Jose Curbelo dies at 95; Latin jazz bandleader

Jose Curbelo, a Latin jazz bandleader, agent and promoter who helped popularize the cha-cha in the United States and made Tito Puente a star, has died. He was 95.

A resident of North Miami Beach, Curbelo died Friday of heart failure at a hospital in Aventura, Fla.

Curbelo was born Feb. 18, 1917, in Havana to a Cuban mother and a Cuban American father who played violin with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.

He began formal musical training at age 8 and by 16 was playing with the orchestras of Los Hermanos Lebartard and flutist-composer Gilberto Valdes, and he co-founded Orquesta Havana Riverside.


He moved to New York in 1939 and worked as a pianist with Xavier Cugat, Juancito Sanabria and others before organizing his own band in 1942. Melding big-band jazz sounds with Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Curbelo’s orchestra performed around Manhattan, the Catskill resorts, Miami and Las Vegas.

Among the young musicians Curbelo hired to play in his ensemble were the Puerto Rico-born percussionist Puente, who later became known as “The King of Latin Music,” and Puerto Rican vocalist Tito Rodriguez, who also went on to form a headlining Latin jazz band.

Curbelo gained a reputation as a demanding negotiator, insisting that club owners pay top dollar in appearance fees that he shared with the musicians who worked for him.

One of Curbelo’s most popular records was the 1947 RCA Victor release “Managua, Nicaragua,” and “Live at the China Doll,” featuring Curbelo and his orchestra in 1946, is considered a classic. His Fiesta releases “Cha Cha Cha in Blue” and “La Familia” became Latin jukebox standards.

In 1971, Curbelo and his wife, Orchid Rosas, retired to Miami, where he continued to work as a promoter.

Curbelo’s wife died in 2001. His survivors include a son, Rene, of Miami and a daughter, Marta, of New York.