Chucho Valdés playing in Hollywood, FL. Photo by Fernando González ©
The following is an excerpt of a chapter from the unpublished Mambo Influenciado: The Memoirs of Chucho Valdés by Chucho Valdés with Fernando González. As a longtime contributor to and former managing editor of JAZZIZ, I was happy to share with the magazine, with Chucho’s permission, this excerpt of his memoirs. The piece appeared in JAZZIZ’s 2021 Winter issue.
Three Pianos, Two Guitars and a Band From Cuba
The Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall on June 28, 1978, had been billed as “Three pianos and two guitars.” Yet, as John S. Wilson noted two days later in his New York Times review, “All five were there — Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner on pianos, Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine on guitars. But by the end of the evening, they had almost been forgotten in the wake of an unannounced added attraction — Irakere, an 11-piece group from Cuba that had just been brought to New York by Columbia Records.”
Irakere’s appearance was the improbable result of a visit to Havana of a floating jazz festival aboard the cruise ship S.S. Daphne in May 1977. It was the first official U.S. visit to the island since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The truly all-star lineup included Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha’” Hines and also Ry Cooder, who decades later would stir interest anew of Cuban musical traditions with his Buena Vista Social Club project.
Among the discoveries made by the visitors was an extraordinary little big band with an odd name: Irakere. So bowled over was Getz by what he heard that, once back in New York, he went directly to speak to Bruce Lundvall, then president of CBS Records. Getz was insistent: Lundvall had to go to Cuba and check out that scene for himself. He did. “We went to Havana in April 1978, based on little more than curiosity,” he wrote in the liner notes for Havana Jam, a recording of a three-day festival that happened the following year. “During our last evening in Havana, we were so overwhelmed by the ensemble and virtuoso brilliance of Irakere … that we immediately made a commitment to sign them.”
Bruce Lundvall, former President of CBS Records and Blue Note Records
“This was an unbelievably original fusion. Everybody impressed me. Chucho as the leader of the band, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, Carlos Averhoff, Jorge Varona, Carlos Emilio [Morales], who was a very nice guitar player, a terrific bass player [Carlos del Puerto] and Oscar Valdés.
“And I was really impressed with how original the concept of their fusion of jazz and rock with Cuban music was. The compositions were great, and the playing was just extraordinary. They had some virtuoso players in the band, and it was very well-rehearsed.
“The whole thing just knocked us off our feet. We had no idea we would find something like this, so I said, ‘We have to sign them right away.’ We went to the EGREM studios, we had a party that night, and we had a jam session. [Drummer] Billy Cobham played with them. It was a late night with a lot of rum. But the embargo was a problem, so we had to figure out how we were going to make it work.
“When I got back, I called George Wein, I told him we had a great band from Cuba, and he said, ‘We don’t have any room.’ So I suggested that in the piano night, with Bill Evans, McCoy, Mary Lou Williams and all the rest, maybe we could have them as surprise guests. And we did, and boy, they blew the place apart.”
“Batá drumming, jazz and Mozart; there was nothing like Irakere.”
* * *
That night at Carnegie Hall, wrote Wilson in his New York Times review, Irakere “created a carnival air … dancing around the stage, marching through the aisles like a New Orleans band on parade and winding back on the stage with Maynard Ferguson on trumpet and Stan Getz on tenor saxophone joining them in a jam session.”
The person orchestrating such goings-on, sometimes literally, was a quiet but imposing tall man with an enigmatic smile, calmly cueing in the lightning bolts and thunder from behind the keyboards.
It had taken years to get here, hard work yes, but also persistence, patience and a certain poise to bargain with the cultural commissars of the Cuban Revolution. After all, for a while, jazz was a four-letter word in Cuba. “Imperialistic music,” they called it. Drum kits and cymbals were forbidden.
But on that evening, he had no time to gloat. As he surveyed the scene, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés, Irakere’s pianist, founder, main composer and arranger, was thinking about something else entirely. His first teacher and role model, not just as a musician but as a man, was somewhere in the hall: his father, Bebo Valdés.
