It is hard to underestimate the importance of pianist Bebo Valdés’ contributions to Cuban music. “Bebo”, who passed way at the age of 94 in Stockholm, Sweden yesterday, is considered to have been instrumental in “wedding traditional Afro-Cuban dance rhythms with the improvisational freedom of American jazz” (JazzTimes). His earliest performances were in rumba style but his exposure to jazz in the 1930s “altered the course of his music as he adopted the African-rooted rhythms and the swing of the American big bands to his own playing and arranging.” In 1947 Bebo took a job as pianist-arranger in Haiti, an experience that he says “increased his knowledge of African-based rhythms.” He returned to Cuba in 1948, where he gained fame as the musical director of the Tropicana club in Havana. In October 1952, he did a series of recordings for American producer Norman Granz, a descarga that is considered to be the first Afro-Cuban jazz jam sessions recorded on the island. Following Cuba’s revolution in 1959, Bebo left for Mexico, then the United States, and finally Europe where he settled in Stockholm, playing in piano bars and touring occasionally. In 1994, Cuban musician Paquito D’Rivera sought out Bebo for a recording session, released as “Bebo Rides Again”. The LP’s sleeves has it that this was Bebo’s first recording after 34 years (although that is noted as not entirely correct). Once more, some silent years followed this recording, living “a quiet musical existence,” as JazzTimes calls it in an older article — untill the year 2000, when Fernando Trueba brought together some of Cuba’s great musicians for the film “Calle 54”, and reintroduced Bebo’s playing to an international audience.
And this is what YouTube is made for.
The film featured this duet of Bebo and his eldest son, Chucho:
In 2003, Trueba went on to produce the instant classic Lagrimas Negras album, teaming Bebo with flamenco singer Diego El Cigala:
In 2004 he was again filmed by Trueba for El milagro de Candeal, a film about the role music played in the historically black neighbourhood of Candeal, Salvador (state of Bahia, Brazil). A fragment:
In 2008, a documentary was made about his life by Carlos Carcas: Old Man Bebo. Here’s the trailer:
And released in 2010, Chico and Rita is an animated feature-length film directed by, again, Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal. The story is set against the backdrops of Havana, New York City, Las Vegas, Hollywood and Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s and it is inspired by the life of Bebo. The film also has an original soundtrack by Bebo (alongside tracks by Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddy Cole). And here’s the nice part: you can watch it in full on YouTube:
Gracias por la música, Bebo Valdés. R.I.P.