A Cuban exile's inspiring encore A legend, back in style

Rotella is a Times staff writer.

A few days before his 90th birthday, Bebo Valdes contemplates his memories and melodies on a hotel terrace with a view of waves dancing in an African breeze.

Valdes puts aside the coffee he is nursing and examines two CDs. One is "Lagrimas Negras" ("Black Tears"), the surprise crossover sensation that made him an international star four years ago. But the disc he wants to talk about is the exquisite "We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together," which teamed him with a Uruguayan violinist and came out in 2006. Valdes chuckles as he scans the list of songs.

"When I was young, I was crazy about this number," he says about the title track, speaking the fast, sugary Spanish of the Caribbean. "And 'La Rosita,' what a pretty thing. It's Mexican, the Mexicans have very good melodic music, you know? . . . 'I Only Have Eyes for You.' I played that too. Havana was American, chico! . . . 'Adios Nonino,' this is a very good Argentine classic. . . . 'Waltz for Debby': Bill Evans, he's my favorite pianist. The way of playing, and the studies he had. A unique style and a unique sound."

In black-and-white photos from the 1950s, Dionisio Ramon Emilio "Bebo" Valdes has the sleek look of a Cuban Duke Ellington: pencil mustache, wide-shouldered suits. They called him Caballon, or big horse, because he was tall and dashing and the premier pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer in Havana.

Today, he's stooped and thinner. He drags his feet a bit. But he still has a towering presence, warm gray eyes and a gentlemanly, gregarious smile.

A conversation with Valdes is a voyage through the marvelous spectrum of music that has forged him: from Madrid to Harlem; from Debussy to Rachmaninoff; from Ernesto Lecuona, another Cuban pianist, to Chano Pozo, the wild percussionist who electrified Havana's legendary Tropicana nightclub when Valdes reigned there as musical director.

"He is the last man standing of the golden age of Cuban music," says Nat Chediak, his Miami-based producer and friend. "There is no one else left. He is the last master from the golden age."

Valdes has experienced enough triumph, tribulation and redemption for three or four lives. The Cuban Revolution set him adrift on the tides of exile. He washed up on the icy shores of Stockholm. He married a Swedish woman and settled into sedate anonymity, working in hotel lounges as a background pianist. Even listeners who noticed the brilliance of his elegant, understated style didn't realize he was the living ghost of a legend.

That limbo became a 30-year extended parenthesis. With help from old and new friends, Valdes experienced a renaissance during the last decade. He has won seven Grammys and is nominated for an eighth next month. Today, he basks in an outpouring of acclaim, humble and bemused.

"Life tells you this is the way it is going to be, and there's nothing you can do about it," he says. "And even less in music."

Valdes was born in Quivican, a town near the Cuban capital. His father was a municipal employee, a descendant of African slaves. His seamstress mother was a "lovely mulata," he says, of African and Spanish descent.

They realized the potential of Bebo, whose nickname derives from the diminutive of "baby," when he was 8. After seeing a piano performance, the boy lined up rocks in front of him, played imaginary keys and sang.

The family made sacrifices to send him to the Havana Conservatory. By 16, he had launched into a music scene that was soaring to a historical apex, the equivalent of New York for jazz or Vienna for classical. Valdes made his mark as a versatile bandleader, playing everything from Spanish ballet to Gershwin at the Tropicana. He helped invent the mambo in the 1940s and later created a rhythm known as batanga, which is based on the sound of the drums used in Afro-Cuban religious rites. And he was a wizard of arrangement, the fast and prolific kingmaker of star vocalists.

In 1956, an influx of U.S. greats brought Nat King Cole to Havana for a project titled "Cole Espanol." Valdes did the arrangements and tried to teach the velvet-voiced crooner his language.

"He had to learn Spanish to sing it," Valdes recalls. "He could not pronounce the O. But he did the best he could. He had the greatest ear. Real perfection."

After praising Cole's piano skill with cheerful profanity, Valdes shakes his head when he recalls the American's weakness. "He drank liquor starting in the morning and all day long. And smoking was the same, one after another."

Valdes says he always kept alcohol and drugs at a distance. But his life in Cuba was a whirl. He had five children with two women he did not marry. Despite the domestic entanglements, his former girlfriends and children recalled him with tearful affection in a recent documentary, "Old Man Bebo."

As the revolution approached, political violence invaded his world. A bomb went off in the Tropicana. From the bandstand, Valdes saw a woman being carried out covered in blood, her arm blown off.

The independent-minded Valdes disliked the Castro regime. He was frozen out of jobs. He joined the frantic exodus, but, ironically, his past work for a leftist radio station prevented him from getting a U.S. visa. So he fled to Mexico in October 1960.

"On the day of the departure, Mama didn't cry," he says hoarsely. "But Papa did. The tough black guy cried. I told him, 'I'll be back in January, you'll see, we will invade this place.' And he told me: 'Don't worry. You and I will never see each other again.' And the next year he died."

