Shy and at times reclusive, singer and guitarist João Gilberto nonetheless played a central role in the birth of bossa nova. Together with Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, they tamed the Brazilian samba, injected it with American jazz, and created a new music that took the world by storm in the early 1960s. Gilberto sings in a quiet whisper and accompanies himself on an acoustic guitar with nylon strings. With haunting harmonies and unusual accents, the beat of the bossa nova is enchanting and always fresh. Although success would lead to a long stay in the United States, Gilberto‘s lifestyle remained the same: he recorded and performed infrequently. In 1998, as bossa nova celebrated its 40th anniversary, Gilberto played a handful of dates, continuing to follow his unassuming path toward making beautiful music.
Born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in Bahia, Brazil, Gilberto became interested in music early in life. His father, a prosperous merchant, attempted to properly educate his seven children, but only music interested Gilberto. At age 14, his godfather gave him his first guitar, and within a year, Gilberto became the leader of a group of school friends who performed at social functions. He absorbed the sounds of American jazz, from Tommy Dorsey‘s “Song of India” to Duke Ellington‘s “Caravan,” and listened to popular Brazilian performers like Geraldo Pereira, Orlanda Silva, and Herivelto Martins. At 18, Gilberto moved to Bahia‘s capital, Salvador, to become a radio singer. Although he was unsuccessful, he was asked to become the lead singer of the group Garotos da Lua (Boys from the Moon) in Rio de Janeiro. His behavior was non-professional, however. Arriving late for performances and sometimes not arriving at all, Gilberto was fired after one year.
After being fired, Gilberto‘s life took a downward turn for the next seven years. He became depressed and used marijuana heavily. He let his hair grow long, wore old clothes, and could not find work. His girlfriend, Sylvia Telles (later a famous bossa nova singer), left him. With no place of his own, he lived with friends, never contributing to expenses and usually overstaying his welcome. Still, he was well liked. He slept during the day and played music at night. When he returned home from nightclubs, friends would sit up with him for the remainder of the night and chat. Gilberto refused to take jobs that he considered beneath him, including playing music in clubs where the customers were allowed to talk during performances. It seemed as though Gilberto would spend his life as a drifter.
After seven years of aimlessness, singer Luis Telles removed Gilberto from the corrupting influences of Rio and took him to Porto Alegre. He checked him into a good hotel for seven months and got him a job at the Clube da Chave (Key Club). This boosted Gilberto‘s confidence, but he still wasn‘t ready to return to Rio. He lived with his sister Dadainha and her husband for six
Born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in Bahia, Brazil; son of a prosperous merchant; married Astrud Weinert (divorced); married singer Miucha; children: Bebel.
Received first guitar from godfather at age 14; led band of school friends at age 15; at age 18 moved to Salvador to become a radio singer, then moved to Rio de Janeiro where he became the lead singer of Garotos da Lua; fired after one year for showing up late to performances or not at all; relocated to Porto Alegre with the help of singer Luis Telles; began working relationship with Antonio Carlos Jobim, 1956; released “Chega de Saudade,” starting the bossa nova craze, 1958; moved to United States, 1962; remain in the U.S. until 1980 (with the exception of two years in Mexico); released Getz/Gilberto on Verve Records, 1963; recorded infrequent though well-received albums including João Gilberto, 1973; moved back to Brazil, 1980; performed several dates in the United States and Europe to commemorate 40th anniversary of bossa nova, 1998; released João voz e violão on Verve, 2000.
months and played guitar constantly. Her bathroom‘s unique acoustics allowed Gilberto to learn to sing quietly without vibrato and to play his guitar at fluctuating tempos. During this period he also disavowed marijuana use (as well as strong substances). Although a recognizable artist was taking shape, his family worried about his erratic behavior and committed him to a sanitarium in Salvador. During a series of interviews, Gilberto reportedly made the curious statement, “Look at the wind depilating the trees.” When the psychiatrist said that the trees have no hair and therefore the wind could not rid them of it, Gilberto replied, “And there are people who have no poetry.” He was released after a week.
