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This article by Kevin L. Carter was prepared for the January 29, 2003 edition of U.S.
1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
From Cuba With Love
In these times of official American belligerence towards
certain Mid-East dictators, international terrorists, and other "evildoers,"
we tend to forget that politics have long intruded on cultural subjects
closer to home.
Dionisio de Jesus Valdes — better known as Chucho Valdes —
one of the greatest jazz pianists alive, and the keeper of the flame
of Cuba’s longstanding pianistic traditions, has played many concerts
outside of Cuba. He has recorded several albums for American record
companies. But on more than one occasion, politics has kept Chucho
Valdes, who maintains his home in Cuba, from coming to America.
Last year, for instance, Valdes was unable to come to the Latin Grammy
Awards show in Hollywood because he and 20 other Cubans were denied
entry visas by the State Department. (He won anyway, for his album
"Canciones Ineditas," adding to three Grammys already in his
Chucho Valdes is scheduled to perform Friday, January 31, at McCarter
Theater, and there are no indications that politics will impede this
trip. Valdes’ appearance will be an important artistic gesture during
a time in which cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba are under
The archaic, Cold War-vintage embargo on Cuba had, for most of the
43-year tenure of Fidel Castro, kept Cuban music — one of the
world’s great cultural treasures — away from American ears. The
matter was both inexcusable and ironic, since Cuban music contributed
directly to the origins of American jazz. Before the overthrow of
Cuba’s mob-dominated Batista regime, Cuban musicians such as Chano
Pozo, Alberto Socarras, Mario Bauza, and Frank "Machito" Grillo
had played in the U.S. with the top jazz musicians of their time.
Among these artists was Bebo Valdes, a pianist and arranger ("Nat
King Cole En Espanol") and the father of Chucho Valdes.
There was another international connection: among the first great
jazz musicians in New Orleans during and after the turn of the last
century were Cuban immigrant instrumentalists such as Lorenzo Tio,
Manuel Perez, and Willie Santiago. Even Jelly Roll Morton said that
much of his early inspiration as a jazz pianist came from one of his
early teachers — who happened to be from Cuba.
A breakthrough finally came in 1979. Under Jimmy Carter, a small group
of American musicians, led by Dizzy Gillespie, who had befriended
Chano Pozo 30 years earlier, made two trips to Cuba and were blown
away by the musicians they found there. These musicians, despite two
decades of official enmity, had studied American jazz, internalized
it, and given it back, combined and recombined with their own Cuban
The results were astonishing. One result of Cuba’s state-controlled
culture machine, for better or for worse, was that promising musicians
were educated in conservatories, where they received intensive training.
Indeed, Chucho Valdes, growing up in Fidel’s Cuba (in 1960 his father
moved to Mexico and then Spain, but Chucho stayed) spent most of his
teen years studying classical music with composers such as Ernesto
Lecuona. By the age of 17, Valdes had recorded his first album. In
the early 1970s, Valdes, with musicians that included trumpeter Arturo
Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and guitarist Carlos Emilio
Morales, organized the Orquesta de Musica Moderna.
In 1973, he and the others signed up percussionists
Oscar Valdes and Armando Cuervo, both with deep experience in traditional
Afro-Cuban drumming, and formed a superband that combined indigenous
Cuban music with jazz, rock, and classical music. It was that band,
Irakere, that blew the mind of Dizzy Gillespie and, later, Columbia
Records, which signed the group and released two albums.
As the political waves moved closer and farther away from true contact
between Cuba and America, Valdes stayed in Cuba and continued to work
and compose. Members of his group, including Sandoval and D’Rivera,
left Cuba for greener pastures abroad, but Valdes remained.
Finally, by the mid-’90s, Valdes — and many other Cuban contemporaries
— began to resurface. Some Cubans, such as wunderkind pianist
Gonzalo Rubalcaba, received permission to move out of Cuba. Others,
such as Philadelphia-based Elio Villafranca, did not leave Cuba entirely,
splitting their time between composing and playing at home and gigging
In 1991 his first American release, "Solo Piano," Valdes showed
that he had studied and internalized American jazz piano. His technique,
full of the emotion and melancholy of the Cuban son and danzon,
also shows the influence of his three favorite pianists — Art
Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner.
The Blue Note Records releases that include "Bele Bele en La Habana"
and "Briyumba Palo Congo," are a compelling mix of Valdes’
multicultural influences. At one point he "Cubanizes" tunes
by Gershwin and Ellington, pays homage to other classical composers,
and then digs deeply into his Afro-Cuban roots. He is never predictable,
but always listenable.
On Valdes’ latest release, "Fantasia Cubana," he returns to
his classical roots. He interprets Frederic Chopin’s "Waltz in
A Minor," as well as "Three Faces of Lecuona," in turn
paying homage to his former teacher.
Valdes is as imposing in person as he is on disc. He is a huge man
with gigantic hands that cover almost two octaves on the keyboard.
He stands 6-foot-6, and, despite his advancing age — he’ll be
62 in October — he remains in great physical condition. A nonsmoker
in a land of abundant cigars, Valdes once joked that he should have
been an NBA player.
Resolutely nonpolitical, he refuses to assail the policies that have,
at various points in his life, hindered his ability to perform and
learn. Valdes is very much aware of his status as a giant in Latin
music and jazz, but his stated goal in life has always been the same:
to study, and to study some more, and to write and play music that
is stimulating, satisfactory, and everlasting.
— Kevin L. Carter
Music by Cuban jazz pianist, featuring trumpeter Roy Hargrove. $31
& $34. Friday, January 31, 8 p.m.
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