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Jazz is regularly declared an American art form, referred to as the first truly American contribution to the canon of music. In some ways, this is true. Jazz was born in the US, and it flourished and changed with the tides of the nation.
But to say that jazz is strictly American, that is, US American, is to close one’s eyes to the influences and flavors of jazz that emerged from the rest of the world throughout jazz’s lifetime. When we say that jazz is American, we should also be thinking South America, especially if “The Girl From Ipanema” is drifting through the room.
Brazil is the country, and Portuguese the language of the “Garota de Ipanema,” one of the most popular, praised, and lasting compositions of the jazz standards. The style isn’t New Orleans, swing, big band, or bebop.
It’s bossa nova, a purely Brazilian evolution of samba music, and it was born of the same intensity and energy that drives all jazz music.
Joao Gilberto and the Birth of Bossa Nova
“Bossa” is Brazil’s old-fashioned equivalent of “hip” or “trendy.” Therefore, bossa nova signifies quite literally a new and fashionable derivation of samba. In the same way that swing music abandoned rigid march tempos and punchy staccato for playful syncopation and an elastic pulse, bossa nova sways cooly and marks a departure from percussion heavy, dance oriented samba music.
The actual form and early style was born out of the efforts of a single man: Joao Gilberto. He spent months of his life playing day and night in the bathroom of his sister’s house (for acoustics, as The Beatles would too), forging and perfecting a new style of guitar and vocals.
Gilberto emphasized harmony over rhythm, and began singing in a near whisper, constantly landing somewhere just ahead of or just behind the beat. He abandoned nearly all Afro-Brazilian samba percussion, instead using his hands and guitar as minimally as possible. It was after months of playing this way and rejecting traditional work that he was institutionalized by his father, who suspected mental illness.
A week after entering, he was released. It was then that he returned home to seek out old friends, and one in particular who would lead Gilberto to international fame.
Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, Stan Getz, and Astrud Gilberto
Many know Antonio Carlos Jobim simply as Tom, and you might also know Tom Jobim as the composer of “Desafinado,” “Corvocado,” and of course, “Garota de Ipanema.” When Joao Gilberto approached his old friend, Jobim took an immediate liking to the style and bossa nova was officially born.
Around the same time, Stan Getz, prominent US saxophonist, toured Brazil and came away with an affinity for samba. His early experiments with jazz and samba fusion made him the perfect point of contact for an American-based bossa nova audience.
The collaboration between Gilberto, Jobim, and Getz was astonishingly groundbreaking, and sparked a bossa nova craze across the US and the world. The album, Getz/Gilberto, was the first jazz album to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and made Gilberto and Jobim the first non-American winners of a Grammy Award.
Bossa Nova spread rapidly in the years following the release of Getz/Gilberto, and numerous collaborations were recorded alongside American icons such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Jobim was nominated for a second Grammy with the release of his 1967 collaboration with Frank Sinatra, titled Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Pay attention next time you find yourself swaying to “One Note Samba,” or “Agua de Beber.” Bossa nova has become an inextricable thread in the fabric of jazz music, and it demonstrates a power of cultural expression that unites all jazz musicians and their audiences.