João Gilberto: 1931—: Brazilian Vocalist and Guitarist Biography
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.
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
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