José Curbelo, a Cuban-born pianist and bandleader who went on to manage the biggest stars of Latin dance music, died on Friday in Miami. He was 95.
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The cause was congestive heart failure, his daughter, Marta, said.
Mr. Curbelo rose to prominence as a performer during Latin dance’s heyday, beginning in New York in the early 1940s. He played with the orchestras of Juancito Sanabria and Xavier Cugat before forming his own group in 1942. His music soon progressed from Latin American pop to swinging mambos. The orchestra featured musicians like Tito Rodriguez, Candido and a teenage drummer named Tito Puente, and played in New York ballrooms like the Savoy, Miami hotspots like Ciros, and borscht-belt resorts like Grossinger’s. His notable recordings include a 1947 rendition of “Managua, Nicaragua” for RCA Victor and “Cha Cha Cha in Blue” and “La Familia” on Fiesta.
Mr. Curbelo’s influence on Latin music grew after his orchestra disbanded in 1959 and he founded Alpha Artists, a booking agency for Latin music performers. Until then, bands were paid according to the whims of ballroom owners, who often paid less than musicians’ union scale.
“While the musicians’ union couldn’t stop a promoter from underpaying bands (or not at all), José was able to literally freeze top talent until a promoter made good his debts,” a 1978 article in Latin New York magazine said. “While most people identify the title ‘King of Latin Music’ with Tito Puente, few realize who is the power behind the throne … the person is José Curbelo.”
In the 1960s Mr. Curbelo represented virtually every important Latin band, including La Playa Sextet and Orquesta Broadway and the orchestras of Tito Puente and Machito Grillo. His tough negotiating style earned the enmity of many nightclub promoters and the gratitude of musicians.
“Curbelo is the type of person you want representing you,” Mr. Grillo said in an article by Max Salazar on Mr. Curbelo in Latin Beat magazine. “He fights like a savage animal until he gets you what you’ve asked him for.”
José Antonio Curbelo was born in Havana on Feb. 18, 1917, to a Cuban mother and a Cuban-American father, a classical violinist. Mr. Curbelo began studying piano and composition under the composer Pedro Menendez when he was just 8. By 15 he graduated from the Molinas Conservatory and began playing with Cuban orchestras.
He was the founding pianist of Orquesta Havana Riverside, which still exists. He moved to New York in 1939.
By the 1980s Mr. Curbelo and his wife, Orchid Rosas, had moved to Miami, where he invested in real estate and booked bands for the yearly Calle Ocho festival.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Curbelo is survived by a son, Rene; a granddaughter; and two great-grandchildren.
–Courtesy of NYTimes.com