“Music was like our ‘daily bread’ in my house, like a staple, it nourished my family every day”, says Jesús ‘Chuchito’ Valdes, speaking by phone from Cancun, Mexico where he lives with his family. Born in Havana Cuba, Chuchito is one of the third generation of perhaps the most distinguished musical family in Cuba and the Latin Jazz world. His grandfather, Bebo Valdés, still going strong at 93 years of age, is a five-time Grammy winner, and a major pianist, composer and arranger who was a central figure in the golden age of Cuban music. His father, Chucho, who at age 70 recently played at Symphony Hall here in Chicago, has won four Grammys and one Latin Grammy, including this year´s Grammy in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. Chuchito, at 45, continues the legacy, and as a two-time Latin Grammy nominee (2007 and 2008), appears to be blessed with the Grammy gene of his forefathers.
Understandably, Chuchito names his father Chucho as one of his greatest influences: “I was about thirteen when he founded Irakere [a Latin Jazz group of world-wide renown that Chuchito later led as an adult] and when I heard jazz played like that, the Latin way, I fell in love with it!” However, as grandfather Bebo left Cuba during the revolution and Chuchito was born several years later, he clarifies that they did not meet until he was an adult, describing the occasion proudly: “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Sit down and play the piano!’ And then he told the people that were present: ‘This is my grandson, and he´s got good yunfa’’ – which is a Cuban way of saying that Chuchito played with great and super tasty swing.
However, despite beginning to play the piano at age seven and and having this intense musical heritage to uphold, Chuchito laughs as he describes that his musical career was very nearly derailed by…. baseball. A gifted young athlete, he fell away from music for couple of years when he was twelve. And then, one day his sports teachers asked his mother to come to school for a special parent conference. Apparently they had heard him playing the piano (which was located in the gym) and considered that his parents should insist on musical studies, because as promising as he was a baseball player, he was an even more gifted musician.
Shortly thereafter, Chuchito retook his musical path and never looked back. Having studied with many Cuban masters, he is considered a master at Cuban rhythms of every kind, but nevertheless names classical music as one of his most important influences: “There was always classical music playing in my house. Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven…it´s important to have the foundation of classical training in order to be really be able to develop as an improviser.” Having evidenced Chuchito in concert several times, I can attest that his fearless, passionate and nearly manic attack on the keyboard shows how well his extensive studies of harmony and composition have served him.
He does not regret at all choosing music over sports, affirming “I think about music all the time. When I hear the leaves in the trees rustle as the wind passes by, I start thinking of music. A good conversation, good dialogue, that´s music…even children, family, really, everything is music. And for me it’s my destiny, my life, my everything.”
Chuchito Valdés will perform at the Jazz Showcase from Feb. 24-27.