Who was Bebo Valdes, and what were his contributions to music?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Born in Cuba, Bebo Valdes was the son of a cigar factory worker and grandson of a slave who became a renowned pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger. He died at age 94 in March, 2013, in Sweden where he had married Rose Marie Pehrson, a calvary officer's daughter, whom he had met when on tour in 1928. Prior to this marriage, Valdes had been married to Pilar Valdes, with whom he had five children, one of whom is his famous son Chucho, with whom Bebo put together a revival of his career in jazz in 2008; their work together brought them a Grammy, and also the equivalent of a Grammy awarded in Cuba.

Fearful of Fidel Castro, Valdes left Cuba for Mexico, and later Spain, in the 1960's, but during the post-World War II and pre-Castro period when many wealthy Americans toured and gambled in Cuba, Bebo Valdes became the bandleader at the Tropicana, Havana's prestigious and glamorous casino. In the 1950's Valdes contributed to the popularity of the mambo, a mixture of the social dances of England, France, and Spain, supported by rhythms derived from African folk music. (Much Cuban music is a combination of European and West African musical traditions.) In fact, he developed a new rhythm, called the batanga,

Valdes was a very talented pianist, who contributed greatly in the development of Cuban jazz, which became as popular as jazz in America. In 1959, Valdes founded his own orchestra in which his son Chucho, then a teenager, sometimes played the piano, too. After he moved to Sweden, Bebo Valdes introduced Cuban music as well as the techniques of Latin Jazz, a jazz that has its keystone rhythm come from the clave, a pair of short, thick wooden dowels struck together, which gives the jazz piece a rhythmic motif; rather than American drums, the conga or bongo drums, derived from Africa, are used.

Certainly, Bebo Valdes's Latin influence upon jazz has been profound as he performed with various artists and toured throughout Europe, visiting Germany at the invitation of Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera for a recording session. Having coordinated with Nat King Cole in the 1950's, Valdes described himself as an "American arranger because what I write has as much to do with America music as it does with Cuban music."

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