Bossa Nova: The History Behind Brazil’s Quiet Revolution

In the early 60s, Brazil initiated a quiet musical revolution by exporting the silky sound of bossa nova to the rest of the world.

1964 was a significant year for pop music. It not only witnessed the meteoric rise of the long-haired, guitar-toting beat groups, led by such pace-setting bands as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – who started a trend of songwriting self-sufficiency – it also marked the arrival on the world stage of a new kind of jazz-infused music that blended sinuous, caressing melodies with subtle syncopated rhythms. The sound originated in Brazil and was called “bossa nova,” a description that translated into English as “new trend.”

Girl From Ipanema

The song that lit the touch-paper for the bossa nova explosion in the US and the rest of the world was called “The Girl From Ipanema,” sung by Astrud Gilberto in a wispy but beguiling girlish voice, and which reached No.5 in the US pop singles chart in the summer of 1964.

The song transformed Astrud into an international star, even though it wasn’t solely hers – “The Girl From Ipanema” was a collaboration between her then-husband, singer and guitarist João Gilberto, with jazz tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and it featured on the 1963 Verve album Getz/Gilberto. An amateur singer, Astrud had been drafted in during a moment of last-minute spontaneity to sing opposite her husband, but her presence proved utterly spellbinding. The much shorter single version of the song edited out João’s vocals almost completely, spotlighting, instead, his young wife, who would go on to make records under her own name from 1965 onwards.
After the phenomenal success of “The Girl From Ipanema,” bossa nova fever gripped the US. Many musicians – particularly jazz ones – were attracted by the music’s delicate melodies, lush harmonies, and slinky syncopation, and began recording authentic Brazilian material as well as reconfiguring standard songs using bossa nova-influenced rhythms.

The Birth Of Bossa Nova

Bossa nova’s story really began in 1958, in Brazil. One of its key architects was Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), a classically-trained Rio De Janeiro-born pianist who also played the guitar, sang, and wrote songs. He had risen to fame in Brazil as the composer of music for a 1956 play, Musicas De Orfeu Da Conceição (which inspired the influential 1959 movie Black Orpheus), and as that decade progressed, he helped to fuse elements of jazz with indigenous Brazilian music to create what became known as the bossa nova sound.

Among the first singers to record Jobim’s bossa nova material were Elizete Cardoso (who recorded an entire album of his songs), Sylvia Telles, and, most significant of all, João Gilberto. Between 1959 and 1961, Jobim worked on Gilberto’s first three albums in Brazil, helping to establish the quiet-voiced singer/guitarist as a new star in his native country.

But Gilberto’s fame soon spread outside of Brazil. By 1961, American musicians visiting the country – among them flutist Herbie Mann and guitarist Charlie Byrd – had played alongside Brazilian musicians and enjoyed a first-hand experience of the burgeoning bossa nova movement. Back in Washington, DC, saxophonist Stan Getz saw Byrd’s band live, heard them play some bossa nova tunes he liked, and requested they record an album together.

Bossa Nova Comes To America

Aided by producer Creed Taylor, Getz and Byrd were recorded in All Souls Unitarian Church, in Washington, DC, and the results were released as Jazz Samba on Verve Records in April 1962. Its success (it spent 70 weeks on the US pop album charts, peaking at No.1) was aided by its high-flying single, a blissful version of Jobim’s “Desafinado,” which made No.15 on the US Hot 100 in November 1962 and later won a Grammy. Jazz Samba not only helped to sow the seeds of North America’s love affair with Brazilian music, it also gave new impetus to Stan Getz’s career. Indeed, the saxophonist would continue to record bossa nova songs on a regular basis right up until his death, in June 1991.

America’s awareness of bossa nova music was heightened by a concert held at Carnegie Hall at around the same time as Jazz Samba’s release, on Wednesday, November 21, 1962. The auditorium was packed to the rafters with almost 3,000 attendees, including many jazz musicians curious to hear the exciting new music up close. They witnessed bossa nova’s prime progenitors – Jobim, Gilberto, Luis Bonfá, Sérgio Mendes, Carlos Lyra, and others – performing with Getz, Byrd, and pianist and soundtrack composer Lalo Schifrin.

The Bossa Nova Explosion

The concert’s critical and commercial success inspired a raft of jazz musicians who were excited by the improvisational possibilities that bossa nova presented. Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Wes Montgomery, Cannonball Adderley, Jimmy Smith, and Oscar Peterson are just some of the big names that embraced the seductive sound of Brazilian music in the 60s. Even some of the most famous pop groups of that era were inspired by the hip sound that had first emanated from Rio’s beach cafes; groups such as The Beatles (“And I Love Her”), The Kinks (“No Return”), and The Beach Boys (“Busy Doin’ Nothin’”) brought a bossa nova flavor to some of their songs, while a plethora of big-name singers covered Brazilian material. Two vocal giants, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, devoted whole albums to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songbook.

The Importance Of Antonio Carlos Jobim

Both Sinatra and Fitzgerald recognized that Jobim was a musical giant whose stature as a songwriter rivaled the North American greats that they so admired, like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Indeed, Jobim was responsible for writing so many of bossa nova’s key songs, including “The Girl From Ipanema,” “Desafinado,” “One Note Samba,” “Photograph,” “Insensatez” (AKA “How Insensitive”), “Corcovado,” and “Meditation.”

The composer also enjoyed a long and distinguished recording career, and his success helped other Brazilian musicians find an international audience with their music – among them pianist Sérgio Mendes (who scored substantial US hits with his group Brasil ’66 in the late 60s), organist Walter Wanderley, guitarist Luis Bonfá, singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, and chanteuse Elis Regina, who recorded a duets album with Jobim in 1974.

The Enduring Appeal Of Bossa Nova

Summing up the appeal of bossa nova music, Sérgio Mendes told this writer in 2019: “I think it’s very sensual, it’s very romantic, and you can also dance to it. Those three components make it very, very beautiful. And it has great melodies – melodies that you can remember.”

Indeed, it does. With its hushed intimacy, poetic lyrics, alluring melodies, and mesmerizing rhythms, bossa nova music continues to cast a spell 60 years after it first came into the world. It possesses an ineffable quality that just seems to epitomize coolness, transcend time, and transport the listener to another place.

Carlos Alves de Sousa