Photo: Takehiko Tokiwa
Living Legends: Cuban Pianist & Composer Chucho Valdés On Developing "The Creation," Growing Up On The Island & Loving Dizzy Gillespie
Chucho Valdés recently returned to Jazz at Lincoln Center to perform his new four-part suite. "The Creation" incorporates elements of Santería ritual music, West African music, the blues, and "an atmosphere in the style of Miles Davis’ 'Bitches Brew.'"
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Chucho Valdés, whose work has greatly influenced Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz. has earned him seven GRAMMY Awards and four Latin GRAMMYs.
The Cuban pianist, bandleader, composer, and arranger Chucho Valdés seems to have a permanent smile on his face. He smiles when he plays something he likes on the piano, or when a bandmate surprises him with a tasteful note or phrase onstage. His eyebrows raise up in amusement when he begins an expressive piano piece, or when he’s asked interview questions he likes.
Valdés, who turns 81 this month, founded the iconic Cuban jazz group Irakere — which featured artists like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera — in the 1970s. He’s released seven albums on the Blue Note jazz label. His father, Bebo, was the pianist and director of the Tropicana Club orchestra and Orquesta Sabor de Cuba, and his son Chuchito also plays piano.
Valdés and the Yoruban Orchestra have been performing his latest four-part suite, "The Creation," throughout the U.S. — including last week at New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center.
When GRAMMY.com sat down to chat over Zoom from Miami about the new suite, he wore his signature Kangol hat turned backwards, and smiled and laughed often. He mostly spoke in Spanish while his nephew translated, and occasionally broke off into English mid-way through responses.
Your new four-movement suite explores the story of creation according to La Regla De Ocha, the Yoruba-descended religion typically called Santeria. Why was it important to you to explore the creation story?
I’ve been studying the roots of the Yoruban story for a long time, and the influence of it on the people of the Caribbean. First of all, it's my roots. My family is of Yoruban descent, so it’s a part of our identity. I want to save the history and the instruments and the language of our culture.
Your "Creation" suite incorporates elements of Santería ritual music, West African music, and the blues. Why did you want to combine those three specific elements?
African music and Latin music has so much to do with American music. All American music has an African influence, so I took all the elements of how this music was formed over time — especially the percussion, the melodies, and the singing. Music in the Caribbean and South America comes from the same roots, the African roots.
In what ways is Santeria significant or meaningful for you?
I am a Santero. It is my religion. In my family [there are ]a lot of Santeros, so we know all the history and everything. It is a belief in the Yoruba gods.
Everyone who likes Santeria is not necessarily a Santero. A Santero receives the Saints, and does a ceremony to get in. Primarily, it teaches you that when you're a good person and you help people out, it comes back to you and it makes you feel happy, and that’s what I feel.
In what ways is this new suite different from your previous works?
I wrote a suite a long time ago called "The Black Mass," a Yoruba mass. It’s the story of an African ritual with singing, and bata [a double-headed drum] touches. Every saint has a bata touch. It’s the instrument you use to communicate with the saints, and all the touches are different. Every touch tells a story.
"The Creation" explains how that music mixed with the Caribbean and how it evolved with the United States and the Blues. In between "The Black Mass" and "The Creation," there have been other pieces, like one called "Juana 1600," about the first name the Spanish gave to Cuba, and the year that slaves got sent to Cuba. It's significant because that’s where I find a lot of where I come from and my identity.
You’ve described the suite as having "an atmosphere in the style of Miles Davis’ 'Bitches Brew.'" How so? What about the "Bitches Brew" album inspires you?
I’m a huge fan of Miles Davis. I took the electronic elements of that album and put them in function of African rhythms to help it sound contemporary. This only happens in the first part, then it travels down different pathways. I just like the sonority, the sound that's achieved. It inspires me to make Afro-Cuban fusion.
Let’s go back to the beginning for a minute. Growing up in Cuba in the '40s and '50s, what was your life like? What was your early exposure to music?
