The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Sunday, November 22, 1987
Twenty-five years ago yesterday, Antonio Carlos Jobim had his debut in the
United States in a now-legendary concert at Carnegie Hall. It was a disaster.
On that 1962 evening, Jobim, sharing the bill with a group of fellow
Brazilians, including Joao Gilberto, Oscar Castro Neves, and Luiz Bonfa,
performed in an event that was billed as the “official” introduction of
bossa nova to North America by its creators.
“The amplifying system reduced the Brazilian instrumental groups to a
monotonous mush,” critic John Wilson wrote in his review in The New York
Times the following day. “The singers . . . had very little to offer. They
were almost uniformly what would be categorized as routine pop singers.”
Gene Lees, translator and lyricist for many of Jobim’s songs, including
”Desafinado,” was backstage. “It was chaotic,” he recalls. “The sound was
awful. It was a travesty.”
And so Jobim did the sensible thing.
“New York was so bleak and inhospitable, cold, the snow — and I couldn’t
speak English — so I decided to stay,” he says matter-of-factly in a
conversation in his New York apartment. He edges forward on the couch,
shrugs, and strikes a match to light his cigar. “I decided to stay because
I’m a lutador,” a fighter. He takes a puff on his cigar. “I’m a torero, a
bullfighter,” he says with a laugh. “That was my first trip outside Brazil.
I was already 35 years old, almost 36, and I said, ‘If I don’t stay, that’s
it. I’m going to stay in Brazil, and I’ll be just another guy. I’ll get
old, and I’ll die there. And I decided that maybe there were some important
things to do here.”
Since then, Jobim’s music has become part of American culture. His
remarkable body of work, which includes such classics as “The Girl from
Ipanema,” “One Note Samba,” “Wave,” “Quiet Nights,” “How Insensitive,” and
“Waters of March,” has already ensured him a place alongside Cole Porter,
Rodgers and Hart, and the Gershwins. His songs have been performed by such
artists as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis as well as by
countless musicians in hotel lounges around the world. His music has sold
millions of records.
“I did a lot of work. I’ve been very tenacious. You have to be, in this
profession,” Jobim says in accented English. “I was telling a friend the
other day, ‘To be a pianist you had to be a cripple or something like that,
because there was no reason to leave the beach, your friends, and go to a
dark room to study piano.’ This is crazy. E uma loucura.” He shakes his
head and takes another puff on his cigar. “And so all the guys I knew that
became pianists had problems — and the guys who didn’t have physical
problems had problems with their minds. Me? I fell. I broke something in my
back when I was 18, and this helped to get me to the damn piano.” He
pauses. “Because you must have a reason, a strong reason to give up life
and start studying Bach, Chopin. What is this? Life is so beautiful.”
It’s a hot, humid summer afternoon in New York. The door to the balcony is
open, but that’s not enough to keep the room cool. So Jobim gets up, walks
slowly, almost gingerly, to the door, closes it, turns on the air
conditioner, and returns to the sofa. He is about 5 feet 9, heavyset. His
face is now puffy but retains the graceful, boyish good looks of the old
pictures, a lock of hair falling over his forehead. He opens a bottle of
mineral water and pours two glasses.
“It was hard to leave the beach,” he says as he sits down. “The piano was
this old Bechstein that my mother had rented in order to teach music to the
kids. My mother created a school in Ipanema. She became like a
schoolteacher. My mother is now 80, and she’s had three strokes already,
but she was a pretty active woman then, very authoritarian, and after she
brought us up she started to educate the other children. There were lots of
kids around the house while we were growing up. My home became a school. .
“They put my sister, Helena, to study piano,” Jobim continues, “but she
didn’t want to study piano. She had better things to do, of course — and I
wanted to play soccer. Piano was something for girls. Uma coisa feminina.
To become a pianist?” He gestures as if talking about something
unthinkable. ”It was remote for me. I used to come from the beach, dark
from the sun. I was strong, you know.” He pauses and takes a sip of water.
“That was before the fall. I fell from a human pyramid and broke the last
lumbar vertebra. I had a cast. Still today, sometimes my left side goes
numb. Then everything changed. Then piano became a serious matter. I
started to become sad. I started to get sick. But I was a happy — a more
or less happy — kid.”
Antonio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim was born in Rio de Janeiro on
January 25, 1927. His father, a diplomat, died in 1935. Jobim saw very
little of him. “My father died early, and he had separated from my mother
when I was 3 years old,” he recalls. In talking about his family, he takes
out his wallet and fiddles with the cards inside and then pulls out a
black-and-white photograph of his sister. The photo shows a woman in her
30s. “That’s Helena,” he says proudly. “She’s old. She’s 52 now.” Then he
turns the picture and reads a dedication on the back.
