Chucho Valdés, winner of seven Grammy and five Latin Grammy Awards, will perform at the 12th John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. The Cuban born pianist, composer, and arranger is the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz.
In a career spanning more than 60 years, both as a solo artist and bandleader, Valdés has distilled elements of the Afro-Cuban music tradition, jazz, classical music, rock, and more, into a distinct personal style. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Science last year and was also inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Chucho Valdés A Child Prodigy
Born into a family of musicians in Quivicán, Havana province, Cuba, on October 9, 1941, Dionisio Jesús “Chucho” Valdés Rodríguez was a child prodigy who by age three, was already playing on the piano melodies he heard on the radio — using both hands and on any key. His first teacher was his father, the pianist, composer, and bandleader Ramón “Bebo” Valdés.The young Valdés began taking lessons on piano and theory at the age of five. He continued his formal music education at the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de la Habana, from which he graduated at 14. A year later, Valdés formed his first jazz trio. In 1959, he debuted professionally with the band Sabor de Cuba. The ensemble, directed by his father, is widely considered one of the great orchestras in modern Cuban music.
Afro-Cuban Jazz Visionary
Valdés is the founder, pianist, and leading composer and arranger of another landmark ensemble, Irakere — the small, big band that was together from 1973-2005. With its audacious mix of Afro-Cuban ritual music, Cuban dance music, jazz, classical music, and rock, Irakere marked a before and after in Latin jazz. Irakere’s self-titled debut recording in the United States won a Grammy as Best Latin Recording in 1979.
While he remained with Irakere until they disbanded, Valdés launched a parallel career in 1998 both as a solo performer and a small-group leader. It marked the beginning of an enormously fruitful period highlighted by albums such as Solo Piano (Blue Note, 1991), Solo: Live in New York (Blue Note, 2001), as well as quartet recordings such as Bele Bele en La Habana (Blue Note, 1998), Briyumba Palo Congo (Blue Note, 1999), New Conceptions (Blue Note, 2003), and Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note, 2000), which won a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album.
After leaving Irakere, Valdés also won Grammys for Juntos Para Siempre (Calle 54, 2007), the duet recording with his father, Bebo; and, Chucho’s Steps (Comanche, 2010), which introduced his new group, the Afro-Cuban Messengers.
But such success didn’t mean forgetting past achievements. In 2015, Valdés celebrated the 40th anniversary of the birth of Irakere, his iconic band, with a world tour. Tribute to Irakere: Live at Marciac (Jazz Village / Comanche Music), which captured a performance on that tour, won a Grammy for the Best Latin Jazz Album in 2016. He also won a Latin Grammy as Best Latin Jazz album for Jazz Batá 2, in which he revisited a revolutionary idea Valdés first recorded in 1972 — a piano jazz trio featuring batá drums.
In 2022, Chucho Valdés won a Grammy and a Latin Grammy for Mirror Mirror, an album of duets by pianist and singer Eliane Elias with Mr. Valdés and the great late pianist Chick Corea. Also in 2022, Valdés reunited with the extraordinary clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer Paquito D’Rivera — his old friend and musical soulmate. The two recorded an album entitled I Missed You Too, and toured Europe and the U.S. with their Reunion Sextet.