João Gilberto 10/6/1931 – 6/7/2019

Joao Gilberto

João Gilberto was born in Juazeiro, Bahia, in Brazil in June 1931 to a wealthy family and enjoyed a privileged upbringing. As a teenager he was drawn to the music of his homeland, especially the samba, but was equally fascinated by American jazz in general, and the work of Gerry Mulligan in particular. Much to the horror of his parents he dropped out of school in his mid-teens to study music, and in the mid-1950s moved to Rio de Janeiro to participate in the vibrant music scene of the city. Here he met Antonio Carlos Jobim, then working as a composer/arranger and producer for Odeon Records. Together they began collaborating on developing a romanticised, samba-and-jazz style that evolved into the bossa nova. In 1959 they recorded ‘Chega de Saudade’ and ‘Bim-Bam’ that became extremely popular in Brazil. 

When the late Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves heard the recording, he was astonished, comparing it to the first time he heard saxophonist Charlie Parker: “It changed everything, for every young musician in Brazil.” The jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd was instrumental in bringing Gilberto to the US and, on 13 February 1962, Getz and producer Creed Taylor flew to Washington D.C. where they met Byrd and Gilberto at the All Souls Church to record an album together. None of them could have guessed that the resulting Jazz Samba would stay on the pop charts for 70 weeks, rising to pole position, with the album’s hit Jobim’s ‘One Note Samba’.

With this album, Gilberto became a household name, and bossa nova a worldwide craze. Getz and Gilberto would be reunited the following year with Jazz Samba Encore, which introduced the world to Jobim’s Grammy-winning ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, the runaway hit from the album sung by Astrud Gilberto, João’s then wife. A perfectionist and contrarian, he did not like to tune his guitar to anyone or anything else. In 1994 he played a Jobim tribute at Avery Fisher Hall, duetting on ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ with Dave Grusin to predictable results. In 2003, he cut short a much-anticipated performance at the Hollywood Bowl due to his dissatisfaction with the microphones. The Los Angeles Times reviewer described the incident as “yet another instalment in the long list of eccentric episodes associated with an artist almost as well known for his unpredictability as for the quality of his music.” When he died on 6 July 2019, aged 88, he been struggling with mental health and financial issues.

Stuart Nicholson

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