Along with the composer Antônio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, he created a romantic, reflective new style in which samba rhythms were mixed with influences from the American “cool jazz” scene. As a guitarist, he pioneered a new technique that mixed the syncopated plucking of acoustic guitar chords with jazz-influenced harmonies and chord progressions, while as a singer his style was laid-back and understated.
Bossa nova was a new, cool and sophisticated style that reflected the optimism of Brazil in the early 60s and initially became popular among middle and upper-class Brazilian music fans. Then its popularity began to spread.
João Gilberto, who has died aged 88, was one of the most important and best loved figures in Brazilian music, who played a key role in the development of bossa nova in the late 1950s and early 60s.
Along with other leading Brazilian musicians, Gilberto appeared at a now legendary concert at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1962, and the following year he released the album Getz/Gilberto with the American saxophonist Stan Getz, who had become fascinated by bossa nova. The album included the single Girl from Ipanema, sung by Astrud Gilberto, to whom Gilberto was then married. It sold more than a million copies, and brought him international acclaim.Advertisement
He now found himself out of work and depressed, and after a period working with a vocal group in the southern city of Porto Alegre, he moved to Minas Gerais state to live with his elder sister. Here he spent months practising, and perfecting his new musical style.
It was an extraordinary achievement for a musician who had initially struggled to succeed and find acceptance for his music. Born in Juazeiro in Bahia state, he began playing the guitar as a teenager, forming a band while still at school. He tried working as a singer on a radio station in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, and at the age of 19 moved to Rio de Janeiro as singer with the Garotos da Lua, but was fired because he could never be trusted to turn up for rehearsals.
In 1956 he eventually returned to Rio, and his fortunes changed. Jobim was impressed by the new approach, and set about finding a suitable song for the new bossa nova style. Chega de Saudade was written by Jobim with lyrics by a third hero of the early bossa movement, Vinicius de Moraes, and became the first bossa nova hit.
It won an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1960, and the Palme D’Or at the 1959 Cannes film festival, and was helped by a soundtrack that included Gilberto’s recording of A Felicidade. America began to discover a brand new, cool and sophisticated Brazilian music, and the bossa nova boom began.
Soon, US jazz musicians would be visiting Brazil to hear the new music for themselves. In 1961, the guitarist Charlie Byrd arrived, and inevitably he found his way to “Bottle Alley” in Rio de Janeiro, where bossa musicians gather and collaborated with jazz players such as Sérgio Mendes.
Byrd returned home excited by what he had heard, and on his return to the US he recorded the album Jazz Samba with Getz. It became a best-seller, staying in the American charts for 70 weeks – an astonishing achievement for a jazz album.
It was now inevitable that Gilberto would be invited to perform in the US, and in November 1962 he played in New York at an historic concert that also featured Jobim, Mendes and other Brazilian artists including Carlos Lyra, alongside Byrd and Getz.
According to some of the Brazilian musicians, the concert was something of a mess – Lyra claimed “they just wanted to do a recording session on stage” – but this was a high-profile event that helped to boost Gilberto’s reputation in the US. And there was further American success to come.
Bossa nova had become a new global pop fashion, thanks very largely to Gilberto, but in 1964 the Brazilian music scene suddenly changed. A military coup ended the years of optimism, and Brazil’s easy-going, romantic image was shattered.
New styles would now emerge, from protest songs to the experiments of the Tropicália movement, and leading musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil would later be jailed and then exiled by the authorities. Many of the bossa nova stars – including Gilberto – simply decided to stay in the US, where their music was so popular.
Gilberto remained in self-imposed exile until 1980. He made further recordings with Getz, and with Herbie Mann, spent two years living in Mexico, where he also recorded, but spent much of his time practising, playing privately, and reviving songs by earlier Brazilian composers.
On returning to Brazil, he also began to work with a younger generation of Brazilian musicians, and in 1981 he recorded the album Brasil with Veloso, Gil and Maria Bethânia, who regarded Gilberto as a hero of Brazilian music.
In an interview in 2007, Caetano told me that he first heard Gilberto when he was 17, and it was “like enlightenment for me. It was like an incredible revelation of everything, of aesthetic criteria and deep emotions, and most of all, hope in Brazil … hope in our future, and the idea that we had a kind of mission. I still think João Gilberto is our greatest artist.”
Gilberto continued to tour and record, though he always insisted that the acoustics in a concert hall should be excellent, and that audiences should remain quiet. He performed in the US and Europe, and became a cult hero in Japan, where there was an enthusiastic following for bossa nova. One of his finest live recordings, João Gilberto in Tokyo, was released in 2004.
He was a recluse, and an eccentric perfectionist, and Brazilian musicians delighted in telling stories about him. Lyra described him as “a fantastic artist and a very special man, very neurotic like all of us, but probably a little more so”.
Gilberto was very fond of cats, and Lyra re-told with some glee the story of how one of his cats was allegedly driven to jump from an eighth-floor window, driven crazy by his master’s constant repetition of a guitar phrase.
His daughter, the singer Bebel Gilberto, described him like this: “My father changed Brazilian music. I would sometimes see him seeking for different chords for classics he’s been playing for 14 years. I can’t believe his obsession – always seeking for perfection, something that could be better, a version that no-one had thought of before.”
He is survived by João Marcelo, his son from his marriage to Astrud, which ended in divorce; Bebel, his daughter from his marriage to the singer Miúcha, who died in 2018; and Luisa Carolina, his daughter from a relationship with the journalist Claudia Faissol.
• João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira, musician, born 10 June 1931; died 6 July 2019
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