For the 71st birthday of the magisterial Cuban Jesus “Chucho” Valdés — and the 93rd for his father, Bebo Valdés — here’s an feature piece I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2004.
The end of the piece is inaccurate — as it turned out, Valdés did not miss his U.S. gigs because of a hernia condition, but because of certain business and personal conflicts which I won’t elaborate upon.
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Thirty years ago, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés relates, his biggest dream was to see Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner perform. Now, on the final Monday of 2003, Valdés was about to embark on a week when and he and the piano giants would simultaneously play major club engagements in New York City.
Over the past few years, the enigmatic Cuban pianist had barely played a note in New York. Booked to play the Village Vanguard in 2002 and early 2003, visa-processing delays by the Homeland Security Administration forced him to miss these dates, as well as other gigs in the States. Cuba is on a list of countries considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States—to receive a visa, its citizens need to get a special security clearance from the State Department—so stories like Valdes’ are more the rule than the exception.
This time, art prevailed, and Valdés, with his visa secured and upgraded, arrived in New York from Havana for a week at the Vanguard without bureaucratic holdup. His long absence in and of itself imparted extra significance to this residence. But to raise expectations even higher, he was scheduled to perform with a completely new band.
When Valdés descended into the Vanguard to meet his New York band for the week to come, awaiting him downstairs were Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez, Cuban-raised drummer Dafnis Prieto and veteran Nuyorican conguero Ray Mantilla. After warm greetings and salutations, the musicians—never in a room together until that moment—took the bandstand and launched into “Besame Mucho” as a flowing son, locking in from the first measures with the intuition of old friends conversing over a post-dinner apertif. In that mode, they rehearsed until nightfall.
“Generally, Cuban groups like Irakere are very formed,” Valdés said over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Patria prior to his first rehearsal with the new group. “You can do complicated things, and you have all the time in the world to rehearse. Things take time when they’re hard. This is another story, because it’s imagination, adventure. The other is an adventure, too, but planned. Everything depends on how we connect, musically and in the idea. I have done other things; now is the moment to do this. This for me is something new, and I like it.”
Valdés agreed to take on this project at the suggestion of his close friend Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s proprietor. He first played the venerable basement in September 1996 as a member of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, and subsequently in 1997 with Hargrove’s Crisol, the New York–Cuba ensemble in which Valdés showcased his jazz skills to an American audience that knew him only as the keyboardist and musical director of Irakere. In 1999, he recorded a live album on the premises for Blue Note with his quartet of Cuban musicians, Live At The Village Vanguard.
At 62, Valdés is a national icon in Cuba. As the creative force behind Irakere, he spent the ’70s and ’80s finding ways to place jazz harmonies over the songo beat, a rhythm of his own invention that blends Cuban street beats—rumba, guaguanco and yumba—with American funk.
Since the mid ’90s he’s used his international prestige to draw world-class artists to the Havana Jazz Festival. But Valdés had never done anything quite like this week at the Vanguard, where he allowed himself to complete a circle, to connect wholeheartedly with his earliest musical aspirations in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to do for many years.
“Mistakenly, some people thought jazz was imperialist music,” Valdés says, describing the ideological attitude of Cuba’s cultural commissars in the early ’60s. “A great error. I have struggled all my life. But I maintained my connections in the difficult period, and today I have the best jazz festival in all of the Southern Americas. Easier said than done, but we did it.”
Before sold-out crowds at the Vanguard each night, Valdés allowed himself to eschew the firm control with which he customarily directs the musicians in his ensembles. He opted for improvisation, interaction, and open exchange of ideas with his world-class partners, subordinating pyrotechnics and virtuosic flourishes to collective ends. In short, Valdés displayed a fully bilingual tonal personality—not a pianist who layers jazz elements onto a Cuban sensibility, but a Cuban musician fully at home with the idiomatic particulars of jazz vocabulary.
He revealed a staggering breadth of reference. He might begin a set with a chromatic workout on the luscious atonal melody of “Son Parabea,” composed that very week, and then follow it with a quote-filled tour through “Besamé Mucho” (the final night saw stops at “Work Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nature Boy,” “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Bolivia”), addressed as a soulful bolero-blues. He transformed Miles Davis’ “Solar” into a Cubop tour de force, juxtaposing different metric signatures with each hand and articulating the dynamics and velocities with total control. He played the balladic danzons “La Comparsa” or “Tres Palabras,” or perhaps his own classic, “Claudia,” deploying the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy and Villa-Lobos in his statements. He paid homage to Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debby”) and Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”).