“She called me Ton Ton,” he says in Portuguese, “which became Ton. And when
I came here, I started using Antonio because I thought Ton would create
great confusion,” he says, reverting to English in mid-sentence. Then he
starts in Portuguese again. “And the critics in Brazil began to say, ‘Tom
is an American name.’ ” He throws up his hands in mock despair.
Throughout the afternoon Jobim’s conversation jumps from English to
Portuguese to Spanish and back, with some French sprinkled in for good
measure. Jobim loves languages and loves to talk. He’s also curious, and so
he asks questions. He goes off on unexpected tangents. From time to time
his mind seems to zero in on a subject, and then, regardless of the issue
at hand, he gently steers the conversation back to the object of his
fascination, examining it from yet another angle.
As a kid he played harmonica. “I was 12 years old. There was this guy, very
musical, he used to copy the arrangements from the big American orchestras
like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Song of India,’ songs like that, and
distribute the voices — and it sounded like an orchestra,” he recalls.
”We used to stay till late in the park.”
Two uncles who played guitar also lived in Jobim’s house. One played
classical music, he recalls, and the other played popular. He learned
guitar ”just by watching them play. . . . The Bechstein came later,” he
adds. He studied piano and composition with German composer Hans
Koellreutter. “I’m a real pianist, you know,” says Jobim with mock
seriousness. “Classically trained.”
He also studied architecture and played the clubs at nights. His first song
was recorded in 1953. But his big break came when the film Black Orpheus,
for which he co-wrote the music, won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film
Festival in 1959. Jobim, who shared composing credits with guitarist and
composer Luiz Bonfa, achieved instant international recognition.
Also in 1959, singer and guitarist Joao Gilberto, perhaps then the best-
known of the bossa nova creators, recorded Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade,”
later known in the United States as “No More Blues.” It revolutionized
Brazil’s popular music scene. It was also polemical. Gilberto and Jobim
were accused of bringing American jazz influences into Brazilian music and
bastardizing the traditional rhythms.
By now he is accustomed to criticisms of being Americanized. “Oh, yeah,
always. The old problem, the same problem always.” He waves his hand,
dismissing the issue. “It’s like what happened with Argentine “new tango”
composer Astor Piazzolla,” he continues. “It’s all politics. It’s like with
novelist Julio Cortazar. And so the guy eventually leaves the country
because it gets so complicated.”
Although often seen just as a composer, Jobim, who lives most of the time
in Rio de Janeiro, is still an active performer. (Tomorrow, Jobim and his
band will perform at Avery Fisher Hall in New York, presenting work from a
new album.) His current group is a family affair. It features his wife,
Ana, a singer, and his children from his first marriage, Elizabeth, 30, a
singer, and Paulo, 37, a guitarist. (He also has two children from his
marriage to Ana: Maria Luisa, 4 months old, and Joaquim, 7.)
The meaning of the term “bossa nova” is not clear. Stories written in the
1960s quote sources that seem to agree only that “bossa” literally means
”the hump on the back.” Some say “bossa nova” is slang for “the new
wrinkle”; others quote Brazilian musicians explaining that “to have bossa”
is to have “a natural charm.”
The origins of the music are, for many, similarly clouded. Some trace it to
the West Coast of the United States and collaborations between Brazilian
guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank in the early 1950s.
”Bossa nova as we know it is neither new nor wholly Brazilian,” announced
downbeat in an article headlined “The Real Story of Bossa Nova” in November
Jobim has heard all this before: “I think this story . . .” He pauses, once
again pushing his hair from his forehead, and chuckles. “Laurindo Almeida
tells many people this story. Laurindo Almeida played a lot in Brazil, then
he came to California and used to play with Stan Kenton. But I believe that
the bossa nova is something that came from Gilberto, from us. Almeida was
in a different trend: progressive jazz. But it’s true we heard a lot of
Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bud Shank. We used to like cool jazz people.”
The sensual, soothing bossa nova is a disarming mix of often naive,
nursery-rhyme melodies and sophisticated, rich harmonies. Someone once said
that all of Jobim’s melodies can be played on the piano with one finger.
The rhythm, derived mostly from samba, can be best characterized by what in
Portuguese is called balanço, a gentle swaying, more than by a jazz-style
swing. The singing is plain, unaffected, unpretentious. As singer Astrud
Gilberto once explained, “One’s song should be as simple as human speech.”
And in bossa nova, the relation between lyrics and music is perhaps like
that in no other popular genre. Here the meaning of the music and the text
complement each other. Sometimes the lyrics mimic the music, sometimes the
text dictates the form of the song. And the sound of the words is as
important as their meaning.