When Valdes reached Mexico with the singer Rolando Laserie, they kissed the ground and made a pact. They would not return to Cuba, "vertical or horizontal," until the dictatorship fell. Laserie died without going back. Although the Cuban government has invited Valdes, he vows that he will keep his word.

In the early 1960s, he tried to cobble together a new career in Spain. But he fell deeply in love with Rose Marie Pehrson, a young Swedish woman he met while performing in Stockholm. At 46, he was 28 years older than her.

"This is my wife when she was 18," he says, extracting a worn color photo from his wallet. "She was divine. And she still is."

The couple had two sons, one of whom, Valdes likes to repeat, is a doctor. Valdes realized he could not maintain a family and tour with a group at the same time. He took a steady solo gig playing hotel piano in the Swedish capital. The gig lasted almost three decades.

But he shrugs off the idea that his fate was beneath him. The tips were good, he says. And he adds: "I wanted to be with my wife and kids."

Many Cubans, on the island and in exile, lost track of him. He had retired when, in 1994, he got a phone call from Paquito D'Rivera, a top U.S.-based saxophonist and the son of an old friend. D'Rivera had a recording date scheduled in Germany and was hoping that Valdes could do the arrangements.

It was a fateful moment. Valdes grumbled a bit, then sat at the piano and worked his old magic. He showed up with a bundle of sheet music under his arm.

"I had some things I had written. I did it for the memory of his father. So I brought him my ideas," he says. "The numbers are mine, but also Paquito's. And it came out well."

The disc evolved into a modest comeback vehicle titled "Bebo Rides Again." Valdes caught the attention of Chediak and Fernando Trueba, an Oscar-winning Spanish film director with a passion for music. They featured Valdes in a 2000 documentary about Latin jazz titled "Calle 54" ("54th Street"), then formed a small label of the same name.

In 2002, they put together their masterpiece: the flamenco-Latin fusion of "Lagrimas Negras." Valdes arranged a roster of vintage Ibero-American melodies for the hoarse, haunting voice of Diego El Cigala, a Gypsy singer 50 years his junior.

The producers thought they would be lucky to sell 15,000 copies. It has sold a million. Critics consider it a modern classic.

"Look, I recorded with Nat King Cole, with Tom, Dick and Harry, and I never had as much success as I did with Cigala," Valdes says. "Never in my life did I think it would have such success."

His musical longevity results from his discipline, his friends say. He is punctual and meticulous and expects the same from other performers.

"What is remarkable is that he is still in full control of his musical abilities," Chediak said. "It's not surprising if you understand that Bebo plays piano every day of his life. Even when he's on tour, he goes to the piano bar of the hotel and does his exercises."

Thanks to new fame and fortune, Valdes bought a second home in this coastal resort in Spain, a country where people applaud when he walks into restaurants. He spends about half the year here. His wife likes the Andalusian sun. And it seems closer to Havana.

A lot of expatriates retire here. Valdes says the thought has crossed his mind. He worries that his memory is fading. He describes how he wept years ago when he heard the last record of the jazz pianist Art Tatum; time had rusted the master's skills. Valdes spreads his supple, ancient hands on the table.

"Look at my hands, look how they have become," he murmurs. "Sometimes they hurt. I can play. But sometimes it hurts. And there's the speed, I lose speed if it is a hard piano. . . . I am going to stop. I've had enough."

But he does not sound altogether convinced. His friends find it hard to believe. In fact, he will embark this month on a five-concert tour in Spain with his son Chucho, 67, who lives in Cuba and is a world-class Latin jazz pianist in his own right. Their new album, "Together Forever," was just released in Spain. The two have formed a close bond even though they had no contact for 18 years after Valdes left Cuba.

Valdes' eyes glow when he talks about his son. "Chucho, I think that today he has the best left hand in the world. He has both, but the left he has is incredible. I am not Bebo anymore; he is."

In addition to talent, father and son share the same birthday. They celebrated at a crowded event in honor of Valdes' 90th this month at the Casa de America, a Latin cultural center in Madrid. It was a love fest: Spain's top diplomat for Latin America led the tributes. When Chucho stood with his father to acknowledge applause, it was as if the roles had been reversed. Chucho was even taller, massive, almost paternal with his arm around the guest of honor.

Chucho told anecdotes about the glory days in Havana. With inherited modesty, he said: "It is a privilege to have a father with that talent. He is the root and the trunk. I am a branch."

The highlight of the evening was a duet. Father and son sat down at facing grand pianos. The son gestured deferentially. The father bent into the majestic opening chords of "Lagrimas Negras." They smiled at each other across the keyboards.

And, for a moment, they seemed the same age.

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rotella@latimes.com

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To see Bebo and his son playing together, go to http://www.youtube.com /watch?v=ZYEZbBAIvlU

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