As a teenager, I was very protective of rock & roll. Anything else was lame. Regardless of what I may have heard or felt in other music, it was all to be dismissed if it wasn’t a red guitar, three chords and the truth. Into my 20’s I realized that I was coming up with uninformed opinions and I began to become more accepting of different kinds of music. The Brazilian music known as bossa nova is a perfect example of this.
I have related before in these pages that it was in 1997 that I read a review for a new Sean Lennon album on which the reviewer said Sean blended many different kinds of music, bossa nova being one of them. It all sounded crazy to me so I scoffed.
Fast forward to the spring of 1998 and the months after the death of Frank Sinatra. Exploring his catalogue lead me to what has become my third-favourite album of all-time, Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967). A sidebar to discovering Francis was discovering bossa nova and Jobim, a sound and a man I have since taken to my heart.
Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim was born in Rio de Janeiro on January 25, 1927. The man who would come to be known as “Tom” was born in the northern Rio neighbourhood of Tijuca, home to the third largest urban forest in the world. A neighbourhood of contrasts, it has always been middle-class – as was Tom’s family – though that part of the city is also home to many favelas, or slums. Antônio’s father was Jorge de Oliveira Jobim who was a journalist, writer and diplomat who came from a prestigious family. His uncle had been José Martins da Cruz Jobim, a physician and professor who was a pioneer in Brazil in the field of psychiatry, writing the country’s first texts on mental illness (Insânia Loquaz, 1831). He later became the personal physician to Emperor Dom Pedro II – second and last monarch of the Empire of Brazil – and his entourage. It was Uncle José Martins who had added “Jobim” to the family name in honour of the village in Portugal his family hailed from, a parish now known as Gondomar (São Cosme), Valbom e Jovim. Jobim’s mother was Nilza Brasileiro de Almeida, a woman of indigenous descent from Northeastern Brazil. Nordeste (“Northeast”) was the first part of Brazil to be colonized by the Portuguese and its rich culture – including music and literature – was easily identifiable throughout the country. It was with this pedigree that the young Tom Jobim would enter the next significant phase of his young life. When he was still a child, Jobim’s parents split up and his mother took him and his sister, Helena Isaura, to live in the magical land of Ipanema.
One of the most glaring paradoxes I have encountered in my Vintage Leisure travels is the origin of the name Ipanema. It comes from two words in the Tupi language that combine to mean “worthless water”, “stinking lake” or “bad water”. On the contrary, Ipanema has been called the sexiest beach in the world. Daily, surfers and sunbathers gather there and every Sunday the main thoroughfare adjacent to the beach is closed to allow for foot and bike traffic. Those gathered will often applaud the gorgeous sunsets.
It was here that Jobim experienced life changes that would lead to his many contributions to the culture of this tropical neighbourhood. When Tom was 8, his father died and his mother remarried. Happily, his stepfather was a good man who encouraged Jobim’s musical pursuits and bought him his first piano. From his early teens, Jobim’s family needed financial assistance necessitating young Tom going out to work. He was constantly honing his craft at the piano by playing in all the local night clubs and accompanying many and varied singers. As a young man, money was still in short supply and Jobim began composing music and taking home publishing royalties to sustain him and his family.
Jobim’s musical education began with a man known as Pixinguinha. Alfredo da Rocha Viana Filho (1897-1973) was a Rio reed man and composer, considered one of the best Brazilian composers ever. He operated mostly in the area of the choro, “considered the first characteristically Brazilian genre of urban popular music”. Known as classical music with its roots in the soil, choro has a fast, happy rhythm and Pixinguinha began adding elements of jazz and ragtime to his compositions in the early 1920’s and his work gave birth to modern Brazilian music. This music that first influenced Jobim was characterized by virtuosity and modulations.
Additionally, Tom steeped himself in the work of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel and another Brazilian that had a great influence on Jobim’s work. Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) is nothing less than the “most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music” and the best-known South American composer of all-time. His over 2000 works combine Brazilian folk music with European classical tradition and his lyrics serve as something of a template for bossa nova as they dealt with “love, self-discovery, betrayal, joy and especially about the birds and natural wonders of Brazil”.
Antônio took these decidedly polished influences with him into the bars and night clubs of Rio, into the streets where real people lived and navigated love and other dangers. Tom absorbed it all and took his meagre experiences into jobs with record labels in the fledgling music business of Brazil. He became a prolific A&R man, producer, promoter and composer who’s name gained traction throughout the business. His first significant – though unsuccessful – published work was written with lyricist Billy Blanco.