Growing up in that era in Cuba was very special for me because my dad was an icon in Cuban music and jazz. I got to see as a young kid all the musical stars from that era, from the US and Cuba, like Sara Vaughn, Nat King Cole, Roy Haines, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Getz, and many piano players. All of this was a big influence in my life.
When did you start playing music? Was it always piano, or did you play other instruments as well?
My father used to say that when I was 3, I sat down at the piano and randomly started playing. I was way too young to remember.
The first time I remember playing live was when I was 9 years old. It was a classical concert at a theater. I played Mozart, Beethoven, and the music of my teacher at the time. I was very nervous that first time. Seeing the people in the audience scared me, but I played very well.
You became a bandleader in the early 1960s. What were those early recording sessions like for you?
I directed a trio at first. It was very exciting for me because I actually liked it. I felt the things the way I heard them on records.
Then I upgraded from a trio and added a wind section. I wrote all the pieces, and it was exciting for me to listen to what I had written. To this day, I love to do it, and I’m still doing it.
What made you different from other bandleaders?
The style of music I was doing. I was doing a mix of Afro-Cuban and bebop. It was like an African Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy was a real hero for me.
What was your relationship with Dizzy like?
I played with Dizzy in Cuba in 1977. It was one of the most important moments of my life. I felt very motivated by him. He was very inspirational. He was one of the creators of the language of bebop, a true pioneer. He influenced a lot of generations, and for me it was because of his musical vocabulary.
What do you think distinguishes the vocabulary of Cuban music from other types of music? What makes Cuban music genuinely "Cuban?"
Cuban music is very rich in rhythms, and any of them can be adapted to jazz. The most important part of Cuban music is the rhythm. It can be mixed even with symphonic music. There’s symphonic bands that use Cuban percussion instruments, and in jazz a lot. What Chano Pozo did with Dizzy, he added Afro-Cuban instruments to a big band, and that was the beginning of Afro-Cuban jazz.
You’ve won seven GRAMMY Awards and four Latin GRAMMYs. How did winning that very first GRAMMY make you feel?
When I won my first GRAMMY, I felt like I was dreaming. It made me feel like I have to keep doing better than before. It’s scary to think you could stop winning, so I try to keep making good music, especially different things from what I’ve already done.
Aside from those prestigious awards, what would you say is another one of your proudest musical accomplishments so far?
I’ve earned honorary doctorates in music from Berklee [College of Music] and universities in British Columbia in Canada, and also in Cuba. These awards are also very special to me.
You spend a lot of time teaching music to younger musicians. What is your style of teaching?
I like to teach a mix of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, but also a mix of classical and show how it relates to Cuban music or jazz. I like to explain how these things come together. Outside of music I also have a teaching degree, which helped me a lot.
How do you get young musicians to find their voice?
I’m very outgoing with my students. I study my students’ personalities and teach them according to how the students are as individuals. Not everybody is the same. I am very loving, but when I have to be very serious, I am.
Do you remember when or how you found your voice as a piano player? What’s the Chucho Valdes style or approach?
I found my voice when I was 22. Before I was 22, he was playing more like my dad than myself. But I started finding myself when I started listening to other pianists and getting more influences beyond my dad’s influences, like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock. Then I started finding Chucho.
The first piece I wrote when I felt like I was playing like Chucho was "Mambo Influenciado," and today that is a standard.
How do you describe your sound?
My sound is a mix of a lot of elements that converge as one. It's very rhythmic, very poetic, and melodic. I can also play the piano as if it were drums. And I can play with the beauty of Chopin or Bill Evans. Chopin was incredible.
Looking ahead, what do you plan to focus on after these "Creation" suite performances?
I will focus on an Afro symphonic project I’ve been working on. It will be like [George] Gershwin mixed with African music. I’m working on that right now. I have a piece called Cuban Rhapsody, a great piece I wrote many years ago. Gershwin visited Cuba many times.
Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" is the United Airlines theme song, so maybe one day your "Cuban Rhapsody" will also be an airline theme song.
I hope so!
Photo: Sam Wasson/Getty Images
2018 Latin GRAMMY Special Awards Honors Yuri, Chucho Valdés, Dyango & More
Seven iconic Latin music artists were awarded with the Latin Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award, plus two industry veterans received the Trustees Award during the celebratory event last night
Las Vegas is the place to be this week for the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards, taking place this Thursday. The Latin GRAMMY Week festivities officially kicked off Nov. 13 as the Latin Recording Academy honored influential Latin music artists Erasmo Carlos, Dyango, Andy Montañez, José María Napoleón, Chucho Valdés, Wilfrido Vargas and Yuri with their Lifetime Achievement Award as part of the Special Awards ceremony. Visionary label executives Horacio Malvicino and Tomás Muñoz received the Trustees Award. Both awards celebrate the honorees outstanding and lasting contributions to Latin music.
The celebratory evening honoring these nine people was filled with applause, gratitude and even a few tearful moments as the artists reflected on their achievements and what it took to get there. Latin Recording Academy President and CEO Gabriel Abaroa Jr. and singer Raquel Sofia hosted the event, which, as Abaroa highlighted when opening the event, the awards presented are not "extra GRAMMYs," as they don't honor an album or a song, but a career and legacy of an artist. A touching video showcased each artists' achievements and milestones, and each award was given by a different presenter, who highlighted some of the honoree's most notable career moments, with Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow handing off the first award. The event was livestreamed on Facebook, with fans from around the world sharing in the excitement and celebrating each artist.
"We are proud to pay tribute to this remarkable group of talented artists and music professionals with this year's Lifetime Achievement and Trustees Awards," Abaroa Jr. said in a statement. "Our 2018 class has made outstanding contributions benefitting Ibero-American music, providing innovation and a unique vision in favor of all music lovers."
The first to be honored was the great Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés, born to a musician father, who he released a touching duet album with, followed by Brazilian rocker Erasmo Carlos, whose music transcended genres, often with psychedelic influences. Next to be presented the award was Barcelona-born singer Dyango, aka "La Voz del Amor" (The Voice of Love), whose passionate ballads gained him a loyal following in Latin America, and Puerto Rican salsa legend Andy Montañez from Puerto Rico, a lead artist of the growing salsa romántica sound in the '80s. The fifth award went to Mexican singer José María Napoleón, aka "El Poeta de la Canción" (The Song's Poet), who got teary-eyed with gratitude as he said, quite poetically, "gracias por este tesoro gran precioso" (thank you for this beautiful treasure).
The excitement and positivity stayed high throughout the evening, with each presenter having plenty to talk about for each monumental honoree. The second to last Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was Dominican merengue artist Wilfrido Vargas, a trumpet player and bandleader who led the genre forward for years, even mentoring the next generation of artists including Las Chicas de Can, the first all-female merengue group from the Dominican Republic.
The final artist honored—which many Facebook viewers seemed to be waiting for the whole time—was Mexican genre-defying popstar and actress Yuri, aka "La Güera" (The Blonde), or as she's often referred to, the "Global Pop Diva." She shared how thankful she was to her many fans for making her 40 years of work worth it, although she knows she has plenty more work to do. As the presenter of her award said, "Su talento no tiene limites" (her talent has no limits).
Horacio Malvicino, a label executive and jazz musician from Argentina, and Tomás Muñoz, a label executive from Spain who worked with the likes of Julio Iglesias, were both honored with the Trustees Award.
As excitement mounts for Thursday's presentation of this year's Latin GRAMMYs, which recognize the finest artists and projects of the year, the Latin GRAMMYs Special Awards remind us where we come from, celebrating those artists and industry players who paved the road for so many of today's stars.
