Storied Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes, who played a leading role in the island’s musical golden age of the 1950s, died March 22 in Sweden after suffering from Alzheimer’s. He was 94.
Spending nine years as a pianist and eventually house arranger for Havana’s famed and notorious Tropicana club, Valdes was a key creative figure during the artistic blossoming that accompanied Cuba’s days as a leisure hub, helping to develop the mambo and batanga styles, and collaborating with the likes of Nat “King” Cole and Rita Montaner.
Though he was forced into exile after the Cuban Revolution, his son Chucho Valdes became a jazz pianist of equal renown, and he enjoyed a period of renewed fame late in life. The 2010 animated film “Chico and Rita” incorporated large quantities of Valdes’ music, as well as elements of his life.
Born Ramon Emilio Valdes Bebo Amaro in Quivican, Cuba, Valdes began playing in Havana clubs in the 1940s. He joined the Tropicana in ’48, where he accompanied the club’s top draw, Cuban megastar Montaner. During his tenure at the club, he cut a number of jazz releases for the Cuban label Panart during his off-hours, and helped arrange for Cole’s 1958 Spanish-language “Cole Espanol” LP.
In 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro rose to power, Valdes fled Cuba without his five children, and lived briefly in Mexico and the United States before settling in Stockholm in ’63. There, he married a Swedish woman and spent decades abstaining from recording until 1994, when he released “Bebo Rides Again” to considerable acclaim.
In 2000, Spanish director Fernando Trueba featured Valdes in his Latin jazz docu “Calle 54,” earning him a renewed Iberian following. 2002’s “El arte del sabor” won Valdes the first of his five Grammys, and “Lagrimas negras,” a collaboration with flamenco singer Diego el Cigala, was another success in 2004.
Valdes was first reunited in 1978 with his son Chucho, whose band Irakere had by then become a seminal force in Latin jazz. The Valdeses later recorded a duets album titled “Juntos para siempre” in 2008.
He is survived by wife Rose Marie and seven children.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)