The symphonic piece Sinfonia do Rio de Janeiro (1954) was an ambitious undertaking that unfortunately was not provided backing by the small Continental record label it was released on, one devoted more to spoken-word and poetry recordings. The label was also unhappy with the length of the piece necessitating it being released on a long-playing record. The piece that included a symphony and other shorter tracks with arrangements and quintet and orchestra accompaniment by Radamés Gnattali, was unsuccessful in every way with not even the individual songs on Side B being adopted by the combos then operating in the Rio area. This work however is regularly cited today among the music that forms the genesis of bossa nova. But Jobim and Blanco would dumb it down and score with their next collaboration.
Dick Farney (born Farnésio Dutra e Silva in 1921, d. 1987) was a hugely successful singer in the Sinatra/crooner mold in Brazil in the late 1940’s. Farney had a nemesis, the upstart younger singer Lúcio Alves. Alves performed on his own and also with others with whom he plied a quartet sound in the style of what was popular in the States at the time. A benign rivalry sprung up between the two singers who shared a label, Continental, until eventually it was suggested that they record a duet. Jobim, the “in-house composer” at Continental, was tasked with coming up with a song for the two to sing and Billy Blanco devised the lyrics that depicted a lighthearted rivalry between the two for the enchanting “Teresa da praia” (Teresa of the Beach). Released in August of 1954, the song was successful but would be the last hit for both singers. The kid who had written the song would spearhead a new musical direction dominated by the young.
Our next stop in the early career of Antonio Carlos Jobim takes us from the beach to the night. “Foi a noite” (It was the Night) is a beautifully haunting composition by Jobim with new collaborator Newton Mendonça, another devotee of classical music who would go on to be a leading bossa nova lyricist lending his talents to songs definitive of the genre like “Desafinado”, “Samba de Umo Nota Só” (One-note Samba) and “Meditação” (Meditation). “Foi a noite” was delivered to singer Sylvia Telles, a lady today considered a legend and a pioneer of bossa nova. Her record of “Foi a noite” was a hit and it remains a cornerstone of the genre. More than that, it is a stunning record.
Jobim then enjoyed his first taste of international notice when he teamed with Vinicius de Moraes. Poet, diplomat and playwright, Vinicius hosted small shows in clubs in Rio where he and Jobim would perform newly written songs, testing them for audience approval and feedback; many of these songs, debuted in such small settings, would eventually travel the world. de Moraes conceived of a stage play with music that was based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that he christened Orfeu da Conceição (Orpheus of the Conception). A press release from the time called the play “um clássico imediato…obra-prima escrita por Vinicius de Moraes…se tornou um marco do modernidade musical e teatral brasileira”; “an immediate classic…a masterpiece written by Vinicius de Moraes…a landmark of Brazilian musical and theatrical modernity”. One hit song from the play was “Se Todos Fossem Iguais A Você” (If Everyone Were Just Like You), a song later given English lyrics by Canadian Gene Lees and recorded by Frank Sinatra as “Someone to Light Up My Life”. The complete score of the play as well as many other pre-bossa nova tracks are collected on Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Floriano Bonfá, a CD released by Cherry Red Records in 2007.
Orfeu da Conceição was later made into a film, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus, 1959). A new score was commissioned for the film that would win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1960. Songs by Jobim and de Moraes were joined by those by Jobim and guitarist Luiz Bonfá. The soundtrack of the film featured songs that would take their place in the canon of revered bossa nova classics; “A felicidade” (Happiness), “Samba de Orfeu”, and Bonfá’s classic “Manha de Carnaval”, recorded well by many as “A Day in the Life of a Fool”.
The Black Orpheus soundtrack helped introduce North America and the world to bossa nova and it came to be known – in New York City and Los Angeles as it was in Rio – that the main architect of this new sound was Antônio Carlos Jobim. Another name began to emerge as well, that of João Gilberto who’s first LP was released in 1959. Chega de Saudade is considered the first bossa nova album and it featured three of Tom’s songs including the title track and “Desafinado”. The two long-time friends and associates would soon combine to create an historical jazz document.
Verve Records’ Creed Taylor brought together João Gilberto and tenor man Stan Getz to record in NYC. Jobim was along as was Gilberto’s young bride, Astrud. Jobim was not only composer – 6 of 8 tracks were his – but pianist and translator, a job for which he applied some discretion. Gilberto was not happy with Getz and said so plainly in Portuguese. ACJ relayed messages to Stan along the lines of “João is very happy to be working with you, Stan” which confused the tenor man who considered Gilberto’s disgusted visage. A surprise to everyone was the announcement that Astrud, who had never sung professionally, would be providing some vocals in English. On the record’s lead-off track, João would take the first refrain in Portuguese and Astrud would then sing in English. The song that started the album was “Garota de Ipanema”.