“Writers like Newton Mendonça who wrote the original Portuguese lyrics for
”Desafinado” and “One Note Samba,” among others and Vinicius de Moraes who
wrote the words to songs such as “No More Blues” and “Girl from Ipanema”
were not cheap pop songwriters. These were prodigious poets,” Gene Lees,
Jobim’s lyricist and translator, says from his home in California. ”Jobim
told me that prior to the bossa nova era there were sambas with some very
corny lyrics. They wanted to bring it up to the standards of Cole Porter,
and you must know that they were nuts about American song, and they knew
them in English. They have all told me that the American lyrics — and this
is the best of American songwriting — influenced them.”
All the lyrics in Jobim’s songs are appropriate, says Lees. He describes
the ”remarkable parallelisms” between lyrics and music. “That’s part of
Jobim’s talent, that ability to find a musical equivalent of his verbal
concepts — which is why it is really bad to translate his things without
paying attention to what the original lyrics say.”
In “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights”), Lees says, Jobim chooses to begin and end
the piece on a particularly rich, tense, dominant chord for “an interesting
effect.” Lees continues, “You can’t leave the tune sitting on that kind of
a chord. It creates incredible suspense. And so you have no choice but to
go on from there. It makes the song into an endless loop. Jobim, who wrote
the lyrics, doesn’t rhyme the last two lines of the song. It sets up the
ear for a continuation. It’s brilliantly appropriate.”
Or consider “Aguas de Março,” “Waters of March,” which, critic Leonard
Feather wrote, “may just be the greatest wedding of original and inventive
words and music assembled by a single composer in the last 25 years.”
Jobim, who wrote the lyrics in both Portuguese and English, lets the sound
of the words dictate the rhythm of the song. “Yes,” says Jobim, and then
recites the first verse. ” ‘E pau, e pedra, e o fim do caminho,´A stick, a
stone, it’s the end of the road,’ just like a percussionist.”
But perhaps the best example is “Desafinado,” an international pop hit that
Jobim once called “a little private joke.”
There are two English versions of the lyrics, one written by Jon Hendricks,
the other, more faithful to the original Portuguese lyrics, written by Lees
and titled “Off Key.” Lees explains: “It’s a little love song. But the
lyrics are also a tongue-in-cheek put-on of the critics that put down bossa
nova.” He recites from the song while offering a running commentary:
When I try to sing, you say I’m off-key.
Why can’t you see how much this hurts me?
With your perfect beauty and your perfect pitch,
You’re a perfect . . .
”He’s got this rhyme that you could almost hear,” says Lees. ” ‘Bitch’ is
the obvious rhyme.” He continues:
. . . terror.
When I come around, must you always put me down?
If you say my singing is off-key, my love,
You will hurt my feelings,
don’t you see, my love?
I wish I had an ear like yours,
a voice that would behave;
all I have is feeling and the
voice God gave.
You insist my music goes
against the rules.
”because of the note he sings there,” says Lees.
Yes, but rules were never
made for lovesick fools.
I wrote this little song for you,
but you don’t care;
it’s a crooked song . . .
“I picked that phrase directly from Jobim,” explains Lees, “because some
critic in Brazil wrote that Jobim’s tunes are ‘crooked,’ and so on. It’s
very, very close to the Portuguese original.”
As a lyricist, Jobim is a craftsman’s craftsman. “I was consciously trying
to put things together. It was a great challenge,” he says of his subtle
matching of music and words. “I worked a lot to get some reasonable
American pop artists do not translate their work into Spanish or Portuguese
for Latin American audiences, but Jobim knew that if he wanted to reach the
American public, he had to translate his lyrics into English. Frustration
“You say Brazil, and writers here come up with lyrics about black beans and
coffee,” he complained to an interviewer years ago. When reminded of his
comment, he says, “That was then. Now there are not that many problems.”
Now, when asked if he resented having to translate the words, he answers
without hesitation: “If it weren’t for the lyrics, I wouldn’t be here
But he also points out a typical translator’s dilemma. “When you get the
meaning, you lose the sound. When you get the sound, you can’t get the
meaning. The best thing would have been to be born in the United States and
just write in English.”
He is fascinated with English. “It’s such a good language,” he says. ”We
should remember the British Empire. They have been around. So you have
words from Japanese, words from French, words from Chinese.”
And Jobim has a poet’s ear that has surprised some of his closest
collaborators. “When I wrote the English lyrics for ‘Dreamer,’ ” recalls
Lees, “he went crazy over the sound pattern of the words in English because
of the way the vowels open.” He says, “The lyrics go: ‘Why are my eyes
always full of this vision of you? / Why do I dream silly dreams that I
fear won’t come true?’ And he went crazy because it begins with open vowels
and closes up. For a guy whose language is not English to take such note .
