance well; he seems to take a kind of pride in
this. He does not drink alcohol but takes in
prodigious amounts of American coffee. 

Mr. Valdés spoke in Spanish, with a translator, with
little sprays of English. His memory for names and
dates is sharp, and for a journalist’s visit, he
prepared a precise list of music to listen to, each
piece keyed to particular fascinations.

The first piece was by his hero, Ernesto Lecuona. We
heard Lecuona himself play his short piece “La
Paloma,” which incorporates late-Romantic rhapsodies
and elegant dance rhythms in flexible tempo. 

“I first heard of Lecuona when I was in conservatory,
in 1934,” Mr. Valdés said. Was his music taught in
conservatories then? “Oh, no, no,” he said, surprised
by the idea. “Only classical. Everything we learned in
conservatory was before Cervantes.”

He was speaking of Ignacio Cervantes, the Cuban
composer who died in 1905. A conversation with Mr.
Valdés goes this way. You are immersed in about 150
years of Cuban music, stretching from African- derived
abakuá chants to contradanzas to boleros to mambo and
modern Latin jazz. At the mention of Cervantes’s name,
Mr. Valdés sits at the piano and performs all of
Cervantes’s short, stately “Danza No. 1.” 

“He was Lecuona’s favorite,” he remembered. “You
couldn’t criticize Cervantes around him. He did
wonderful things, but rhythmically, he copied
Saumell.” (The reference was to Manuel Saumell
Robredo, considered the father of Cuban contradanza.)
He played part of “Danza No. 1” again, emphasizing the
syncopated five-note pattern called the cinquillo,
which he says is what makes the contradanza
particularly Cuban. 

He got back to the Lecuona. “He’s doing three things
at the same time. The left hand plays the rhythm, the
accompaniment, and the right hand the melody. On top
of that there’s a lot of improvising.” 

Mr. Valdés revered Lecuona for the prodigious keyboard
talents lying underneath his gifts as a composer: he
was performing at the age of 5. 

“He was a great person, Ernesto, and a great musician.
When he won a piano competition in Paris, in 1928,
they asked him to play something of his own, and he
played ‘La Comparsa.’ The ovation was enormous. With
the money he made from winning the competition, he
bought himself a farm, which he called La Comparsa. I
think maybe it’s spiritual. When we were filming
‘Calle 54,’ I didn’t know what to play. So I played
‘La Comparsa,’ and for a lot of people, it’s their
favorite part of the movie.”

We moved on to Art Tatum. “My favorite pianist,” he
boomed. “He and Bill Evans.” Unstoppable, he played
Evans’s “Waltz for Debby,” complete with a full chorus
of rigorous improvisation. “I love to improvise,” he

We listened to Tatum playing “Without a Song,” solo,
from the 1955 recordings made at a private party in
Beverly Hills. It is fully animated, never staying in
one rhythm, with tremendous, crashing, full-keyboard
runs — always through appropriate chord changes —
functioning as steppingstones. “It’s virtuosic in
technique — totally classical, with modern harmony,”
he said. “He was the first pianist I ever heard
playing modern harmonies and playing them with heart.”

Tatum, he added, “was always improvising. He would
change time signatures, put one harmony on top of
another. I try to imitate him at times, but who am I?”

When Mr. Valdés was solidifying his reputation in
Havana, several of his compatriots were making waves
in New York. (Mr. Valdés never spent time there:
offered a visa for only 29 days in the 40’s, he
decided against such a short stay.) In 1947 Dizzy
Gillespie’s big band was joined by the conga player
Chano Pozo, who drilled the band in how to play the
tumbao, the conjunction of rhythm-section lines in
Cuban music. The band’s great document of the period
is the song “Manteca,” which became a hit in the
United States. 

Mr. Valdés maintains that Gillespie’s American band
played the Cuban rhythms perfectly. He put the track
on. “What I hear most is the conga, and the changes in
the bass. And the boom-bah, boom-bah,” he sang,
imitating the baritone saxophone. 

