João Gilberto, a pioneer of Brazilian bossa nova music, has died at 88, The New York Times reported. He revolutionized music in the 1950s and 1960s by fusing jazz, pop, and samba into the new genre. “The Girl from Ipanema” is a prime example of bossa nova and Gilberto’s trademark sound.
According to the article in The Times, João Gilberto’s son, João Marcelo Gilberto, confirmed his father’s death on Facebook last week, declining to say precisely where or when the elder Gilberto passed. Before his death, João Gilberto was one of the co-creators of bossa nova music, earning a Grammy and playing at Carnegie Hall. He also co-wrote the smash hit song “The Girl from Ipanema” with Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), which is often seen as the epitome of the bossa nova musical style.
Jobim and Gilberto Create Bossa Nova
In 1959, Antonio Carlos Jobim—already a prolific songwriter—earned some notoriety when he received credit for co-writing the score for a French film called Black Orpheus. Black Orpheus was an adaptation of a Brazilian play written by one of Jobim’s friends, poet Vinicius de Moraes. By then, Jobim’s music was a step in the direction of bossa nova. “Still, something was missing,” said Dr. Colin McAllister, Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. “And that was the rhythmic counterpoint of guitarist João Gilberto.”
Gilberto, four years younger than Jobim, “had recently arrived in Rio from his home state of Bahia, in the northeast,” Dr. McAllister said. “He was already a perfectionist; he spoke in a whisper that did not conceal a short temper. His style had its own term in Brazilian Portuguese—violão gago—translated as ‘stammering guitar.'” Dr. McAllister cited multiple descriptions of bossa nova as written by music historians, but their overall consensus is that it’s a slower and easier kind of samba with the coolness of jazz and a “deceptive simplicity.” But before the bossa nova explosion, one more thing had to happen. One morning in 1962, Jobim and de Moraes sat at a bar and a “tall and tan and young and lovely” girl walked by them. According to Dr. McAllister, it’s said that de Moraes began writing lyrics right there at the bar.
“The Girl from Ipanema“
“In March 1963, Jobim took the tune ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ with him to New York for a recording session with the jazz saxophonist Stan Getz; Gilberto was to play and sing,” Dr. McAllister said. “But the American lyricist Norman Gimbel was struggling to translate Brazilian Portuguese—and he wanted to get rid of ‘Ipanema,’ which he pronounced ‘EYE-panema,’ from the title.”
Language barriers became major points of tension during the rehearsal and recording sessions for the single. Not only did Gimbel struggle, but Dr. McAllister noted that Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, barely spoke a word of English but was acting as his interpreter. At one point, Gilberto refused to leave his hotel room from the frustration.
“While the band waited, Getz asked Astrud to run through the tune on the studio piano; he liked the innocence of her voice,” Dr. McAllister said. “The band was ready to give up when the Brazilian guitarist arrived, and now he was informed that Astrud would sing on the record.” At the time, Gilberto’s views on women’s roles in family and society clashed with the idea of her featuring on the record. In the words of Dr. McAllister, “Gilberto had already concluded that Getz didn’t know anything about Brazilian music, and he was infuriated that the Americans would spotlight a Brazilian housewife—even his own.”
However, by nothing short of a miracle, it all came together and “The Girl from Ipanema” became one of the most famous songs of 1964. It has since been covered by countless artists, including Frank Sinatra, but it remains a staple of bossa, owing its enduring fame to the song’s—and the entire genre’s—creators, the late greats Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto.
Dr. Colin McAllister contributed to this article. Dr. McAllister is the Music Program Director at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in Musical Arts at the University of California, San Diego, where he studied guitar with Celin and Pepe Romero, interpretation with Bertram Turetzky, and conducting with Harvey Sollberger and Rand Steiger.