“This attention is a gift from God,” he told NPR in 2006. “I did not ask for all of this. But since it was sent to me, I accept it from the heart.”
Trueba, who directed the “Calle 54” documentary, occasionally featured Mr. Valdes in other films. In 2012, Trueba was one of the directors of “Chico & Rita,” a full-length animated film loosely based on Mr. Valdes’s life in Cuba. “Chico & Rita” received an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature.
An ailing Mr. Valdes composed and played music for the film, which turned out to be his farewell performance.
“It’s not Bebo’s biography, it’s not his life,” Trueba told NPR’s Terry Gross last year, “but he was the main inspiration of that ambience, that period . . . so Bebo is for me, he’s everywhere in the movie.”
Dionisio Ramon Emilio Valdes Amaro was born Oct. 9, 1918, in Quivican, Cuba. His parents noticed that he sang along with the radio from an early age and encouraged his interest in music.
He graduated from a conservatory in Havana, where he studied classical piano and was immersed in Cuba’s long musical history. He worked in the 1930s and ’40s with composer Ernesto Lecuona, who was sometimes called the Cuban George Gershwin, and often appeared on Cuban radio programs. But he was always fascinated by American jazz.
“They said I was one of the pioneers of bebop in Cuba,” Mrs. Valdes told the Miami Herald in 1996. “The truth is, I was a jazz musician from a very young age. I first started playing like the first jazz pianist I heard, a guy who was popular when I was kid: Eddy Duchin. Then came Fats Waller, then someone who has been my idol all my life, Art Tatum. And after he died, the one who filled the void was Bill Evans.”
Mr. Valdes wrote arrangements for big bands and led an orchestra with as many as 40 musicians. In 1952, he led the first recorded Cuban jam sessions, or descargas, for U.S. record producer Norman Granz. He pioneered an Afro-Cuban style of music called ritmo batanga that featured a rhythm played on a two-headed drum.
But after Castro seized power in 1959, Mr. Valdes’s style of American-influenced music was seen as outmoded or, even worse, as counter-revolutionary. In 1960, he organized a sham tour of Mexico — no concerts were actually scheduled — and fled the country with several other musicians. He left his family behind.
Forbidden to take money out of Cuba, he took recordings of his music with him as his only form of currency.
He would not see his son, Chucho Valdes, who later helped found the celebrated Cuban group Irakere with D’Rivera and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, until 1977. One of the most poignant moments of “Calle 54” was when Mr. Valdes played Lecuona’s “La Comparsa” with his son.
Mr. Valdes had five children with his first wife, Pilar Valdes, and two with his second wife. Rose Marie Persson Valdes died in 2012.
He had a second home in Spain and often visited the United States, but Mr. Valdes vowed that he would never return to Cuba until it was a free and democratic country.
Yet, for all the years he stayed away, the rhythms of Cuba never left his fingers or his heart.
“I love Cuban music,” he said in 2006. “This is always going to be inside of me. If you love a thing, you die loving that thing — that doesn’t change.”