A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Design by The Jazz Gallery

Our ongoing series on the 2017 Jazz Gallery Gala honorees continues today with legendary Cuban pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdés.

Valdés grew up in a very musical family in Cuba—his father Bebo led the orchestra at the famed Tropicana Club in Havana. Chucho’s talent was clear from a young age, and he recorded his first record, Jazz Nocturno, in 1964 at the age of 23.

In the early 1970s, Valdés formed a band called Irakere featuring some of Cuba’s top musicians, including Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval. The group sought to create an organic blend of traditional Afro-Cuban forms with progressive jazz and the results were scintillating. Drummer and Gallery-regular Dafnis Prieto grew up watching Irakere on television. In a feature on Mr. Valdés in the New York Times, Prieto offered the following reminiscence:

I remember hearing and looking at so many different sounds and instruments. The batá drums from our Afro-Cuban tradition plus the American drum set, the electric bass and the guitar, the singer, the horns. Everything sounded so unique and fresh.

Despite the political divisions between Cuba and the United States, word of Irakere’s intoxicating blend of Latin dance music and virtuosic improvisation spread quickly overseas. In 1978, Irakere was signed to Columbia Records by Bruce Lundvall and performed at a special Newport Jazz Festival Concert at Carnegie Hall. The group’s debut record on Columbia, featuring recordings from that concert, won a Grammy the next year. Check out the group’s live show from the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey in 1979 so get a sense of their infectious energy.

Over the ensuing years, Irakere became a finishing school for Cuba’s finest young musicians, much like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Valdés continued to record and tour regularly, stretching his music in new directions. In 1993, Valdés released a record of solo piano music for Blue Note, and a few years later, would perform solo in New York for the first time at the nascent Jazz Gallery through the work of co-founder Dale Fitzgerald. This began a long-running relationship with the Gallery, which became a sort of home-away-from-home for Valdés in New York. In summer 2003, Valdés was supposed to play a week at The Village Vanguard, but ran into visa issues. When Valdés was eventually able to enter the United States a couple of weeks later, he made up the shows at the Gallery.

Now 75 years old, Valdés shows no sign of slowing down, still bringing his distinct brand of Afro-Latin jazz to concert halls and festivals all over the world. Check out Valdés playing a spirited duo version of “Blue Monk” with fellow countryman Gonzalo Rubalcaba at this year’s International Jazz Day celebrations in Valdés’s hometown of Havana.

Please join us at the Player’s Club next Monday evening to celebrate Mr. Valdés and our other distinguished honorees. For more information about the event and tickets, please visit