Known simply as Cachao, the Grammy-winning musician had fallen ill in the past week and died surrounded by family members at Coral Gables Hospital, spokesman Nelson Albareda said.
Cachao left communist Cuba and came to the United States in the early 1960s. He continued to perform into his late 80s, including a performance after the death of trombonist Generoso Jimenez in September 2007.
Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia, who made a 1993 documentary about the bassist's career, credited Cachao with being a major influence in Cuban musical history and said his passing marked the end of an era.
"Cachao is our musical father. He is revered by all who have come in contact with him and his music," Garcia said in a statement Saturday. "Maestro ... you have been my teacher, and you took me in like a son. So I will continue to rejoice with your music and carry our traditions wherever I go, in your honor."
Cachao was born in Havana in 1918 to a family of musicians. A classically trained bassist, he began performing with the Havana symphony orchestra at the age of 12 - so small he had to stand on a box to play his instrument. He worked under the baton of visiting guest conductors, such as Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinsky and Heitor Villa-Lobos, during his nearly 30-year career with the orchestra.
"Stravinsky was my friend, I played the 'Firebird' and 'Petrouchka' with Stravinsky conducting in Cuba. He was a simple man, ugly like me, but very nice," Cachao said in a 1995 interview with the International Herald Tribune.
Cachao also wrote hundreds of songs in Cuba for bands and orchestras, many based on the classic Cuban music style known as son.
He and his late brother, multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez, created the mambo in the late 1930s. The mambo emerged from their improvisational work with the danzon, an elegant musical style that lends itself to slow dancing.
The mambo was embraced early on and Cuban composers and jazz musicians have tweaked it over the years. It also influenced the development of salsa music.
Cachao left Cuba in 1962, relocating first to Spain and soon afterward to New York, where he was hired to perform at the Palladium nightclub with the leading Latin bands.
In the United States, he collaborated with such Latin music stars as Tito Puente, Tito Rodrigues, Machito, Chico O'Farrill, Eddie Palmieri and Gloria Estefan.
He fell into obscurity during the 1980s after he moved to Miami, where he ended up playing in small clubs and at weddings.
But his career enjoyed a revival in the 1990s with the help of Garcia's documentary "Cachao ... Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos" (Like His Rhythm There Is No Other).
He earned a best tropical latin performance Grammy for 1993's "Master Sessions - Volume I," which featured Cachao and an all-star lineup performing traditional Cuban music from son to danzon and of course, the mambo. He also played bass on Gloria Estefan's Grammy-winning multi-platinum album "Mi Tierra."
More awards and critical acclaim followed.
He won a Latin Grammy in 2002 for "El Arte Del Sabor" as part of the Bebo Valdes Trio, which featured Valdes on piano and Carlos "Patato" Valdes on conga.
His album "Ahora Si!" earned him both a Grammy in 2004 and a Latin Grammy the following year.
In 2006, Cachao was honored at two Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra paying tribute to the Latin bass tradition. Cachao also led a mambo all-star band at a JVC Jazz Festival program at Carnegie Hall that year.
Cuban-born reed player and composer Paquito D'Rivera said Cachao made friends everywhere he went with his affable personality and good sense of humor. D'Rivera said he was working on a piece he had written for the multiple Grammy winner when he heard about the death.
"He was what a great musician should be. He represented what true versatility in music is all about," D'Rivera told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Cachao's wake was set for Wednesday, and his burial was set for Thursday, Albareda said.