MIAMI -- José Curbelo, the Latin jazz bandleader, agent and promoter who helped popularize the cha-cha in the United States, and made Tito Puente a star, died Friday of heart failure in Aventura, Fla. He was 95.
Curbelo, was born Feb. 18, 1917, in Havana, where his American-born father played violin with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.
"He was the last of the pioneers of the Latin jazz band era," said Freddy Montilla, whose father Fernando Montilla owned Montilla Records and was Curbelo's friend.
Curbelo began formal musical training at the age of 8, said son Rene Curbelo, a Miami Web designer. By 16, he was playing with the orchestras of Los Hermanos Lebartard and flutist-composer Gilberto Valdes, and co-founded Orquesta Havana Riverside, his son said.
He settled in New York in 1939 and formed a band that played around Manhattan, the Catskill resorts, Miami and Las Vegas.
The Puerto Rico-born Puente, who became known as "The King of Latin Music," got his start with Curbelo, said Rene.
"He was one of the first ones educating American people on Latin and Cuban music," Montilla said.
Curbelo was beloved by musicians and disliked by club owners because he wouldn't book a job unless it paid Curbelo's asking price, his son said.
"Every music group of importance, including Tito Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez, La Playa Sextet, Pete Terrace, Orlando Marin, Ray Barretto, Noro Morales, Vicentico Valdes and Orquesta Broadway" followed, Rene Curbelo said.
"I remember it was almost like my father was accused of having a monopoly. He changed the whole scenario" in favor of the artists -- and took 15 percent off the top.
A close friend of superstar Cuban singer Celia Cruz, José Curbelo handled all of her Florida engagements "even though she had her own managers in New York," Rene said.
Various Latin jazz websites note that Curbelo made enemies by touting Puente, who died in 2000, as the greatest of all the genre's musicians, and for insisting he get top dollar and top billing, second only to Cruz.
In addition to his son, Curbelo is survived by a daughter, Marta Curbelo, of New York.