Valdés is a long-standing devotee of Gershwin, with interpretations of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” on his extraordinary string of albums for Blue Note since 1998. At the Vanguard he played “Liza”—traveling the timeline from idiomatic Fats Waller stride to baroque Art Tatum romanticism to intense Bud Powell bebop—and a catchy “I Got Rhythm” variant, songo-style, on which each night he found new ways to interpolate snippets from “Birks Works,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and other refrains from Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Cheek To Cheek” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”
“We were exploring for the whole week,” Prieto said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and it stayed fresh. I was impressed by the way he conducts. He would raise his hand, and you wouldn’t have to pay attention twice to see what he meant. It made things very tight, and he made decisions at the right time and with the right conception. He’s very clear. He surprised me in the way he directed the band, in his piano playing, and in his interaction. After that week, I think differently about him.”
At our luncheon at Patria, Valdés squeezed his six-and-a-half foot frame and not inconsiderable bulk into a booth with his wife of four years, Ileana, and translator Ned Sublette, the proprietor of the Cuba-centric Qbadisc label and author of a forthcoming history of Cuban music. Valdés ate ceviche and a chicken cutlet sandwich, drank wine, and held forth on a variety of subjects, constantly referencing the culture in which he developed his core aesthetic values.
“There was everything in Havana,” Valdés said of his formative years, which coincided with the regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the height of American Mafia influence in the Cuban tourist trade. “Most of the big hotels had cabarets with shows, and they brought in big names. Johnny Mathis, for example. I remember when Sarah Vaughan was in the Sans Souci at the same time Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana, and when the two shows finished, everybody went to the Sans Souci to have a jam session with Sarah. There were a lot of jam sessions after the cabarets closed, and there were always North American musicians appearing. Zoot Sims. Mundell Lowe. Jimmy Knepper.
“Stan Getz showed up, borrowed a tenor, and sight-read the hotel show like he’d been playing the book for a hundred years,” he continued. “Nobody knew that they were in Cuba. The movie theaters would have a show after the movie; I saw Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball once, and artists from Spain and France. During the ‘50s, Josephine Baker was at the Tropicana. I was the pianist on the last record she made, in 1966, in Havana.”
Valdés attended conservatory for classical music and was home-schooled in jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés, himself a virtuoso jazz stylist who in 1952 transplanted the bata drum from the rituals of Santeria into mainstream Cuban dance. He first played professionally at a lounge in the Tropicana around 1957–’58. “It was a bebop trio, and I played pure American style,” he recalls. “I was trying to reproduce all the things I listened to. Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland—the Miles Davis pianists. Bud Powell. Many things of Oscar Peterson. I followed the line of my father, because of his experience. I admire him a lot. He’s one of the greatest pianists I’ve listened to in Cuba. He told me, ‘Study pure Classical, and you’ve got to study jazz by periods.’ We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal by epoch. Learn each thing correctly in its specialty, and don’t jump around from era to era, so you know what you’re doing and why things happened. He taught me to be an individual musician.
“On my solos, within my limitations, I played a little like Art Tatum at the beginning. Then I started to follow my own fantasy, looking for something that would identify me. How can I put in a bata drum? How can I change the bass around to make it more Latin? How can I use more jazz harmony, because it’s richer? And how can I put Yoruba cantos over the jazz harmony? Little by little, I searched for those answers. I was much criticized for this by Cuban musicians, because they said this isn’t pure. But within my conception, I put it together. I understood already that this was fusion. My father had his fusion, but I was looking for my own. When I made my first record, they wanted to call me Bebo Valdés Jr. I said, ‘My name is Chucho.’ They said, ‘No, it will sell better.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to record, then.’ I was proud of my father’s name, but I wanted to be myself.”
“In the beginning, Chucho played exactly like Oscar Peterson,” says Paquito D’Rivera, confirming Valdés’ self-description. D’Rivera writes vividly about these years in his autobiography, Mi Vida Saxual [My Saxual Life]. He recalls having first heard Valdés play in 1961 at a club called Havana 1900, and made his recording debut in Cuba on a pair of early-’60s LPs called Jesus Valdés Y Sus Combo that contained “primarily boleros and descargas.” In 1964–’65, Valdés and D’Rivera would play jazz with Irakere predecessors El Teatro Musical del Havana and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.
“As the ’60s went on, he got more into Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett had a big impact on him,” D’Rivera continues. “But at first he sounded like a continuation of his father’s work. Nobody called him Chucho. They said, ‘This is Bebo’s son.’ Mainly because of Bebo, he was very well respected by the Cuban musicians. Nobody criticized him. Everybody admired him as a musician.”
