Bebo Valdés, who died March 22, 2013 at the age of 94, was one of the great Cuban musicians of all time. A pianist with his own style, bandleader, arranger, composer and mentor to his son Chucho Valdés, he had a remarkable last act when he began recording again in the 1990s after years of living quietly in Stockholm, Sweden. He made a significant series of albums in the 2000s on Fernando Trueba and Nat Chediak’s Calle 54 label, and he became a superstar (especially in Spain) after the 2003 success of the album Lágrimas Negras, which paired him with flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.
At the age of 5 or so, Bebo Valdés sat next to the father of Cuban pianism, Antonio María Romeu, on the piano bench throughout a concert by Romeu in Bebo’s home town of Quivicán. As a teenager, relocated to Havana, he became good friends with the great musical innovator Israel “Cachao” López. He was a staff arranger at the legendary radio station Mil Diez, played four-hand piano with the immortal Ernesto Lecuona, was the pianist at the famed Tropicana nightclub (where he played with visiting U.S. jazz stars on the level of Sarah Vaughan and Roy Haynes), made stars out of singers including Rolando Laserie, Celeste Mendoza and Pío Leyva, collaborated with Rita Montaner and Benny Moré, and was selected by Nat “King” Cole to be the pianist on Cole’s best-selling Cole Español album. One of the creators of the mambo (listen to his 1946 recording with the Julio Cueva big band, “La Rareza del Siglo”), he was the first Cuban musician to record a descarga (jam) and to use Yoruba tambores batá in a big band, created the batanga rhythm, and spent quality time in Port-au-Prince working with Haitian musicians, among many other accomplishments. The Rumba Para Bebo–part concert, part memorial, part Cuban jazz jam, part rumba, and part palo monte ceremony–was held in his honor on Oct. 29, 2013 as part of the Voll-Damm Barcelona International Jazz Festival in Barcelona, Spain.
As part of our tribute program to Bebo Valdés, Afropop producer (and world-class expert in Cuban music) Ned Sublette compiled this playlist of performances and recordings. It’s a stunning collection, showcasing only a small selection of the incredibly talented Valdes’ output. So dig in, and experience one of the world’s greatest musicians.