Pianist, bandleader, and manager José Curbelo was born in Havana; he had a Cuban mother and a father who had been raised in America and played violin with the Havana Philharmonic. At eight, Curbelo began two years of study under composer Pedro Menendez and then attended the Molinas Conservatory in Havana. At 16, he played in bands around Havana and helped form the Havana Riverside Orchestra. Following that group's tour of South America, he made his way to New York in 1940.
In New York, Curbelo found work in various bands and appeared at the El Morocco, among other places. José Morand, a bandleader who later started the Fiesta label, gave him an early start. In 1942 Curbelo formed his own band and played initially at La Conga. A year at New York's Havana Madrid (1943-1944) was followed by stints at Zanzibar and then an upstate gig at Grossingers Resort in the Catskills. The next couple of years he spent in Miami at the Clover Club and the Latin Quarter and in New York at La Conga again, Bill Miller's Riviera, and eventually the China Doll. In New York, at times, Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, and Candido joined the band.
Further engagements included in New York (La Martinique, Roseland, the Palladium, and the Savoy), in Miami (the Sans Souci and Ciros), in Las Vegas (the Sahara Hotel), and in Baltimore (the Chanticleer Club). In 1953 he reduced the band to a sextet and added jazzmen such as Al Cohn on tenor sax and Jack Hitchcock on trombone and vibes. Famous arrangers for the band include Rene Hernandez, Chico O'Farrill, Puente, and Cohn. Like many of the top Cuban bandleaders of the day, Curbelo could lay claim to classical training as a youth, a variety of Latin influences as a journeyman professional, and being part of New York's Latin jazz scene. During the '60s, he became an important and prominent manager and booking agent for Latin music artists. José Curbelo died of congestive heart failure in Miami in September 2012; he was 95 years of age.