Updated: May 10, 2022
Bossa Nova began in the late 1950s on the tropical beaches of Rio de Janeiro when a small group of mainly middle-class students, artists, and musicians came together to produce new sounds. One of the key architects of this new Brazilian sound was Antonio Carlos Jobim. He was a classically trained pianist who also played the guitar, sang and composed songs. He had risen to fame in Brazil as the composer for the 1956 play “Musicas De Orfeu Da Conceicao”, which influenced the 1959 film “Black Orpheus”.
Jobim was the primary force behind the creation of the bossa nova. Although its creation is not so simple and straightforward, and it’s definitely not a one-man show. Through his work, Jobim fused the elements of jazz with indigenous Brazilian music to create the bossa nova sound.
Creation of the bossa nova
Jobim wrote as well as partnered with poet Vinicius de Moraes and fellow composer Newton Mendonca to create some of the most famous and endearing bossa nova standards such as “The Girl from Ipanema”, “Desafinado” and “Corcovado”.
Among the first singers to record Jobim’s material were Elizete Cardoso, Sylvia Telles and most significantly, Joao Gilberto. The songs churned out by Jobim and Moraes sounded like a lyrical version of samba and it didn’t create much excitement in the audience. But Gilberto gave these songs a new vocal interpretation and a new beat.
Gilberto’s seductive vocals and his guitar set an insouciant swinging rhythm going. The voice pulled in one direction while the beat in another. The combination was mesmerising and highly addictive, refreshing and modern. That was in 1958 and it was when a new page was opened in the history of music.
Bossa nova goes to America
Legend has it that bossa nova was ‘discovered by an American from a music publishing company in oe=ne of the clubs where he saw Jobim and Gilberto playing. Other stories include American musicians visiting the country such as flutist Herbie Mann and guitarist Charlie Byrd who played alongside Brazilian musicians and enjoyed a first-hand experience of the emerging bossa nova movement.
Whatever the legend, Americans became mesmerised with Brazil’s ‘New Beat’. Stan Getz, the famous jazz tenor saxophonist saw Byrd’s bossa nova performance in Washington D.C. and requested they record an album together.
With the help of producer Creed Taylor, Getz and Byrd recorded in All Souls Unitarian Church and it resulted in the Jazz Samba album released by Verve Records in April 1962. The blissful version of Jobim’s “Desafinado” made it to the 15th spot on the US Hot 100 in November 1962 and later won a Grammy.
Jazz Samba not only got North America into a love affair with Brazilian music but it also gave a shot to Stan Gerz’s career. The saxophonist would continue to record bossa nova songs on a regular basis till his death in 1991.
The bossa nova explosion
The song that caused the bossa explosion in America was “The Girl from Ipanema” as sung by Astrud Gilberto in a wispy, beguiling and effortless way in the summer of 1964. The singer reached No. 5 in the US pop singles chart.
The song transformed Astrud into an international star. Even though she was an amateur singer, she went on to make records under her own name from 1965. The song cover was the collaboration between Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz. Prior to this collaboration, America’s awareness of the bossa nova was heightened by a concert at the Carnegie Hall in late 1962. The audience was treated to performances by the progenitors of this new Brazilian sound from Jobim, Gilberto, Luis Bonfa to Sergio Mendes.
The legacy of Antonio Carlos Jobim
Although bossa nova was shaped by the many musicians that contributed to its growth, Jobim was recognised as a musical giant in the same class as North American jazz greats such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter by the likes of great jazz singers Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Jobim was responsible for writing the seminal songs of the bossa nova and helped other Brazilian musicians such as Luis Bonfa, Sergio Mendes, Gilberto Gil, to Elis Regina find an international audience.