It was an instrumental recording by guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist
Stan Getz that really started the bossa nova craze in the United States.
Their album Jazz Samba became a hit in 1962. It received an enthusiastic
review in downbeat and spent 70 weeks on the charts of Billboard magazine,
reaching No. 1. Getz and Byrd received a Grammy for best jazz performance
for their rendition of Jobim’s “Desafinado.” This, in time, encouraged
promoters to stage the ill-fated Carnegie Hall event.
After the concert Jobim stayed in the United States, traveling back and
forth to Brazil, then living in Los Angeles for a short period in the 1960s
and again in the ’70s. While in Brazil, he wrote music for soap operas and
did a lot of writing for movies. “Brazilian movies that never made it here,
movies nobody knows,” he says. “Even I cannot recall some of them,” he
Jobim has gentle, often charming ways of brushing off questions. The first
time it happens it feels like a misunderstanding. Then it happens again. If
a question is repeated enough times, he eventually acknowledges it — and
In 1970 Jobim was arrested and held briefly by the military dictatorship in
Brazil. “It was at the International Song Festival,” he says. “Everybody
was there, and we refused to participate, so we were picked up at home by
the political police.” He again weighs a question about the impact of
political involvement by well-known artists, especially in Latin America.
He takes a puff on his cigar, pours another glass of water, and begins a
roundabout answer. His son Joaquim, 7, comes in with the box that his toy
robot came in — and a question. Jobim groans and takes the box. He is very
affectionate, but he’s also clearly bothered by the interruption. This is
not a chat with a friend.
“Dad is working,” he tells his son in Portuguese, but he picks up a pair of
glasses and slowly translates the story-like text on the box. It’s a long
text that ends with “Kindness is no virtue, cruelty is no vice.” The kid
giggles, covering his mouth with his hand, shyly.
“Joaquim, this is terrible,” Jobim says in Portuguese, shaking his head.
The boy takes the box from his father and runs out of the room. Jobim turns
and says, “I believe that for us, the flourishing period was with President
Joscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek was OK. He was more liberal. We had free
elections, and people were happier. We worked a lot in ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58.
But we did not have much government support. Then in 1964 the military
junta took power, and after ’64, I felt that working in Brazil was
difficult. I came to the United States, and that was the right thing to do.
I went to California. I lived two years there, and then I came to New York
several times. In Brazil,” he says, “I tried not to get too much involved
with politics, with the left wing, because it was difficult. Police were
everywhere. The phones were tapped.”
While he is not politically inclined, Jobim does see a role for himself.
”I don’t consider music just a mechanical thing,” he says. “I think you
have to have a message: Ecology, Save the World, Love. I believe we have
this responsibility. Things are getting so dangerous. Even sex,” he says,
suddenly sounding tired. “I try to save our little, beautiful planet —
because they are destroying everything.” He is currently collaborating with
his wife, who is also a photographer, on a book that deals with ecological
concerns. “And I talk about my life in general,” he says. “Not only animals
but also rational animals, ferocious animals — like men.”
Jobim is a charmer. He has an open laugh and a casual air that make a
visitor feel at ease. And when he tells one of his stories, full of long
pauses, his voice first down to a conspiratorial whisper, then a roar
underlined by an expansive gesture, he makes a listener feel as if this is
the first time the story has been told, a moment to treasure. And yet small
gestures — a casual movement of the tape recorder to make sure the
microphone points at him, a change of seats so that he can be across the
table, facing the visitor — suggest a man aware, in control, a performer
“He’s a strange combination, an extremely odd mixture of extraordinary
sophistication and great naivete,” says Lees, the translator and lyricist.
”He’s very shrewd about money, for example. He pretends he is naive about
it, but he isn’t.”
When asked about something he once said, Jobim smiles. “I pretend I’m a
simple man. Yes.” He moves to the edge of the sofa, lights a cigar, and
takes a puff, then shrugs with a schoolboy shy smile.
“Sometimes I say things to provoke the imagination of the reporter. I said
to a girl from Australia, ‘I’m the humblest man on Earth,’ and she got
furious. I was just teasing.” He pauses, edges forward, then sits back.
“I know what I said.” He takes another puff on his cigar. “Maybe it’s the
influence of the verb. In Portuguese, pretender means something else. It
means to intend.” He pauses, looks at the cigar, and then gently taps it on
the edge of the ashtray. “But I also pretend to be modest, because if you
do something that has depth and you present it in a simple way, you are
pretending to be simple. There’s something under the surface . . .” His
voice trails off.