In 1956 he returned to Rio with two quiet, simple songs that he had written: “Bim-Bom” and “Hô-Ba-La-Lá.” He renewed his contact with composer Tom Jobim who listened to the songs and was impressed by the new rhythms of Gilberto‘s guitar. The two musicians began a collaboration that would give birth to a unique Brazilian hybrid, the bossa nova (new wave). The bossa nova has roots in many cultures. The samba, full of wild rhythms propelled by various percussion instruments, has its origins in African music. American jazz, especially West Coast players like Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Shorty Rogers, also proved central. First Jobim and Gilberto toned down the samba, added a looping acoustic guitar, and then inserted intricate harmonies and quiet vocals. In July of 1958 their recording of “Chega de Saudade” jump-started the bossa nova movement in Brazil. After a visit to South America, guitarist Charlie Byrd would carry these enchanting sounds back to the United States, helping spread bossa nova fever. The music received international exposure after Gilberto and Luiz Bonfá wrote the soundtrack for the movie, Black Orpheus, in 1958.
In 1962 Gilberto came to the United States where he would remain until 1980 (with the exception of two years in Mexico). In 1963 Verve released Getz/Gilberto, an album that brought Gilberto to broader critical and popular attention. The album also included “The Girl from lpanema,” sung by his wife Astrud, which became a hit. The album won two Grammys, one for best album and another for best song, beating out the Beatles‘ Hard Day‘s Night. In 1966 Verve released Getz/Gilberto, Vol. II, an album of live performance from Carnegie Hall. All of this attention brought little change to Gilberto‘s lifestyle or approach to performing. He seldom played live and gave few interviews. In 1964, he was scheduled to play a nine-night gig at the London House in Chicago. He played four short sets on the first night, and then canceled the remainder, saying the club was too noisy. While he recorded infrequently over the next 15 years, he continued to make beautiful albums such as 1973‘s João Gilberto. He also made a concerted effort to preserve earlier songs by Brazilian artists like Dorival Caymmi, Noel Rosa, Geraldo Pereira and others. New York Times critic Robert Palmer saw Gilberto at a rare appearance at the Bottom Line in 1977, and reported: “Mr. Gilberto‘s charms are durable. For one thing, his taste in material is unimpeachable.”
In 1998 a number of events were planned and classic CDs re-released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of bossa nova. The music retains its freshness and vitality, and even finds expression in a younger generation. Gilberto‘s daughter Bebel has become a talented and popular entertainer in her own right. Gilberto continues to quietly pursue the art of his music, regardless of trends. For the 40th anniversary of the song “Chega de Saudade” he played a small number of dates in Europe and the United States. “One didn‘t need to understand Portuguese to feel the sadness, longing and joy of these songs,” wrote Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle. “The sound of Gilberto‘s gentle voice was enough.” Verve re-released 1999‘s Joao voz e violão in 2000, and Gilberto, at 69, continues to captivate. With no more than his quiet guitar and whisper of a voice, he confidently surveys both classics and newer material.
Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 1963.
Joao Gilberto, Polydor Brasil, 1973.
The Legendary Joao Gilberto, World Pacific, 1990.
Joao voz e violão, Mercury, 1999; reissued, Verve, 2000.
New York Times, September 19, 1977, p. 44.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 1998, p. D1.
“Joao Gilbeto,” Slipcue E-Zine, http://www.slipcue.com/music/brazil/brazillist.html (April 11, 2001).