Bebo Valdés opposed Castro, and left Cuba in 1963 for a new life in Europe. His son remained on the island to pursue his musical studies and raise his own family, unable to communicate with his father and facing severe pressure to renounce his jazz roots.
“Terror can work miracles,” D’Rivera says. “For 17 years, Chucho did not return Bebo’s letters. Bebo told me that he did not blame Chucho. His words were, ‘Chucho was so scared that I understand why he did this.’ But I am glad that now Chucho says he feels like a jazz person, because he was denying this for many years. In the ‘70s, jazz was a four-letter word, and Chucho didn’t want to participate in the Havana Festival. He didn’t say, ‘No, I am not going to participate,’ but he never participated.”
Now a pillar of Cuba’s cultural establishment, Valdés visits his father’s house in Sweden, speaks with him once a week and receives Bebo’s youngest son—his stepbrother—on a regular basis at his house in Cuba. He’s so entrenched in the system that he signed a public letter last April defending Fidel Castro’s imposition of 20-year prison terms on such dissident figures as the poet-writer-journalist Raul Rivera and economists Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. He would appear to hold the position of Cuba’s musical chairman of the board. While other groups have been sanctioned for performing in venues that the government considers off-limits or for conveying proscribed lyrics or genres, Irakere has operated in a relatively uncircumscribed manner. Valdés knows the boundaries, and doesn’t cross them.
“I had a lot of friends within the culture—and the state,” he laughs. “That helps. It’s not as bad as is said. It’s important to break the psychological barriers that impede the interchange, without saying names of what it’s about. When Dizzy got together with the Cubans, something different happened. Cuba and the United States have a musical root with a point of departure in Africa. New Orleans was once in Spanish territory, and the connection between the habanera and ragtime is very interesting. They are almost the same thing. The famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said he felt in ragtime wasn’t Latin. It’s the ‘African Tinge,’ the same thing that’s in the habanera.
“The same Africans came to New Orleans and to Cuba. For that reason, it’s very important that the relation between the cultures is not broken. If there is a political problem, it’s a mistake, because it’s holding back development. And at the end, it’s not the product of a country, it’s a universal product. I base what I do in that idea. I hope nothing impedes the communication between North American and Cuban musicians. This is above politics. It’s more interesting than politics.”
“Being apolitical is already a political position,” D’Rivera responds. “I think Chucho doesn’t agree with the Cuban government. But he’s a representative of the Cuban government, even if he’s doing it against his will. He wants to do his music and he doesn’t want to leave, and he has to follow the rules. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to follow those rules.”
“Chucho’s major source of inspiration is in Cuba—the daily life, the smells, the atmosphere,” says Ileana Valdés. “He could never leave that place.”
That being said, Valdés seemed thrilled to have an opportunity to soak up the New York state of mind in an unmediated fashion.
“Last night, I received a lesson listening to Cedar Walton,” he said. “It was fantastic. Jazz is a language. It’s a form of expression. And it’s an idiom at the same time. Cedar did it pure at the maximum level. I also heard that with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Listening, you learn. One has a seal, a way of identifying oneself that one does not lose. But also, I see change. I’ve got a lot to learn here yet.
“When I play, I’m thinking about rhythm and movement. I can also be very introspective. I admire Bill Evans. But I do something else. I never wanted to be a cabaret pianist. The harmony is the road; you can’t choose another path. It governs improvisation. You can move the harmony around, but the harmony always guides you. You can improvise freely over it, but you can’t forget it. I live studying this. And buying books and music. That’s my life. Nothing else interests me.”
In February, Valdés had just completed an engagement at the Blue Note in Milan with his Cuban quartet and was scheduled to fly into New York to rehearse for a Bronx concert with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra that would include several duets with the singer Graciela, the sister of Mario Bauza. Plans were afoot to keep the New York Quartet busy during the spring and summer.
However, none of these events transpired. Lifting a suitcase while in tour in Italy, Valdés aggravated a long-standing hernia condition. He returned to Cuba and, advised not to travel for four months, postponed all off-island engagements until the summer, including the Bronx event (D’Rivera filled in) and a series of concerts in Spain with his father.
Valdés didn’t sit still. Within the first month of his recuperation, he recorded an album for the Cuban market with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, performed with nuevo flamenco singer El Cigalla, and played the opening week of a new club in Havana’s Jazz Plaza at which the Cuban government plans to present performances.
But it’s hard to say when he’ll return to the United States. And as of this writing, no one is sure when—or if—the New York Quartet will work again.