Dave Valentin, Virtuoso Flutist with a Foundation in Latin-Jazz, Dies at 64

Mar 8, 2017

Dave Valentin

Dave Valentin, a jazz flutist of virtuoso control, brisk rhythmic flair and a sprawling expressive language, died on March 8 in the Bronx. He was 64.

His manager, Richie Bonilla, confirmed his death. Valentin suffered multiple strokes over the last five years.

Valentin was celebrated in Latin-jazz circles for more than 40 years, initially as a byproduct of his cultural foundation as a Bronx-born Puerto Rican. But he was wary of being typecast, preferring to describe himself as a “world artist,” and playing variations of his instrument with ties to the folkloric music of East Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. He played a Peruvian bamboo bass flute, a Romanian pan flute, Bolivian pan pipes, and various other kinds of flute from around the world, typically traveling with more than a dozen varieties.

His style was a matter of strong, centered projection and a fondness for percussive digression: whispery flutters, plosive pops, growly multiphonic slurs. He had a strong connection to polyrhythm, and a keen sense of dramatic impact. A representative sample of his performance style can be heard on the 1988 album Live at the Blue Note, which features a signature cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” rearranged (as Valentin put it) “with a little bit of rice and beans.”

Valentin was the first artist signed to GRP Records, which released his debut album, Legends, in 1979. He made well over a dozen more albums as a leader, almost always with strong Afro-Caribbean flavor. But it wasn’t until Tropic Heat, a breakthrough in 1993, that he made a self-described “Latin-jazz album,” fully embracing his niche. In that same era, Valentin served as musical director for one of his childhood heroes, the timbalero and bandleader Tito Puente, and played in groups like Manny Oquendo’s popular conjunto band, Libre.

Most of Valentin’s own albums within the last 25 years were forthright in their connection to an Afro-Cuban pulse, though he also continued to serve a smooth-jazz constituency with releases like Sunshower, in 1999. He was named Best Flutist in the Jazziz Readers Poll from 1989 to ’91, and won a Grammy award for Best Latin Jazz Album in 2003 — for Caribbean Jazz Project, an album made in collaboration with the vibraphonist Dave Samuels.

David Peter Valentin was born on April 29, 1952, to first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants in the Bronx, New York. His household was full of music by the popular Latin bandleaders of the day, like Tito Rodriguez, Eddie Palmieri and Machito. “So I grew up with that music,” he told WBGO’s Monifa Brown, in a live performance and interview in 2006.

In that conversation, which can be heard along with a live performance below, Valentin also recalls how his father, who was in the merchant marine, informed his musical education: “He went to Brazil and brought me back some bongos and congas, and little scratchy things and bells and all that stuff, and I started playing percussion when I was five.”

Valentin began playing professionally in a Latin dance band at age 10, emulating Puente on timbales at the time. He worked the New York City nightclub circuit in his teens, while studying percussion at the High School of Music and Art.

In an oft-repeated story, Valentin took up the flute because of his interest in a girl. She played flute, and in an effort to impress her, he taught himself some basics on the instrument. His natural progress was so quick that he stuck with it, taking some lessons from the prominent jazz flutist and bandleader Herbie Mann as well as a classical flutist, Hal Bennett. But for the most part, Valentin was a self-taught player.

Valentin is survived by a brother, George Valentin, and many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews. A first cousin, Lourdes Torres, said: “The two loves of his life were the musicians and the kids.” Valentin taught music in the New York City public school system and at the Casita Maria Center for Arts & Education, a community organization in the Bronx.

The last album that Valentin released was Pure Imagination, on the HighNote label in 2011. The following year, he suffered a stroke during a gig, and was paralyzed on his right side. He made a partial recovery but had another stroke in 2015, after which he was moved into a care facility. His condition continued to deteriorate: Bonilla, his manager, said that Valentin had begun to experience the effects of Parkinson’s disease last fall.

Valentin, known for his high-spirited and garrulous personality, bristled at his recent physical limitations. Torres, his cousin, said he had been especially frustrated by his inability to play the flute. “David couldn’t do what he loved most in the world,” she said, “and that was play music.”

Hear 5 Memorable Dave Valentin Performances, selected by his longtime drummer Robby Ameen.