“The Man Who Invented Bossa Nova,” Best Web, http://www.bestweb.netTsilkpurs/joao/essay.htm (April 12, 2001).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Gilberto, João: 1931—
João Gilberto: 1931—: Brazilian vocalist and guitarist
The jazz-inflected Brazilian pop style known as bossa nova remains a permanent fixture of the world's musical vocabulary with its restrained yet complex rhythms; the biggest of all the bossa nova hits, "The Girl from Ipanema," is known to nearly all Americans born before 1960 and to many younger people. One of the creators of that song, and of the entire bossa nova movement, was the singer and guitarist João Gilberto—whose wife Astrud was the vocalist on "The Girl from Ipanema." The U.S. jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, quoted in The Brazilian Sound, said that Gilberto "would sound good reading a newspaper," but he was equally influential as a guitarist.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born on June 10, 1931, in the small city of Juázeiro in the interior of Brazil's northeastern Bahia state. He seemed attracted to music early in life but did not begin playing until age 14, when his grandfather gave him a guitar. Within a year, despite his father's disapproval, he was leading a band composed of fellow students. The sound of U.S. big-band jazz had penetrated to Brazilian radio by the 1940s, and Gilberto grew up with the music of Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey in addition to Brazilian pop songs and samba music. A less common influence was the crisp, operetta-flavored style of U.S. pop singer Jean-nette MacDonald.
In 1949 Gilberto headed for the city of Salvador, Bahia's urban center, in hopes of launching a musical career. He went on to the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro a year later. His attempts to land a radio vocal slot were unsuccessful, and a local band jettisoned him as its lead vocalist due to a halfhearted attitude on Gilberto's part that sometimes led him to skip live performances. Even after success came his way, Gilberto remained reluctant to perform in public. Well before the hipster era, Gilberto embarked on a creative but rootless existence marked by heavy marijuana usage. Technically homeless at times, Gilberto performed in nightclubs when it suited him and gained a circle of friends that included several of the future stars of Brazilian music—notably vocalist Luiz Bonfa and pianist and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Concerned that Gilberto might be sinking into a downward spiral, a friend intervened and took him to the smaller city of Porto Alegre. Soon Gilberto moved in with his sister and began to spend much of his time practicing his guitar and singing obsessively. Mystified by his behavior, Gilberto's family checked him into a mental hospital in Salvador. Soon released, he for-swore drug usage.
At a Glance . . .
Born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in Juázeiro, Bahia, Brazil; married Astrud Weinert (divorced); married bossa nova vocalist Miucha; children: Bebel.
Career: Led band in high school; became lead singer of band Garotos de Lua; fired for missing performances; released pioneering bossa nova recording "Chega de saudade," 1958; released album Getz/Gilberto, with saxophonist Stan Getz, 1963; released João voz e violão, 2000.
Awards: Won two Grammy awards, 1964, for Getz/Gilberto album and "The Girl from Ipanema" single.
Back in Rio, Gilberto began writing songs and sought out Jobim as a collaborator. In the solitude of his sister's home Gilberto had forged a new style that distilled many of Brazil's complex percussion rhythms down to an essential set of patterns that could be played on the guitar; his sound was unlike anything heard before on the guitar in Brazil, where the instrument had largely been relegated to the role of accompaniment until this point. Some called it violão gago, or "stammering guitar." He had a unique vocal style to match, marked by a near-total absence of vibrato that infused his quiet singing with a unique conversational quality. Gilberto was also influenced by contemporary harmonic developments in American jazz, particularly by the West Coast musicians whose "cool" aesthetic meshed well with the inherent mood of Brazilian music. Jobim at the time was working as a staff arranger with the large EMI record label, and the two began to shape a popular-music revolution.
By 1958 and 1959 Gilberto was enjoying hits with recordings such as "Chega de saudade" ("No More Blues") and the self-penned "Bim Bom." He also contributed songs to one of the landmarks of Brazilian culture during that period, the film Orfeu negro, known in the United States as Black Orpheus. By this time the new music Gilberto had helped to create had acquired the name of bossa nova, or "new wave." And, influenced by American jazz, it had begun to attract the attention of American jazz players in return.
Jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd visited Brazil on a U.S. State Department tour, and in 1962 Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz released the album Jazz Samba, featuring some of Gilberto's compositions. With the bossa nova trend on the upswing that year, Gilberto moved to the United States himself; he remained in the States until 1980. In 1963 he and Getz released the album Getz/Gilberto, a jazz classic that offered mid-1960s jazz listeners one of their few alternatives to the experimental modernism that dominated jazz stages at the time.
