The flute world lost a major star this year in March when Dave Valentin, a Grammy Award winner, passed away at the young age of 64 from complications of a stroke. He had been dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s disease for a number of years but had appeared to thrive despite the debilitating effects of this ailment. I first heard and saw him, in person, at a National Flute Association convention back in 1986 in New York City. I did not know at the time that nearly all of us flutists had invaded his turf but he quickly became a favorite, not only because he was a male in a female dominated instrumental world but also because we noticed he was the most handsome flutist we had ever seen. It was just a plus that he played like an angel in heaven. His only rival was Ransom Wilson but Dave’s niche was jazz and he did some amazing things with it, besides.
His manager, Richie Bonilla filled in the gaps in my knowledge about him shortly after he passed. Born in the South Bronx to parents who came from Puerto Rico, Dave started in music playing conga and timbales by the time he was five. As a teenager, he became attracted to a girl who played the flute and, to better court her, switched instruments and taught himself to play. He went on to become one of the pre-eminent flutists in Latin jazz. In 2003 his Grammy for best Latin jazz album The Gathering was in collaboration with the Caribbean Jazz Project, which also featured vibraphonist Dave Samuels.
Lauded by Jon Pareles in a New York Times review back in 1984 he cited his sultry tone and amazing agility of technique on the instrument as his strength in solos and always hovered around Latin and funk rhythms or combinations of both. He’d played many instruments before mastering jazz so his beginning was, of course, on piano by the age of nine. He had already started to play professionally in real gigs by that time and was considered a wunderkind all the while only receiving instructions from public schools. He played in every collection he could- band, jazz band, orchestra and chorus and out of seven music teachers, one-Stuart Soffer, recommended him to the now famous High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. After graduating, he studied under the acclaimed jazz/classical fusion flutist Hubert Laws, who became his mentor. He also studied at Bronx Community College before becoming a music teacher and taught seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade music for three years in the South Bronx. He told NYT in 2014, “I had a jazz band and taught them how to play, so when they graduated they were ready.” His first album as a headliner Legends was released in 1979 on the GRP label, with which he had a long and fruitful relationship as both a leader and a sideman.
I own several recordings with the GRP label which include Jungle Garden, Flute Juice and the ground-breaking Light Struck which was inspired and promoted by Juan Novo who had invented the Fantasia flute- a hand-crafted flute which incorporated modern tech as well. One song on Light Struck “Can’t Change My Heart” included Angela Bofill’s vocals in a beautiful compliment. This album coincided with his strong appearance at the NYC flute convention in 1986 and put both of them in the All-Stars permanently.
In addition to releasing numerous albums under his own name, he also recorded with singers Patti Austin and Chris Connor, guitarist Lee Ritenour, McCoy Tyner’s Afro-Cuban All-Stars and many others. He also toured with the well-known jazz percussionist Tito Puente and was named music director of his Golden Latin Jazz All-Stars. After suffering a stroke in 2012, he convalesced in a rented bungalow in the Harding Park section of the Bronx for a time, surviving without savings or health insurance and mostly depended on donations, many handled by the Jazz Foundation of America.
He is survived by his brother, George and many fans who will never forget his sound, his infectious verve and smile but most of all his unflagging faith in Jesus who he always referred to as his Lord and Creator in his liner notes when he dedicated his LPs. On Light Struck he wrote, “In my moments of solitude, His light fills my spirit.”
Amen, brother !
The Castle Lady