The song who’s title translated as “The Girl from Ipanema” was written by Jobim with Vinicius de Moraes. Heloísa Eneida Paes Pinto Mendes Pinheiro was 17 when she lived on Montenegro Street in Ipanema. Daily, she would stroll past the bars and shops in the area and one day in the winter of ’62, Tom and Vinicius were sitting in the Veloso bar when Heloísa passed by. Inspiration struck. Fast forward 60 years and Heloísa Pinheiro is 77, a former model and businesswoman. The song written about her has gone down as one of the truly legendary songs in the history of popular music. Only “Yesterday” has been recorded more times. de Moraes said that the girl of the song was “the paradigm of the young Carioca: a golden teenage girl, a mixture of flower and mermaid, full of light and grace, the sight of whom is also sad, in that she carries with her, on her route to the sea, the feeling of youth that fades, of the beauty that is not ours alone—it is a gift of life in its beautiful and melancholic constant ebb and flow.”
Much to the songwriters’ chagrin, this ethos was altered somewhat when it was given English lyrics by Yankee Norman Gimbel. Understand that the whole aura of bossa nova from a lyrical standpoint is encapsulated in o amor, o sorriso e a flor; the love, the smile and the flower. The Brazilian wordsmiths were concerned with beauty, grace, intangible effervescence and youthful vitality at any age. Jobim and de Moraes were “furious” when they heard the new lyrics. Brazilian poet Geraldo Carneiro explains; the English words were “describing physically the girl and not describing the impression of something full of grace that walks by. When you say ‘full of grace’, you are referring to Our Lady of Mercy and you need a woman to be your saviour. But when you say ‘tall and tan and young’, you’re talking about a beauty contest. It’s so…so vulgar”.
Producer Taylor edited the version of the song that began Getz/Gilberto and issued it as a 45 RPM. It was a surprise hit in the time of Motown, the Beach Boys and girl groups reaching #5 on the Pop charts. The album remains one of the biggest-selling jazz albums ever and it reached #2 during its 96-week chart run. At the 1965 Grammy Awards, Getz/Gilberto became both the first jazz and the first non-American album to win Album of the Year. It won two other Grammys and the single “The Girl from Ipanema” won for Record of the Year. The sound of bossa nova and the name Antônio Carlos Jobim were now known the world over.
In 1963, Tom had issued his first LP under his own name. The unfortunately-titled The Composer of Desafinado, Plays is actually a remarkable document of Jobim’s talent and of his contributions to music. Every one of its twelve tracks – Jobim compositions all, of course – is a bossa nova classic and indeed most are jazz standards. The sublime arrangements are by German Claus Ogerman and he and Jobim would work together again often through the years. The prolific Ogerman has also graced the recordings of Lesley Gore, Eumir Deodato, Frank Sinatra and Diana Krall. Ogerman does not know any other way to write than magnificently. Of the record, Pete Welding said “If the bossa nova movement had produced only this record, it would already be fully justified”.
Tom’s second album suffered from another unimaginative title. The Wonderful World of Antônio Carlos Jobim featured charts by Nelson Riddle. Here again are 12 pillars of bossa nova music. A Certain Mr. Jobim from August of ’67 re-teamed Tom and Claus and Wave, issued only months later found Jobim on a new label, Herb Alpert’s A&M. This record and the A&M period signaled something of a change in Tom’s LPs. Gone were the wall-to-wall bossa standards and in their place were fresh pieces from Jobim played by American jazz players.
1970’s Stone Flower displayed more of the maturation of Antônio as a composer and marks the debut of Eumir Deodato as Jobim’s arranger. Following quickly on that record’s heels was Tide on which Tom revisited “The Girl from Ipanema” and included a song from an early influence, Pixinguinha’s “Carinhoso”. Jobim arrived in ’72 and included the new song “Águas de Março” (Waters of March), one of my Top 100 favourite songs.
Perhaps a last significant recording came in 1974. Jobim teamed with Elis Regina in Los Angeles to fulfill a lifelong dream of Regina’s, to record a full album of Jobim songs with the maestro himself. Their record begins with the seminal recording of “Águas de Março” and carries on through 13 other bossa nova standards. Elis & Tom is today widely regarded as one of the greatest Brazilian pop records and one of the greatest Brazilian recordings of all-time. Elis Regina, outspoken against the oppressive military regime ruling Brazil in the 1970’s, died at 36 in 1982. With changes in the musical landscape through the late 1960’s and 1970’s and with the backlash against bossa nova in his native land, Jobim ceased to be active as a recording artist. While he did issue sparkling remembrances of his golden past like Terra Brasilis in 1980, he was able to rest on his immense legacy.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that the crowning achievement of Tom’s career as a recording artist is his work with Frank Sinatra. Their album together, 1967’s Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, is considered the final and most significant approval of bossa nova in the music industry. It is not only the flagship bossa nova record, it represents the finest presentation of Jobim’s music and is even considered one of the best albums the Chairman himself ever issued. The record is sublime. For the full story of the greatest short album ever made, see Vintage Leisure’s entry here.