Jazzed At The GRAMMYs
(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards winners, click here.)
The biggest news for jazz and Justin Bieber fans at the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards was Esperanza Spalding. Within a split second, her name was on everyone's lips. The commentary that followed ran the gamut from glowingly appreciative to a level of incivility that raised more than a few eyebrows.
However, the fact remains that Spalding — yes, a gifted jazz musician, vocalist, composer, and educator — won one of the big awards of the night, Best New Artist!
Congratulations to her once again on this achievement.
Spalding's win during the televised portion of the GRAMMYs topped off a day of celebration that started earlier at the Pre-Telecast Ceremony. The segment of the Pre-Telecast Ceremony in which the jazz categories were presented started off with a rousing performance by GRAMMY nominee Trombone Shorty.
The first category awarded was for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Despite their frontman being on tour overseas, the Stanley Clarke Band won in a field of nominees that included Joey DeFrancesco, Jeff Lorber Fusion, John McLaughlin, and Trombone Shorty. Stanley Clarke's wife and two band members were there to graciously accept the trophy for the eponymously titled album.
Lorraine Feather, Freddy Cole (Nat King Cole's younger brother), Dee Dee Bridgewater, Denise Donatelli, and up-and-coming vocalist Gregory Porter vied for the Best Jazz Vocal Album award. Bridgewater won the award and gave an almost breathless acceptance speech after winning for Eleanora Fagan (1915–1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee. Check out her speech on the GRAMMYs' YouTube channel.
The Best Improvised Jazz Solo category was a tough contest between four pianists — Alan Broadbent, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Hank Jones, and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. It was a thrill to see Hancock there at the ceremony to accept the honor for his captivating solo performance on "A Change Is Gonna Come."
Another strong category was Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group. I personally couldn't pick a winner between John Beasley's Positootly! the Clayton Brothers' The New Song And Dance, Vijay Iyer Trio's Historicity, James Moody's Moody 4B, and Danilo Perez's Providencia. Moody won the honor and I wished he could have been there to accept it (he died in December 2010). Todd Coolman, Moody's bassist for the last 26 years, and his widow, Linda Moody, were there to accept the trophy in his memory.
The Mingus Big Band Live At Jazz Standard won the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category. The co-producer of the album, Seth Abramson, was present in the auditorium to accept the award. He thanked the musicians of the Mingus Big Band and in particular acknowledged Sue Mingus' dedication and tireless effort in keeping her late husband's musical legacy alive since his death in 1979.
The voting members of The Recording Academy chose Chucho Valdés And The Afro-Cuban Messengers' Chucho's Steps as the Best Latin Jazz Album.
They bested stiff competition from Pablo Aslan, Hector Martignon, Poncho Sanchez, and the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet.
The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards was a fabulous event! If you haven't seen the Pre-Telecast Ceremony, you can watch it here until March 11.
Fonseca celebrating his Latin GRAMMY wins
Photo: TOMMASO BODDI/AFP/Getty Images
The Complete Latin GRAMMY Awards Viewer's Guide
Take a look at the many ways to celebrate Latin music throughout this week leading up to the main event, Thursday's Latin GRAMMY Awards
Get ready! The Biggest Night In Latin Music is coming on Nov. 15, but there are so many ways to enjoy the festivities in Las Vegas including and leading up to the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards from virtually anywhere in the world. Here's how!
The fun-filled day of the main event begins at 1:00 p.m. PT / 4:00 p.m. ET with exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage of the red carpet and the Latin GRAMMY Premiere ceremony via Facebook Live, where the first Latin GRAMMY Awards of the night will be presented before the broadcast. Additional coverage in Spanish will also be available at Univision.com. The 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards show will follow, airing on Univision at 8:00 p.m. PT / 8:00 p.m. ET
But even earlier this week, this year's Special Awards presentation ceremony will be streamed on Tuesday, Nov. 13 via Facebook Live at 5:00 pm. PT / 8:00 p.m. ET. The program will honor Erasmo Carlos, Dyango, Andy Montañez, José María Napoleón, Chucho Valdés, Wilfrido Vargas and Yuri with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Horacio Malvicino and Tomás Muñoz will receive the Latin Academy's Trustees Award.
