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Bebo Valdés, renowned Cuban pianist, dead at 94

MADRID -- Renowned Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés, a composer and bandleader who recorded with Nat "King" Cole, was musical director at Havana's legendary Tropicana Club and a key participant in the golden age of Cuban music, has died in Sweden at age 94.

Valdés studied piano and later taught it to his son Chucho (Jesús Dionisio Valdés), a well-known musician himself.

The father began playing accompaniments at Havana's famous nightclubs in the 1940s. He then worked with singer Rita Montaner as her pianist and arranger from 1948 to 1957, when she was the lead cabaret act at the Tropicana.

He and rival bandleader Pérez Prado developed the mambo, a rhythmic style of dance music that swept the world.

Valdés maintained a parallel interest in jazz music and took part in many important sessions, some recorded on Cuba's renowned Panart label.

"I was a jazz musician from a very young age," Valdés once said. "I started playing like the first jazz pianist I heard, a guy who was popular when I was a kid: Eddy Duchin." He said other influences were Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Bill Evans.

In 1958, he worked on Nat "King" Cole's album "Cole Español," collaborating with arranger Nelson Riddle on the orchestral backing tracks that were all recorded in Havana.

Following Fidel Castro's communist revolution in 1959, Valdés left Cuba, traveling to Mexico in 1960 without his children.

Valdés was not able to see his increasingly well-known and Cuba-based son Chucho until 1978 when he visited New York for the first time in 18 years and attended a concert.

Valdés' career got a late boost in 1994 when he teamed up with saxophone player Paquito D'Rivera to release a CD called "Bebo Rides Again."

He won five Grammy Awards in the categories of best traditional tropical album and best Latin jazz albums: two for "El Arte del Sabor" in 2002, one for "Lágrimas Negras" in 2004 and two for "Bebo de Cuba" in 2006.

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