The album's most famous number was the JobimVinícius de Moraes composition "The Girl from Ipanema." With English lyrics added to the original Portuguese, the song appealed in novel ways to Americans' age-old fascination with tropical cultures. "The Girl from Ipanema" won a Grammy award in 1964 for Song of the Year, beating out the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night," and Getz/Gilberto was named Album of the Year.
The bossa nova craze endured for several more years in the United States, and its impact could still be heard two decades later in recordings such as Sade's "Smooth Operator." But Gilberto, temperamentally unsuited to the stardom he achieved, shared little in the rewards other Brazilian musicians enjoyed; he canceled the remaining eight nights of a nine-night engagement at Chicago's London House, objecting to the club's noise levels. Still, Gilberto continued to record through the 1970s and 1980s, amassing a body of work that enjoyed consistently strong critical acclaim.
Joined in the musical arena in the 1990s by his daughter, Bebel, Gilberto hardly slowed down as he entered his seventh decade. His 1991 album João Gilberto featured the singer in an uncommon orchestral setting. But he returned in 2000 with João voz e violão, which featured only Gilberto's own voice and guitar and was widely described as minimalist. In support of that album and of the 40th anniversary of his first bossa nova recordings, Gilberto undertook one of his rare concert tours; it was enthusiastically received by audiences eager for a glimpse of one of the twentieth century's true musical creators.
Brazil's Brilliant, Capitol, 1960.
Gilberto and Jobim, Capitol, 1960.
The Boss of the Bossa Nova, Atlantic, 1962.
Getz/Gilberto, Verve, 1963.
Amoroso, Warner Bros., 1977.
João Gilberto, Polygram, 1991.
João voz e violão, Universal, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 33, Gale Group, 2002.
McGowan, Chris, and Ricardo Pessanha, The Brazilian Sound, Billboard Books, 1991.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 30, 2000, p. 16.
Entertainment Weekly, March 16, 2001, p. 68.
Guitar Player, October 2000, p. 102.
Guardian (London, England), February 1, 2002, p. 20.
San Diego Union-Tribune, November 29, 2001, p. Night & Day-7.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 1998, p. D1.
Time, July 31, 2000, p. 62.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
João Gilberto (born 1931) began his musical career inauspiciously. He was dismissed from one of his early musical groups, Garotos da Lua (Boys from the Moon), after failing to show up for performances and rehearsals, then spent the next several years jobless and living with various friends and relatives. He received a second chance, however, and in 1958 helped define the lilting bossa nova musical style with two hit songs, "Bim-Bom" and "Hô-Ba-La-Lá." He went on to record the most popular bossa nova song of all time, "The Girl from Ipanema," with American jazz artist Stan Getz.
Gilberto was born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira on June 10, 1931, in the town of Juázeiro in the northeastern state of Bahia, Brazil. His father was a wealthy merchant who insisted that all of his seven children receive an education. Gilberto defied his father's wishes however, devoting himself to music after receiving a guitar from his godfather at the age of 14. The following year, Gilberto formed a boys' musical group, which performed at social functions and rehearsed under a tamarind tree in the center of town. Gilberto was influenced by American jazz artists like Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, as well as the light opera of Jeanette MacDonald, and the Brazilian sounds of Orlando Silva, Dorival Caymmi and several popular ensembles, which he heard played over a loudspeaker at one of the local stores.
Joined Musical Group
By the age of 18, Gilberto had moved to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, where he sought to earn a living as a radio performer. While never finding major success as a solo artist on radio, he gained the attention of a member of the vocal group Garotos da Lua (Boys from the Moon), who performed regularly on Radio Tupi in Rio de Janeiro, and he was invited to join the group. Gilberto moved to Rio to replace the group's vocalist, Jonas Silva, whose subdued style displeased the group's artistic director. Ironically, Gilberto would later popularize a whisper-like vocal method highly reminiscent of Silva. Gilberto lasted only one year with Garotos da Lua. After showing up late or altogether missing several performances, the group fired him.
