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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

renewed threat.

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

musical DNA.

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

Chucho Valdes Band, McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787.

Music by Cuban jazz pianist, featuring trumpeter Roy Hargrove. $31

& $34. Friday, January 31, 8 p.m.

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