Performers on the broadcast include Marc Anthony, Will Smith and Bad Bunny performing their collaboration, "Está Rico," for the first time in public, as well as Ángela Aguilar, El David Aguilar, Pepe Aguilar, Pablo Alborán, Anitta, Steve Aoki, J Balvin, Calibre 50, Jorge Drexler, Karol G, Kany García, Halsey, Nicky Jam, Mon Laferte, Natalia Lafourcade, Victor Manuelle, Carla Morrison, Christian Nodal, Jenna Ortega, Ozuna, Laura Pausini, Monsieur Periné, Banda Los Recoditos, Rosalía, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, Carlos Vives and Sebastián Yatra. The 2018 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year Maná will perform as well.
Performers at the Premiere ceremony include Santiago Barrionuevo, Yamandu Costa, Jerry Demara, Rozalén, and José Alberto El Canario with El Septeto Santiaguero.
This week of celebration will honor artists across a wide array of Latin cultures, styles, genres, and countries. Awards will span many fields, including General, Pop, Urban, Rock, Alternative, Tropical, Singer-Songwriter, Regional-Mexican, Instrumental, Traditional, Jazz, Christian, Portuguese Language, Children's, Classical, Arranging, Recording Package, Production, and Music Video. While some of these have categories that bring works from different traditions together, others allow a more narrow focus within traditions, making for a rich, unique sampling of the power of Latin music.
No matter your language or musical background, this multi-screen experience will be filled with excitement. New discoveries await television and online viewers prepared to be enriched by the biggest night in Latin music.
Photo: Courtesy of Judy Whitmore
ReImagined: Judy Whitmore Dazzles With A Classic Interpretation Of Frank Sinatra And Count Basie's "The Best Is Yet To Come"
Judy Whitmore introduces fans to the music she grew up with in this jazzy full-orchestra performance of "The Best is Yet to Come" — a song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, and won a GRAMMY thanks to Ella Fitzgerald.
An American standard originally composed in 1959, "The Best is Yet to Come" has been recorded by an array of vocal greats, including Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé, Bob Dylan, and Ella Fitzgerald — the latter of whom won a GRAMMY for her rendition in 1984. But it's most closely associated with Frank Sinatra, who recorded it with jazz pianist Count Basie for their 1964 album, It Might As Well Be Swing. In fact, the song was so important to Sinatra that its titular lyric is carved into his tombstone.
In this episode of ReImagined, vocalist and cabaret-style performer Judy Whitmore delivers a faithful, buoyant rendition of "The Best is Yet to Come." A full orchestra performs behind her, including horns, jazzy drums, a sweeping string section, and a grand piano — creating a swinging performance that does Sinatra proud.
Whitmore's cover choice is no coincidence, as the singer has been inspired by American classics literally since birth — her namesake is legendary actor and musical performer Judy Garland. Like Garland before her, Whitmore has taken on a diverse and multifaceted career. She's a bonafide Renaissance woman, whose resume includes accomplishments as a theater producer, best-selling author and pilot, who also happens to have a Master's degree in clinical psychology.
Singing has been a lifelong passion for Whitmore, and she has several albums to show for it, including 2020's Can't We Be Friends. That project, which includes her spin on standards like "'s Wonderful," "It Had to Be You" and "Love is Here to Stay," is Whitmore's "love letter to The Great American Songbook," her website explains.
"This is the music I grew up with, and I don't want people to forget it," she details. "I think it's one of the most extraordinary bodies of work ever created."
Press play on the video above to watch Whitmore bring her love of American classics to her version of "The Best is Yet to Come," and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of ReImagined.