“That’s all the tumbao of mambo,” he said. “It’s
completely the mambo style of Cachao.” Halfway
through, the song lifts out of Cuban rhythm into jazz
swing, with more arranged harmony, and he savored the

Right after this, he put on a Frank Sinatra track from
1960, “Nice ’n’ Easy,” arranged by Nelson Riddle. It
has the midtempo bounce of Sinatra records at the
time, a rhythmic feeling that thrills Mr. Valdés.
“Nobody can play music like that except in America,
that kind of swing, that time,” he said. “It’s
impeccable. The most difficult thing in the world is
to play slowly and keep time. When I listen to this, I
see American black people dancing.” 

“Even though I’m Cuban, I’m really an American
arranger,” he reflected. “Because the way I write has
as much to do with American music as it does with
Cuban music. And at the same time it has to do with
the fugue.” (An example of his fugue writing comes in
the middle of “Devoción,” a beguiling part of his
“Suite Cubana.”) 

It was pointed out to him that fugues have little to
do with Cuban or American music. “Yes, but I do it
anyway,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I, if I know how?”

He brought out the sheet music to Rachmaninoff’s Piano
Concerto No. 2 in C minor, to use as a reference as we
listened to it. “I was studying composition and
harmony when I heard this performed by the Havana
Symphony, in the 40’s,” he said. 

What he wanted to show, in the third movement of the
piece, was how the composer builds a beautiful,
fragile melody, then protects it as the orchestra
swells around it. “When I hear the music build to a
crescendo, I feel like crying,” he said. 

I asked if he was able to use this device in his own
arranging. “Whenever I can get away with it,” he
thundered. He put on “Copla No. 4,” the guajira
section of his “Suite Cubana,” to demonstrate. It has
the same effect: big, brass-heavy crescendos, building
in intensifying shades and colors around the melody. 

“When you know classical music, you can do what you
want to do,” Mr. Valdés said, and then he recited an
old maxim to indicate that he had succeeded on his own
terms: “Es mejor ser la cabeza de un perro que la cola
de un tiburón.” It’s better to be the head of a dog
than the tail of a shark. 

Bebo Valdés performs with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s
Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra tonight and tomorrow night
at 8 in the Rose Theater, Broadway and 60th Street,
(212) 721-6500. He will repeat the program in Miami at
the Jackie Gleason Theater on Thursday.

Beyond Havana 
Recordings listened to for this article:

ERNESTO LECUONA “La Paloma,” from “The Ultimate
Collection — Lecuona”; two CD’s (RCA, $21.98).

ART TATUM “Without a Song,” from “20th Century Piano
Genius” (Verve, $22.98).

DIZZY GILLESPIE “Manteca,” from “Dizzy Gillespie: The
Complete RCA Victor Recordings: 1937-1949”; two CD’s
(RCA, $24.98).

FRANK SINATRA “Nice ’n’ Easy,” from “Nice ’n’ Easy”
(Capitol, $16.98).

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2, Rhapsody on
a Theme of Paganini; Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; London
Symphony Orchestra, conducted by André Previn
(Universal/Penguin Classics, $7.99). 

Recordings by Bebo Valdés recommended by Ben Ratliff:
‘MUCHO SABOR’ (Palladium, $15). Music from the height
of the 1950’s mambo era in Cuba: Mr. Valdés and his
band Orquesta Sabor de Cuba backing up a number of the
day’s popular singers, including Pío Leyva and Orlando
(Cascarita) Guerra.

‘LÁGRIMAS NEGRAS’ (Bluebird/RCA, $18.98). The 2002
collaboration that made him famous again: Mr. Valdés
and the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala on a
collection of old boleros.

‘BEBO DE CUBA’ (Calle 54, $22.99). Mr. Valdés’s new
music for a modern Latin-jazz big band, recorded in
2002 with a wrecking crew of New York-based musicians
including Paquito D’Rivera, Mario Rivera, Juan Pablo
Torres, John Benitez and Dafnis Prieto. 

‘BEBO’ (Calle 54). From 2004, an exquisite and
historically broad solo piano recording, focusing on
19th- and early-20th-century Cuban music, danzas and
popular songs, by Lecuona, Cervantes, Saumell and
others. Some of this music is little known and seldom
played; Mr. Valdés performs it with elegance and
feeling. Currently available as a Spanish import from
descarga.com, it will be released in the United States
on Oct. 24.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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