Gilberto spent the next several years jobless and without a permanent home. He relied on the charity of various friends who took him in, and he became known for sleeping all day and playing music all night. He grew depressed, his appearance became unkempt, and he began to use marijuana heavily. His girlfriend at the time, Sylvia Telles (who later also gained fame as a bossa nova singer), left him. Still, Gilberto would consider no other job than playing music.
In 1955, Luis Telles, the leader of the traditional singing group Quitandinha Serenaders, with whom Gilberto had performed for a time, convinced Gilberto to move to Porto Alegre. There, he put the musician up in an expensive hotel and introduced him around town. Soon, Gilberto began playing regular gigs at the Clube da Chave (Key Club) there. The patrons enjoyed him so much, they took up a collection to buy him a new, nylon-stringed guitar, after the musician revealed he did not care for his own steel-stringed instrument. When Gilberto told them he did not like the guitar they bought, they returned it and brought him another.
Developed Signature Style
After Porto Alegre, Gilberto moved to Diamantina, where he lived with his older sister, Dadainha, and her husband. There, Gilberto played music constantly, often practicing in the bathroom where the acoustics were best. It was in this environment that Gilberto developed his signature singing style, a quiet sound absent of vibrato that allowed him to most accurately set the tempo of his vocals to the rhythm of his guitar. In finessing his style, a variation on the traditional Brazilian samba, Gilberto incorporated the influences of several musical masters, both from Brazil and America. "He incorporated into his music the best features of his various idols," noted Daniella Thompson in a 1998 issue of Brazzil, "the natural enunciation of Orlando Silva and Frank Sinatra; the sustained breathing and velvet tones of Dick Farney; the timbres of trombonist Frank Rosolino from Stan Kenton's band; the cool, intimate delivery of the Page Cavanaugh Trio, Joe Mooney, and Jonas Silva; the interplay of the vocal groups - in João's case, using the voice to alter or to complete the guitar's harmony; and the syncopated piano beat of his close friends Job'o Donato and Johnny Alf."
Dadainha and her husband became concerned about Gilberto's mental health, however, and sent him back to Juazeiro to live with his parents. There, he composed his early bossa nova hit, "Bim-Bom," based on the walking rhythms of the women he watched carrying laundry along the Sao Francisco river. Gilberto's parents committed him to a mental institution during his stay with them. He stayed for one week and, upon his release, gave up drug use.
Defined Bossa Nova
Gilberto returned to Rio in 1956, where he renewed his acquaintance with musician and composer Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim. In 1958, Gilberto recorded Jobim's composition "Chega de Saudade." Although Gilberto's intense demands in the studio significantly prolonged the recording session, the song was released on the Odeon label as a single along with "Bim-Bom" on July 10 of that year. While the record was not an immediate hit, it eventually gained widespread popularity and established bossa nova, which in English means "new wave," as an exciting new musical form. Gilberto released three albums in the bossa nova style over the next three years in his home country: Chega de Saudade; O Amor, o Sorriso e a Flor (Love, Smile, and the Flower); and João Gilberto, all on Odeon. He exhibited the same exacting standards for his live performances as for his studio recordings, refusing to play in clubs where audiences talked while he was on stage. "When I sing, I think of clear, open space and I'm going to play sound in it," he told the New York Times' John S. Wilson in 1968. "It is as if I'm writing on a blank piece of paper. It has to be very quiet for me to produce the sounds I'm thinking of. If there are other sounds around, it won't have the same vibrations."
American jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd discovered the music of Gilberto, Jobim and other bossa nova artists during a goodwill jazz tour of Latin America sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Byrd introduced the musical form to American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, and the two recorded a top-selling bossa nova album together, Jazz Samba The album spent 70 weeks on the American pop charts and hit number one. Gilberto moved to the United States (U.S.) in 1962, and in 1964, he and Getz recorded Getz/Gilberto, which featured the Jobim-penned bossa nova classic, "The Girl from Ipanema," sung by Gilberto's then-wife Astrud Gilberto. Both the album and the song earned Grammy Awards that year, beating out the Beatles' "A Hard Days' Night." Gilberto remained in the U.S. until 1980, with the exception of a two-year stay in Mexico. During his time in the U.S. and Mexico, he released only a handful of LPs, including the live album Getz/Gilberto II (1966), Joao Gilberto en México (1970), João Gilberto (1973), The Best of Two Worlds (1976), and Amoroso (1977). The Best of Two Worlds featured Getz and Gilberto's second wife Miùcha, the mother of Bebel Gilberto, herself a successful bossa nova singer.
Of his popularity in the U.S., Gilberto told Robert Palmer of the New York Times in 1985, "For a long time, the U.S. didn't really need anything from the rest of the world except for raw materials. Now it's different; there have been many, many changes. The growing popularity of Japanese cars here, and a growing tendency for America's Latin and black minorities to have more impact on the mainstream, are part of this same process. This is not as selfish a society as it was even a decade ago. More people are willing to listen to something different."
Returned to Brazil
Gilberto returned to Brazil, where he came to be known as O Mito (the legend) and released several more albums, including João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Olieira (1980); Brasil with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethânia (1981); Live in Montreux (1987); Joao (1991); Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar (I Know I'm Going to Love You, 1995); and Joao Voz e Violao (2000). In the mid-1980s, he also experimented with reggae rhythms, expressed most vividly on his 1985 release Raça Humana. "Of course, when we try to play it, we can't get rid of the fact that we are Brazilians," he told the New York Times' Palmer in 1985. "But for many years, Brazilian musicians have been developing an attitude of wanting to be able to play anything, from any part of the world, especially if it has anything to do with black music. We can identify with jazz, rhythm-and-blues, Cuban and other Caribbean music. We pick up on anything we feel touched by."
Gilberto continues to perform, but only on occasion. He appeared at the JVC Jazz Festival at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1998 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first bossa nova single, and embarked on a U.S. tour in 2003, although it is rumored he left the stage at the Hollywood Bowl due to the noise of the crickets. "One didn't need to understand Portuguese to feel the sadness, longing and job of these songs, the sound of Gilberto's gentle voice was enough," the San Francisco Chronicle's Jesse Hamlin observed of Gilberto's stage presence in 1998. In the same article, Hamlin underscored Gilberto's profound musical influence. "Along with the late Antonio Carlos Jobim and others, he distilled the raucous energy and rhythms of traditional samba into a more intimate, introspective style that drew on cool jazz and European harmony. Gilberto became the foremost interpreter of the alluring new music whose freshness and subtlety had a major impact on jazz and pop music worldwide."
Contemporary Hispanic Biography, Vol. 2, Gale Group, 2002.
Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 33, Gale Group, 2002.
Brazzil, May 31, 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times, July 31, 2003.
New York Times, October 15, 1968; May 29, 1985.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 1998.
"Joao Gilberto," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (January 25, 2005).
Gilberto, João, Brazilian jazz-pop singer, guitarist, and composer, one of the leading figures in bossa nova;b. Juaseiro, Bahia, Brazil, June, 1931. His ′′Chega de Saudade′′ (1958) was one of the first bossa nova hits; by the early 1960s, he was considered a leading exponent of the bossa nova sound. This style, with its accompanying dance, sparked off a craze when introduced to U.S. audiences by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd (1962). Getz teamed with Gilberto for Getz/Gilberto (1963); its standout track ′′The Girl From Ipanema′′ featured only his wife Astrud Gilberto’s vocals when released in an edited version. Joao’s material was largely composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim. After years off the concert stage, he began to perform at select festivals in the mid-1990s, including the N.Y. JVC Festival in 1998.
Brazil’s Brilliant (1960); Gilberto and Jobim (1960); The Boss of the Bossa Nova (1962); Amoroso (1977); Joao Gilberto (1988); Live in Montreux (1991); Joao (1992); Farolito: Live in Mexico (1999).
—Music Master Jazz and Blues Catalogue/Lewis Porter