At odds with the Revolution, Bebo Valdés, who, as a pianist, arranger and bandleader, had been a leading figure in the Golden Age of Cuban music, had left Cuba in October 1960. It was going to be, he told Chucho, “just for three months, until things settle down.” But Bebo never returned. He eventually settled in Sweden, started a new family and made a new life for himself. Now he had come to New York to see Chucho.
Irakere’s historic 1978 Carnegie Hall concert not only put Chucho and Irakere on the map but shook up many dusty, fixed notions about jazz, Latin jazz, Cuban music and fusion. Several of the pieces Irakere played that evening were included on the band’s self-titled debut album on Columbia Records. A year later, it would win Irakere a Grammy for Best Latin Recording.
And that evening, Chucho Valdés not only started to reclaim the lost years with his father but also began to reclaim his own story.
“Debuting in Carnegie Hall was incredible, a dream. And we found out who was on the program that night, and obviously for me it was even more significant because of who was playing: Bill Evans? Never in my life I had dreamed of seeing Bill Evans up close, in person, live. McCoy Tyner? Mary Lou Williams? That was science fiction. I had to pinch myself.
“When they announced us, it was after midnight and the [stage hands] union said that [the concert] had to stop — but Columbia paid the overtime. It was an incredible scene. I don’t think Carnegie Hall ever had as many musicians in the audience as it had that night. Many of them just wanted to know what the hell was this Irakere they had heard so much about. We were the first group from Cuba to play in a jazz festival in the United States. The contact with Cuban music had been lost.
“What people mostly heard for years was salsa, Fania [Records] and artists like Celia Cruz, and what we were bringing was decades of change since that music. Everybody seemed to be there. It was a great success. And besides, my dad was there. I knew he was there. He was with my favorite aunt, Emelina, who had lived since 1958 in Brooklyn. I had seen my aunt. She was like my mom. And Bebo and I had spoken on the phone, but we hadn’t seen each other. My hands were shaking, knowing Bebo was watching me. It had been 18 years.
“When we finished playing, there was a bit of chaos backstage with so many people coming to meet us and say hello. It was all very emotional. And here comes Paquito with a bearded man and says, ‘There is this gentleman who wants to meet you.’ We had so many people around us. I didn’t know who this man was. So I just say, ‘A pleasure to meet you,’ and shook his hand. And Paquito laughs and says, ‘Chucho, you know who this man is? It’s Bill Evans, coño!’ When he said that, I said ‘Coñooo’ and fell to my knees. I think it was the first and last time I was on my knees in a place that was not a church. I told him: ‘Look, thank you and thanks to Live at the Village Vanguard, which was the greatest school I had. That was a record I took to my teacher to see if I could get a sound like yours.’ I think I went on and on and I told him everything I could, and he listened very courteously, and then congratulated me — and I kept thinking, ‘Now, wait, Bill Evans congratulated me?’
“We took pictures with everybody, and when I went out, there was Bebo. He was hiding. He didn’t want to be seen because he was concerned that it might be a problem for me. If my father was there, it was possible that I would leave with him, so there was always someone [from Cuban State Security] watching. He stayed hidden, and someone gave me the signal to go to a certain place and meet him. And when I met with him and my aunt and her husband, you can imagine the hugs, the crying … it was like an explosion. We’d had some letters. Very few calls. I couldn’t call from Cuba. And he couldn’t call me. But I know that he wrote to my grandmother, they wrote to each other.
“We jumped in my aunt’s car and left for her house. She had cooked a meal that was like being back in [our old town] Quivicán. I didn’t go back to the hotel that night. After dinner, Bebo and I went into a room and talked; we just talked all night, I’d say from 1 a.m. to 8 a.m., nonstop. Time passed in a blink. We talked about what had happened since he left that day [in 1960], how his life had been, what had happened with me since, and we talked and talked and talked. My aunt would come in after a while and say, ‘Gentlemen, all right already. How long are you going to talk?’ But we didn’t care.