Antônio enjoyed a favourable reappraisal of his music in Brazil and the world over in the 1990’s. He returned to the studio in 1993 to record a comeback of sorts to be called Antonio Brasiliero. The record features contributions from Tom’s children and appearances by some of his musical children; songs like “So Danço Samba” and “Insensetez”, presented in a stunning duet with Sting. One wishes that the record company (Columbia) hadn’t waited so long to release the album; completed early in 1994, it was issued on December 11. Antônio Carlos Jobim died on December 8.
Shortly after finishing Antonio Brasiliero, Tom complained to doctors about urinary problems. Early in December, at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, he underwent surgery and while he was in recovery he suffered a pulmonary embolism and two cardiac arrests. In a hospital in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, the man who had long celebrated in song o amor, o sorriso e a flor and the green landscapes of Brazil was dead. He was 67.
“I am deeply shocked and saddened by the death of my friend, Tom Jobim. My musical experience with him was as fulfilling and creative as the many hours we spent talking and reflecting at night. The world has lost one of its most talented musicians and I have lost a wonderful friend…making an album with him was one of the most exciting things in my life.”Frank Sinatra
“I think it’s the biggest loss of Brazilian culture in this century, it did more than anyone for Brazil, for beautiful Brazil, for sophisticated Brazil, for elegant Brazil, for the nobility of Brazil, which is the music of Tom Jobim, more than Pelé, than Ayrton Senna, than Heitor Villa Lobos……”Brazilian journalist, songwriter and record producer Nelson Motta
A wonderful companion to me in my youth was the Beach Boys and surf music. It very much matched my lifestyle and my personality. It was music well suited to kicks; fun with the guys and navigating relationships with girls. And then when I became a man with a wife and children was when I discovered Jobim and bossa nova. I discovered that I feel towards this music now exactly like I felt about surf music then and in much the same way. If surf music is the backdrop for crass, youthful escapism, then bossa nova is the same for refined, mature reverie. Bossa nova is still the sun and the sea. Only now it is quieter. The sounds have advanced to this more cultivated position.
“The harmonic sophistication of his compositions, combined with a melodic lightness, were unique and synthesized the constitutive elements of Brazilian music in a paradigmatic way.”author Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho goes way over my head. But I get it.
“My music comes from this environment here, you know, the rain, the sun, the trees, the birds, the mountains, the rocks… Beautiful.”the maestro himself speaks of the connection between his music and his native land.
When people think of Rio, the music they hear in their heads is that of Antônio Carlos Jobim. He provided the soundtrack for escape but instead of mindless hedonism, Jobim’s compositions were erudite, polished and sophisticated. They were flight. While they were rooted in the soil of his homeland they also hovered and floated, shimmered on a gentle breeze of sound and emotion. They bore the weight of distinction in their eminence and at the same time they were airy. Light and buoyant. His is the perfect music for contemplation as it is complicated in its intricacies while maintaining its availability and it’s delightful, grinning nonchalance.
“Jobim, he innovated in harmonic language what is possible. He was a poet of harmony by putting chords and things and sounds together that nobody thought would sound beautiful together. And he knew how to do that. He would also link them together with these melodies that were out of heaven. He created a new grammar or vocabulary of harmony, something that inspires musicians, especially jazz musicians, all over the world.”bossa nova artist Mônica Vasconcelos
His compositions are ubiquitous and appear on records by many and varied artists from jazz to pop and beyond. His songs can be enjoyed in the popular work of Stan Getz or Sting and also in the lesser-known Brazilian recordings of Os Cariocas and Bossacucanova. Dizzy Gillespie and Julie London. But mostly what you get from the career of Antônio Carlos Jobim is stunning beauty and class. For many of us, the classiest records in our collections are the ones that contain Jobim’s music. But the sophistication of his work does not make it music that sails over one’s head. It is still infinitely accessible, it is music one can cherish. Music one can take into the sunshine, into romantic settings and times of escape and holiday. But maybe even more than this it is music that can be taken into your soul. The music that drifted out of Jobim’s heart is still drifting into ours. And it will continue to do so.
- Castro, Ruy (2000). Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World. Chicago Review Press.
- Derham, Katie (2016). The Girl from Ipanema: Brazil, Bossa Nova and the Beach. BBC.
- Adams, Scott. You Can Do This: Find Jobim’s Place on the Beach. ConnectBrazil.com.