Music is contradictory. Highly personal expressions can become hugely popular. Tradition can be reinvented as something completely new. Understatement can often get a point across the most forcefully. Few musicians embody these contradictions more than composer, singer, and guitarist João Gilberto, who died on July 6, at age 88.
Gilberto almost single-handedly invented bossa nova — which translates from Portuguese as “new wave” — in the mid-1950s. He did so while isolated, during an ebb in his developing career. His intimate way of singing and playing would inspire every composer in the bossa nova genre, leading to incredible commercial success and the brief, if dazzling, resuscitation of jazz as a popular art form in America.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born in Juazeiro, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, on June 10, 1931. From an early age he was utterly charming and only concerned with music. Singer Maria Bethânia described him as “simply … music. He plays. He sings. Without stopping. Day and night. He is very, very strange. But he is the most fascinating being, the most fascinating person, that I have encountered on the surface of the earth. João, he is mystery. He hypnotizes.”
After moving to Rio de Janeiro, Gilberto sang with the vocal group Garotos da Lua for a while, but in 1951 he was fired for turning up late for gigs — or sometimes not turning up at all. Never having a place of his own, he was a permanent houseguest for a revolving set of friends. “It was always understood by his hosts that he would never be asked to participate in paying the rent or covering other household expenses,” Daniella Thomposon wrote for Brazil magazine. “Occasionally he would bring home some fruit (tangerines were his favorites), but his most significant contributions were his surpassingly intelligent conversation and the captivating music he played.” Gilberto grew out his hair, wore shabby clothes, continually smoked marijuana, and refused to get a real job.
By 1956, Gilberto began an eight-month stay with his sister and her husband in Diamantina. Seldom changing out of his pajamas, he installed himself in the tiled bathroom, as much for privacy as acoustics, practicing guitar and voice nonstop. It was here at age 25 that he created bossa nova, largely by reducing the older musical form of samba down to its essence.
“I think João Gilberto did it like this,” guitarist Baden Powell once said. “He just took the rhythm of the tamborims [a small tambourine-like drum] of the Samba Schools to the exclusion of the other percussion instruments. That’s the clearest rhythm you hear in it all. He took out all the rest.”
Gilberto also began singing more quietly and without vibrato. He changed his phrasing and used his voice as its own percussion instrument — sometimes as a complement to the guitar, sometimes creating rhythmic tension.
Despite the musical breakthrough he accomplished in his sister’s bathroom, Gilberto’s obsessiveness caused concern. His sister and her husband sent him to live with his parents in Juazeiro.
Afraid of being ridiculed for his new vocal style, Gilberto practiced on the banks of the São Francisco river, where he wrote a song mimicking the sway of the washerwomen as they walked by, carrying baskets of laundry on their heads. He used his new vocal and rhythm techniques to compose “Bim-Bom,” and so it is considered by some to be the first bossa nova song.
Gilberto’s father, unimpressed with his abilities and embarrassed by his son’s lack of respectability, had him committed to an asylum. During one interview, Gilberto stared out the window. “Look at the wind depilating the trees,” he said. When reminded that trees have no hair, he responded, “And there are people who have no poetry.” He was released after one week.
Gilberto returned to Rio and renewed his friendship with musician Antônio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, then a composer and arranger for Odeon Records. Jobim arranged his song “Chega de Saudade” for Gilberto to record, but the artist’s perfectionist streak held up the process: Gilberto chided the musicians for little mistakes, made the unheard-of demand for separate microphones for his voice and guitar, and argued with Jobim about the chord progression. “Chega de Saudade” and “Bim-Bom” were finally cut on July 10, 1958. After a slow start, the single became a regional success.
American guitarist Charlie Byrd heard Gilberto’s music in 1961 while on a Jazz Ambassador tour organized by the State Department. Byrd returned home with some Gilberto/Jobim bossa nova albums, which he played for saxophonist Stan Getz. “I immediately fell in love with it,” Getz remembered. “Charlie Byrd had tried to sell a record of it with I don’t know how many [record] companies, and none of ‘em wanted it. What they needed was the voice — the horn.”
Getz and Byrd released Jazz Samba in April 1962. It entered the Billboard pop album chart in early March and ultimately peaked at No. 40. Getz earned a Grammy for his performance of Jobim’s “Desafinado.” The bossa nova craze had begun, and its definitive statement would come two years later, when Getz collaborated with the genre’s originator.
“I’m not a sociologist, but it was a time when people in the States wanted to turn to something other than their troubles,” João’s wife Astrud Gilberto said in 1996. “There was a feeling of dissatisfaction, possibly the hint of war to come, and people needed some romance, something dreamy for distraction.” The eight tracks on the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto provided just that. Getz’s lyrical phrasing was a match for Gilberto’s intimate vocal. Jobim’s understated piano proved a perfect complement. Jazz critic Howard Mandel called the album “another tonic for the [Kennedy] assassination’s disruption, akin for adults to the salve upbeat the Beatles had provided for teenagers after their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964.”
Jobim cowrote several compositions on the album, most notably its opener “The Girl From Ipanema.” João sang the first verse in Portugese; Astrud the second in an English translation.
Both the single and the album were an astonishing success. Getz/Gilberto spent almost 100 weeks on the charts and won four Grammys, including Album of the Year. “The Girl From Ipanema” is second only to the Beatles’ “Yesterday” as the most recorded song.
Gilberto went on to release albums for five more decades, making solo records as well as collaborating with American jazz greats like Herbie Mann, and a new generation of Brazilian musicians including Gelberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. He became a cult figure in Japan.
What might be hard to understand is that the João Gilberto who locked himself away in a bathroom and eschewed a day job is the same man who would go on to change Brazilian — and popular — music. He was fortunate to have been surrounded by people who valued him and trusted his artistic vision.
In the mid-’50s, Gilberto played, or sometimes just held court, at the Clube de Chave in Porto Alegre, appearing at any hour with his guitar. After being asked why he never finished a song, he admitted to not liking his guitar’s steel strings. The patrons, many of whom had changed their sleeping habits to conform to his, chipped in and bought him a nylon-stringed instrument. This one also wasn’t quite to Gilberto’s taste. When it was exchanged for another, he began a months-long residency.
Musicians, like music, can be contradictory. Sometimes their most idiosyncratic expressions are reflections of the universal. “João Gilberto does not underestimate people’s sensitivity,” Jobim wrote in the liner notes to Gilberto’s first album. “He believes that there is always room for something new, different and pure which — although it may not seem so at first sight — may become, as they say in the jargon, highly commercial. Because people understand love, musical notes, simplicity, and sincerity, I believe in João Gilberto, because he is simple, sincere, and extraordinarily musical.”
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.