It took Dizzy Gillespie's disregard of the U.S. embargo on Cuba to introduce Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés to American audiences. In the mid-1970s, Vald´s was performing in Cuba with Irakere, a band he had founded in 1967 as the Orquestra Cubana de Moderna Musica, when Gillespie organized a Cuban tour of American jazz musicians in spite of his country's restriction on travel to Cuba.
"I remember it was in the month of May in 1977," Vald´s, now 59, recalls. "When Dizzy and the other musicians landed in Havana, they played music straight for 48 hours. We jammed, taking shifts -- that's when Dizzy heard many of us play."
President Carter eased travel restrictions with Cuba in 1978, and Gillespie recommended the pianist he discovered for that year's Newport Jazz Festival. The appearance led to Irakere becoming the first embargo-era Cuban band signed to a U.S. label, and its self-titled debut won a Grammy. Saxman Paquito D'Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval then defected to the U.S., as had Vald´s's father in 1960. Vald´s, however, remained in Cuba.
Though he is on good terms with the Castro regime and is able to travel freely, Vald´s's U.S. career has been limited since President Reagan reimposed travel restrictions in 1980, making Vald´s's Wednesday appearance at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights a rare treat. "I believe that, in time, it will be much improved," Vald´s says of Cuban-U.S. relations. "We have so many things in common: a love of music, certainly, and even baseball."
Vald´s credits his father, Bebo -- an Afro-Cuban piano legend in his own right -- for introducing him to jazz. "My father was the piano player at the Tropicana," he recalls of his childhood at Havana's famous cabaret. "He took me to see Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. You can't imagine, you can't calculate the impression they made on my life. It was my dream to be a jazz piano player, and it was the dream of my father."
Many other pianists made an impression on Vald´s, but Bill Evans had an especially powerful impact. "I had an affinity for Bill Evans, because what he did is what I felt. He played like I wanted to play -- in a very expressive way, with a gorgeous sound." Vald´s also acknowledges picking up ideas from classical composers Ravel and Debussy.
An organizer as well as a musician, Vald´s co-founded the Havana International Jazz Festival in 1980, and he remains its president. At the 1996 festival, American trumpeter Roy Hargrove formed the Latin jazz band Crisol with Vald´s, and the unit won a Grammy for 1997's Habana.
"I think this is a very important time in my career," says Vald´s, who is now concentrating on his solo work. "I have all the opportunities to make the best music of my life. I lost time with Irakere, and now I need time to play my music and concentrate on the piano."
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