Bebo Valdés standing center right, conducting his orchestra, Sabor de Cuba, at the TV show Jueves de Partagás. Chucho Valdés, at the piano, was just 18. Photo courtesy Chucho Valdés.
“We talked about the family, about [my mother] Pilar. Grandma Caridad, his mother, who had been so essential for me, had died just a few weeks earlier. He asked me about my brother, my sister, his brothers, and he asked how I had managed to hold the family together and make my way. He asked me about the death of my grandfather, told me what had happened when he found out. He told me he was in Germany when he learned that his father had died, and he drank too much and fainted and fell face down in the snow, and a fellow musician helped him and took him to his hotel. He saved his life.
“He would ask me about my piano studies, about [my piano teacher] Zenaida Romeu, about La Moderna [the fabled all-star Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna], about the musicians of his generation, some of whom had already died. After that first night, the conversation turned more general.
“Me angry at him? No! He wasn’t a seer, and I had made a commitment to take care of the family, and I fulfilled it and I’m still fulfilling it. I told him that [in those days, the late-’70s] things were getting better. I was traveling, and I could get some things for the family. But I also told him that there was a time when we went hungry.
“We had so much to talk about that we could’ve talked for another couple of days straight.
Every day I spent in New York, we got together and talked.
“After that concert, we stayed in New York for a few days because from there we were going to Montreux [to the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland], so those days I would escape to my aunt’s house and spend all my time with Bebo.
“And the guys [in the band] would come and say, ‘We were looking for you! Where were you?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, I must’ve been sleeping’ or ‘Oh, I must’ve been out shopping.’ Heck, nobody saw me those days. The guys in Irakere joked that I was The Invisible Man. They’d say that they saw me only when we arrived and when we played. And in fact, I would escape hiding from the State Security guy at a pharmacy around the corner from the hotel, and they would pick me up to go to my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, and that’s where I was most of my time in New York.”
In his biography Bebo de Cuba: Bebo Valdés y Su Mundo, author Mats Lundahl quotes Bebo recalling the encounter:
“It was not easy. [All those years] I had not talked with [Chucho] on the phone, just with my mother. When we saw each other, it was like seeing someone I didn’t know. But it was a father seeing his son. It was very emotional, as you can imagine. I was very afraid that my presence would create problems [for Chucho] in Cuba. For him, it was something similar: emotion and fear. He was afraid because my name was forbidden in Cuba.”
“He was right. It could’ve been a problem. If the security guy decided to write a report that I was with my father, I’m not sure what would’ve happened, but nothing good, for sure. Let’s say that it would have been complicated.
“In Cuba at the time, there were certain rules and regulations, and for anything, you had to fill out certain forms where they would ask you, ‘Do you have religious beliefs? Do you correspond with relatives outside Cuba?’ If, by any chance, you had religious beliefs or corresponded with family, you were out of luck. So, I couldn’t write a letter that they were going to catch. But I did write him several times. In 1967, a Swedish singer came to perform at the Varadero festival, and through him I sent Bebo letters and pictures and even the records I had done with Guapachá [singer Amado Borcelá] and my group.
“The only thing that darkened things a bit was his marrying Rose Marie [Pehrson]. He was in New York with her. That hurt me because Pilar, my mom, found out, and she was really distraught. I think she was still waiting for him. But by now, it was all old history. That’s life. The love between us was such that I just accepted it, ‘You got married. You are a grown man. You must’ve had your reasons.’ And he said, ‘I had to have a family, Chucho. I couldn’t stay alone. I have my needs. I lost everything and had to start all over again.’ And I understood him. I truly did.
“I loved my mother, but nothing about that story was important for me at that moment. The moment Bebo and I met, an ocean of distance, of time, disappeared in an instant. What was hard was when we had to say goodbye. I kept thinking: After 18 years, I finally got my father back. Now what?”