This piece was published by The Miami Herald following Antonio Carlos Jobim´s passing, December 1994.
Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who died
Thursday morning in New York at age 67 of heart failure, left a
legacy of subtle power, grace and intelligence impeccably wrapped
in deceptive simplicity
Bossa nova, a style that Jobim helped create in Brazil in the late
1950s, blends poetic lyrics, folkish, seemingly willfully
naive melodies, street samba and cool jazz harmonies
into a seamless whole. The rhythms seem as often suggested as
played. The harmonies are both dense and luminous. The
performance suggests a conversation, a tale told among friends,
a secret delicately unveiled, detail by detail.
Jobim was a master at it.
His first hit in North America was “Desafinado,” in 1962.
Performed by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd,
it won a Grammy.
Two years later, Jobim struck again. The impact was even greater.
“The Girl From Ipanema,” performed by Getz and guitarist Joao
Gilberto, whom Jobim once credited with creating bossa nova, and
sung by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, an amateur singer who happened
to be in the studio, sparked a bossa nova craze.
His songs became American pop standards — “Chega De
Saudade” (No More Blues), “Samba De Uma Nota So” (One-Note Samba),
“Corcovado” (Quiet Nights), “Insensatez” (How Insensitive), “So Danço
Samba” (I Only Dance Samba), “Wave,” and “Aguas de Março” (Waters of
March) — were performed by artists such as Frank Sinatra, Ella
Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.
It’s unlikely best-selling pop music will ever again be this gentle.
At a time when brutality of message and language in pop is
common currency, bossa nova is a quaint anachronism. Once a
striking development, it has long become a staple of elevators,
dentist’s offices and hotel lounges.
Yet there is something elusive, even subversive at its
And in Jobim, the music is a fitting reflection of the man.
“Sure, I pretend to be a simple man,” Jobim said in an
interview at his New York apartment in 1987. “I say this, and
people get furious. Maybe it is the language. In Portuguese,
pretender means something else. It means to intend, to aspire.
So I intend to be a simple man. But I also pretend to be simple,
presenting things in a simple way — but there’s always
something under the surface.”
He was born Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim in
Rio de Janeiro on Jan. 25, 1927. His father, a diplomat, died
when Jobim was 8. He had been separated from Jobim’s mother, a
schoolteacher, for five years.
His stepfather bought a piano for Helena, Jobim’s sister.
“My sister didn’t want to study piano,” Jobim said. “And I
didn’t want to. Studying piano was something for girls.”
He played in a neighborhood harmonica orchestra and also
learned guitar “just by watching” an uncle, who lived in the
house. But Jobim preferred soccer and the beach. Then he fell
into music — almost literally.
“There was no reason to leave the beach, your friends, and
go to a dark room to study piano. “E uma loucura. It’s crazy,” he
said. “Me? I fell. I fell from a human pyramid and broke my
back. Sometimes even today, my left leg goes numb. I was 18
then, and this helped me get to the damn piano. Then everything
changed. The piano became a serious business.”
He studied piano and formal composition with Hans Joachim
Koellreuter, a Schoenberg advocate who became a leader of
Brazil’s avant-garde. Years later, Jobim, who also composed
chamber music, symphonic works and film music, was still
uncomfortable at being reduced to “bossa nova songwriter.”
He actually had wanted to become an architect. He even
found a job in an architectural firm, then grew bored. He
concentrated on music and, by 1950, started playing clubs at
night. His first song was recorded in 1953. But his breakthrough
occurred when the film Black Orpheus, with music by Jobim and
Luiz Bonfa, won the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film
Festival in 1959. (It later won an Oscar as best foreign film.)
That same year, guitarist Joao Gilberto recorded “Chega De
Saudade,” which included Jobim’s title track and “Desafinado” among
others and is still considered the Bible of bossa nova.
It shook the Brazilian pop scene.
Bossa nova — the term roughly means “the new wave”
— was cool, sophisticated and cosmopolitan, in contrast to what
some considered the hot, coarse and intensely local samba
favored by the working class. It was sung plainly and softly,
never in full voice. The melodies were nursery rhyme-like on
the surface, but devilishly chromatic up close. The harmonies
— drawing from French Impressionism via cool jazz — were
suddenly complex, subtly dissonant, full of ambiguity. The
rhythms broke the direct, simple samba beat in oblique, smaller
syncopations. It can be best described by what in Portuguese is
called balanço, a gentle swaying.
Many of the songs in bossa nova are banal meditations on
love. But Jobim, himself a writer, worked with subtle poet-
lyricists such as Vinicius de Moraes, Newton Mendonça and
Aloysio de Oliveira, and the results were often exceptional.
Sometimes, the lyrics mimic the music. In One Note Samba, the
words, playing on music and romance, state precisely what the
melody does: “Listen, here’s a little samba built on a single
note / Other notes will come soon / but the base is one note.”
Sometimes, the text determines the form. Sometimes, the parts
are indistinguishable. In “Waters of March,” the poetry, written
by Jobim, is a dazzling game of sound and meaning.
As a young man, Jobim idolized Cole Porter and George
Gershwin. He died their peer, a rare poet of pop music.