Joao Gilberto, Father of Bossa Nova, dies

“The final flicker of the old flame”

by Marshall Bowden

The music world and cultural doyens of Brazil mourn the death of João Gilberto.

It is the loss of a great talent, though by many accounts Gilberto had become erratic and reclusive nearly ten years ago when he quit making public appearances. Furthermore, it is another nail the coffin of a certain world and a certain world order that is receding, like Avalon, into the mists of time and the memory of a select few.

Rio de Janeiro’s newspaper, O Globo declared his death “The final flicker of the old flame”, acknowledging “the creator of bossa nova influenced generations of artists with his ‘different beat’.” Gilberto Gil, who pioneered the musical form tropicalismo and served as Brazil’s minister of culture from 2003-2008, describes Gilberto as an “extraordinary genius.”

The Bossa Nova Years

It was in the 1950s that Gilberto hit on a style that combined the Brazilian samba with the quiet aesthetic of American cool jazz and created the bossa nova, the new wave or new bump that was embraced by the entire world. Working with other Brazilian musicians and composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, Gilberto created music that was intimate and introspective in a culture known for its extroverts and celebratory nature.

Joao GIlberto, “Girl from Ipanema” with Antonio Carlos Jobim

Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves stated that Gilberto’s new style “changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil. Once we heard what João was doing with the guitar and the voice, we all had to find a way to figure out how he did it.”

In 1963 jazz came calling in the person of American tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz was enamored of the bossa nova style. He and guitarist Charlie Byrd had recorded the album Jazz Samba in 1962. That album reached the number one spot on the Billboard Pop Album chart, so it was a natural for Getz (and the Verve record label) to record with Gilberto. The resulting album, Getz/Gilberto, sold more than 2 million copies worldwide in 1964 and is generally credited as starting a worldwide bossa nova craze.

The single from the album, also a hit, was “The Girl From Impanema” featuring Gilberto’s quiet, vibrato-less vocals along with those of his wife at the time, Astrud Gilberto. Getz and Gilberto reunited for a follow-up album, Getz/Gilberto 2, and both Joao and Astrud recorded albums in the United States.

The U.S. Years

But João was never comfortable with the fame his hit recordings brought him. He was extremely poetic and sensitive, as illustrated by a story resulting from his brief incarceration in a psychiatric facility when he was young. His father, alarmed by the young musician’s unusual style and inability to get gigs due to his marijuana habit, had him admitted. Writer and historian Daniella Thompson relates the story in her excellent biographical article on Gilberto:

“An embarrassment to his family in Juazeiro, the errant son was dispatched to a psychiatric sanatorium in Salvador, where he was subjected to a battery of psychological interviews. In the course of one of those, staring out of the window, João remarked, ‘Look at the wind depilating the trees.’ The psychologist committed the error of saying, ‘But trees have no hair, João,’ to which remark the musician responded, ‘And there are people who have no poetry.’ He was released from the sanatorium after a week’s stay.”

In 1964, a coup by the military ended the brief presidency of leftist João Goulart, resulting in a military dictatorship that would rule until 1985. While this period saw solid economic growth (The Brazilian Miracle) led in part by Brazil’s automotive industry, it was maintained through policies that were protectionist, nationalist, and authoritarian. Freedom of speech and political opposition were stifled.

Musicians who were part of the Tropicalismo movement, including Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested and imprisoned or exiled. Chico Barque left the country in self-imposed exile. Others, like João Gilberto, opted to remain in the United States.

Gilberto lived in the United States from 1962 until 1980, with the exception of two years spent in Mexico. During those years he recorded only five albums, including Getz/Gilberto and 1976’s Best of Two Worlds with Getz and second wife Miúcha, mother of Brazilian/jazz singer Bebel Gilberto.

Final Years and Reactions to his death

João Gilberto was very careful about the sound of his recordings and he often forced bands and engineers to record many takes due to some issue with the sound of an instrument or voice that only he seemed able to hear. After moving back to Brazil he recorded another five albums and single-handedly helped to preserve Brazilian musical history by recording songs by artists such as Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil. In 2008 he retired from live performance and, in the words of author Ruy Castro, author of the definitive history of bossa nova, Cenga de Saudade:

“João Gilberto spent the last decades playing for the walls of his apartment, set on a musical mission, by definition, crazy and impossible – to perfect perfection.” Always known as an eccentric, his decline in recent years as well as fighting between his recent companion, journalist Claudia Faissol (with whom he has a daughter) and his children from two previous marriages, Bebel, and Joao Marcelo (son of Astrud Gilberto), lends a sad note to the final years of Brazil’s cultural treasure.

More depressing, though, is the way that Brazil’s right-wing authoritarian leader Jair Bolsonaro barely managed to mention the demise of one of the most important musical performers in a country that has many. “He was a famous person, our sentiments to the family, OK,” was his reported comment according to Folha de São Paulo newspaper.

According to an article in The Guardian, it was noted by a number of left-leaning Brazilian politicians and artists that Bolsonaro had been more complementary to rightwing rap artist MC Reaca who had recorded songs in support of Bolsonaro’s presidential campaign.

One congressman, Marcelo Freixo took a dig at Bolsonaro’s nickname of ‘legend’ in his tweet: “Today we lost a true legend. João Gilberto helped to form our culture.”

Former President Dilma Rousseff said that João Gilberto was “an icon and symbol of a modern, loving, Brazil, full on swing and charm. He’s the face of the nation of bossa nova and samba, a symbol of the uniqueness of our people.” She continued:

“It’s a shame that this genius has left us the exact moment when Brazil is going through an institutional eclipse, dragging us all into an era of darkness shame in the eyes of the rest of the world.”

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