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Piano Man: Chucho Valdes named Harvard’s 2019 Jazz Master-in-Residence

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Piano Man: Chucho Valdes named Harvard’s 2019 Jazz Master-in-Residence
Chucho Valdes. COURTESY PHOTO

Last week the vibrancy of Cuba came to the stark, puritan halls of Harvard University in full musical swing. During the week the University celebrated their 2019 Jazz Master-in-Residence, Chucho Valdes. A Cuban pianist, composer and arranger, Valdes has made significant contributions to the contemporary Cuban music canon and has facilitated bringing those beats to the United States.

The week reached a crescendo during the concert at the Sanders Theatre on Friday, April 12, during which Valdes performed many of his own songs with the University jazz ensemble. “The marriage between jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms goes way back,” said Jose Masso, host and producer of “¡Con Salsa!” on WBUR, and guest host for the evening. “We are celebrating the great legacy of Chucho Valdez, a great contributor to the Cuban culture.”

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Valdes began taking music lessons at the age of five and later graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal de Musica de la Habana. In 1959 he debuted with the Sabor de Cuba orchestra, widely considered one of the most significant orchestras in modern Cuban music. He also established the groundbreaking band Irakere. Since those early 5-year-old days of clinking piano keys, Valdes has won six Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards. Last year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and was inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Despite these numerous accolades, Valdes remains a humble presence focused on the music. He began his section of Friday’s concert with a song composed by his father and music mentor, Bebo Valdes. The rest of the program featured his compositions and the audience was brought to their feet in a standing ovation more than once for Valdes’s magic on the piano keys.

Bassist Yunior Terry Cabrera, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Music at New York University and champion of African sound, and Yosvany Terry, Senior Lecturer on Music and Director of Jazz Ensembles at Harvard, also contributed to the moving performance that evening.

Masso spoke at length about Valdes’s work bringing Cuban music to the United States, especially after the embargo squeezed the influx of Cuban rhythms to an almost nonexistent stream. With the work of Valdes and others, music has facilitated cultural exchange and understanding. He said said, “We are all one family regardless of where we come from. And we are all here tonight because this maestro makes Cuban music accessible.”

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