Chucho Valdés’ upcoming tour schedule includes concerts with American jazz greats Dianne Reeves and Joe Lovano, evenings of solo piano, intimate shows with his Chucho Valdés quartet, and the debut of an Afro-Cuban suite performed by two dozen musicians.
And there’s one more date of note — Valdés will turn 80 on Saturday (Oct. 9).
The iconic Cuban pianist’s energy and his range would be impressive at any age, but for Valdés, it’s about consistency: the continuation of his 60-plus year career as both a fearless vanguard and a keeper of tradition, whose music has fused Cuban sacred and popular music, jazz, classical music and rock. Valdés has fueled the evolution of Cuban music for decades, and at the same time maintained the historic bridge between Cuban and American musicians -regardless of the political climate.
Born Dionisio Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, but known to all as Chucho, Valdés’ first teacher was his father, Cuban piano legend Bebo Valdés. With the incredibly influential band Irakere, Valdés pioneered contemporary Afro-Cuban jazz and broke a long silence from Cuban bands in the United States when the group won a Grammy award in 1980. Valdés has since won a total of six Grammys and four Latin Grammys, as well as the Latin Recording Academy’s lifetime achievement award.
Valdés admits that family plans for his birthday are still a surprise — but the public celebration is set for November 5, when he’ll premiere his new work “The Creation,” at Miami’s Adrienne Arscht Center. Inspired by the saints and stories of the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as Santería, “The Creation” will also be performed in November at the Paris Philharmonic and the Barcelona Jazz Festival.
In an interview a few days before his birthday from his home in South Florida, Valdés remembers discovering jazz on a short wave radio, Irakere’s groundbreaking success, teaching master classes on Zoom, and the role of nurture or nature in musical genius.
Just weeks after your birthday you’ll premiere your new work, “The Creation.” at Miami’s Arscht Center. You’ve called it your masterpiece; why?
I think this is my most important musical work, because it brings together everything that I’ve learned in my life, and now is the ideal moment for its debut. It goes much deeper than anything I’ve done up until now.
It uses many of the chants that are sung to the different saints in the Yoruban language, and some in Spanish, fused with jazz, with African music, with pure Caribbean rhythms and with the blues. It describes how the music has influenced and evolved not only in Cuba, but in all of the Afro-Caribbean region, and also in South America and, of course, in Afro-American music as well.
It features my quartet, the three musicians who play the batá [the sacred, hourglass-shaped drums played at Afro-Cuban religious ceremonies] and a big band.
Your commitment to take Afro-Cuban religious music to the stage started when you composed “Misa Negra,” which you performed with Irakere in the 1970s. When you and the other musicians in Irakere started that legendary band, did you set out to break the rules?
The idea for Irakere didn’t have a name or a specific concept. What we did was break through barriers, we explored all different kinds of music, and that’s how we broke with everything that came before us.
It’s often said in Cuba that there is a before and after Irakere. And then we took our music to the world.
You went straight from Havana to playing Carnegie Hall.
In 1978. We couldn’t believe it. It was all thanks to Señor Dizzy Gillespie. He was in Cuba in 1977 and he heard us play. He told Bruce Lundvall, the president of CBS Records, that there was an incredible group that lived in Cuba. Bruce came to Havana to hear us, and he invited us to [The Newport] jazz festival in New York. All of our idols were playing: McCoy Tyner, Mary Lou Williams…I met Bill Evans, one of my biggest influences. We were pinching ourselves.
With the U.S. embargo against Cuba in full force, how did you and other Cuban musicians hear the music of those American jazz greats?
We couldn’t get the jazz records in Cuba. But with a short wave radio, we could pick up a signal from Washington, D.C. and listen to a program called The Voice of America Jazz Hour. The DJ was named Willis Conover. We used to tape that program, and those tapes were constantly passed around among musicians in Havana.
In 1980, the album that Irakere recorded in New York won a Grammy, something that had been unimaginable for a group from Cuba.
It was the first Grammy for a group that lived on the island. The fact that a Cuban group playing Afro-Cuban music had triumphed in the United States was good for Irakere, and also good for other musicians. It made the dream of widespread recognition for a Cuban band possible. I think it was positive for everyone.
As a child, you started studying at the music conservatory in Havana. But your father, Bebo Valdés, was your first piano teacher. What are your first musical memories?
My first memories are of seeing my father seated at the piano playing. My second memories are of when he started to teach me to play Cuban music. When I was very small, little more than a baby, I would try to climb up onto his piano bench. My mother boosted me up there, and I tried to pick out the sounds on the keyboard. My father noticed that I had an affinity for the piano and he started teaching me.
What was the most important thing he ever taught you?
He told me that if I wanted to be a musician I’d have to be very disciplined and consistent, practice every day and keep learning. I promised him that I would, and that’s the way it’s been all my life, up until today. It’s always worked for me.
Last year, you started teaching online through the Chucho Valdés Academy. In addition to offering master classes about Cuban music, you also give private lessons through Zoom. Some of your students are well-known American musicians. Why is this so important to you?
The Academy has enabled me to pass on my experience of Afro-Cuban music, the history of Cuban music, and also to show how to improvise There’s been a great response; there are a lot of musicians who want to learn. I always recommend to my students that they get a complete education. The more you learn, the more you can do.