João Gilberto, one of the primary creators of bossa nova, the intimate Brazilian music that became a major cultural export, has died. He was 88.
His son, João Marcelo Gilberto, confirmed the death on Facebook, although he did not say where or when Gilberto died.
Starting with his 1958 single “Chega de Saudade,” Gilberto in his late 20s became the quintessential transmitter of the harmonically and rhythmically complex, lyrically nuanced songs of bossa nova (slang for “new thing” or “new style”), written by Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Donato, Vinicius de Moraes and others.
In the music he recorded from 1958 to 1961 — appearing on the albums “Chega de Saudade,” “O Amor, O Sorriso e a Flor” and “Joao Gilberto” — Gilberto took strains of Brazilian samba and American pop and jazz and reconfigured them for a new class of young Brazilian city-dwellers, helping to turn bossa nova into a global symbol of a young and confident Brazil.
The music gained particular popularity in the United States, spawning pop hits and even a dance craze. It brought Gilberto to Carnegie Hall and led to a Grammy Award, given to him and jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, for a collaborative effort that was named album of the year for 1964 and that produced an enormous hit, “The Girl From Ipanema.”
Gilberto’s new synthesis replaced samba percussion with guitar-picking figures in offbeat patterns (called by some “violão gago,” or “stammering guitar”). It also conveyed interiority through a singing style that was confiding, subtly percussive and without vibrato.
“When I sing, I think of a clear, open space, and I’m going to play sound in it,” Gilberto said in an interview with New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson in 1968. “It is as if I’m writing on a blank piece of paper. It has to be very quiet for me to produce the sounds I’m thinking of.”
Gilberto was not much of a songwriter: He was both “less and more than a composer,” as the Brazilian singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso, an admirer, once put it. He was reclusive, rarely forthcoming with the news media and his audiences, and sometimes truculent onstage if his demands about sound were not met.
But his work became a sign of the relative prosperity, optimism and romance of Brazil during the period of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency in the late 1950s, and thereafter an ideal of musical restraint and mystery.
João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born on June 10, 1931, in Juazeiro, in the northeastern Brazilian state Bahia, the son of a local businessman and amateur musician, Juveniano de Oliveira, and the youngest of seven children born to Dona Patu, Oliveira’s second wife.
He was sent to boarding school in Aracaju, east of Juazeiro on the Atlantic coast, when he was 11, but left at 15 to play music, serenading locals under a tamarind tree in Juazeiro’s town square.
In his early years Gilberto had a strong, romantic voice, in the popular samba-canção crooning style. He left his hometown for Salvador, Bahia’s capital, in 1949, and a year later he was called to Rio de Janeiro by Alvinho Senna, guitarist for a young vocal quintet, Os Garotos da Lua (the Boys of the Moon), which had a regular performing slot on Rio’s Radio Tupi.
He was with Os Garotos only briefly, leaving the group in 1951. The next year, recording under his own name with a string section, no harmony vocalist and no guitar, he made a 78 rpm single of rather mannered and old-fashioned samba-cançãos. It would be six years before he recorded again.
In the intervening period, he worked sporadically around Rio — accompanying singer Mariza, recording commercial jingles, taking jobs in a few long-running nightclub revues. According to Ruy Castro’s “Chega de Saudade” (1990), a colorful history of the bossa nova movement, he also became a strange and marginal figure around town.
When he started refusing to work at clubs where he felt the customers talked too much, he entered a period of poverty, growing his hair long and wearing wrinkled clothes. Then a friend, singer Luís Telles, brought him to the coast town of Porto Alegre and put him up at a respectable hotel; performing at a local nightclub, Gilberto gained a following.
After about seven months Gilberto moved to Diamantina, a city in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais, where his older sister Dadainha lived. This was where he found his sweet spot of artistic isolation, cloistering himself in his sister’s house — specifically, in her bathroom.
It was there, Castro wrote, that Gilberto’s sound took shape. The acoustics were reverberant enough for him to practice a whispery, nasal style of singing, audible over the guitar. As much as he liked self-assured performers, his own sound seemed to shrink from the light; it was an inversion of the popular bolero-like style that had dominated Brazilian popular music since the 1930s.
In a 1971 interview with journalist Tárik de Souza, Gilberto cited Dorival Caymmi’s 1955 song “Rosa Morena” as one inspiration during this formative period: “I felt that the way other singers prolonged the sounds ended up hurting the natural balance of the music,” he said. “By shortening the sounds of the phrases, the lyrics fit perfectly within the beats and ended up floating.”
After a short and unhappy detour to Bahia — he spent a week being examined at a mental asylum in the capital city, Salvador — Gilberto returned to Rio in 1957, and his fortunes changed. He was introduced to Antônio Carlos Jobim, who was working as a staff arranger for Odeon Records; Jobim heard Gilberto’s guitar rhythm and had ideas on how it could be applied to his unfinished song “Chega de Saudade.”
That song — which displayed a casual disdain for the favorite Brazilian emotion of “saudade,” or longing — was first recorded in May 1958 by Elizete Cardoso, with Gilberto on guitar. This was the first great example of bossa nova guitar style: syncopated, swinging, rendered in changeable patterns.
“He imitated a whole samba ensemble,” guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves told Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, the authors of the 1998 book “The Brazilian Sound,” “with his thumb doing the bass drum, and his fingers doing the tamborims and ganzás and agogôs” — the tambourine, metal shaker and bell of a percussion group. The song was recorded again that same year by the vocal group Os Cariocas, again with Gilberto on guitar.
Finally, in July 1958, Gilberto recorded his own version of “Chega de Saudade,” with arrangements by Jobim, in a contentious session at which he insisted on separate microphones for his guitar and his vocals. That single, with an entirely different affect from his romantic style of six years earlier, has often been cited as a turning point in Brazilian culture.
Singer Gal Costa, 12 years old when that record came out, later said that “it changed my life, and not only my life but the lives of everyone in my generation.” In his book “Tropical Truth” (2003), Veloso called it “the manifesto and the masterpiece of a movement: the mother ship.”
Bossa nova was featured in the soundtrack of the 1959 French-Brazilian film “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”), which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film, and soon American musicians were investigating and emulating its sound. The album “Jazz Samba,” by Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd, was strongly influenced by Gilberto’s recordings; released in spring 1962, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. That November, Gilberto traveled to New York for the first time for an appearance at Carnegie Hall as part of a bossa nova package concert.
At the same time, in pop songs like Eydie Gormé’s “Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” bossa nova meant something different: exotic and slightly upmarket, with a newly American-made dance to go along with it. By the end of 1963, ethnomusicologist Kariann Goldschmitt wrote, the phrase had been used to advertise “cashmere sweaters, throw rugs, ice cream and new haircuts.”
With Astrud (Weinert) Gilberto, whom he had married in 1959, Gilberto took up residence in the United States in 1963. That year he collaborated with Getz on the album “Getz/Gilberto,” which included the Jobim-de Moraes song “Garota da Ipanema,” sung by both Astrud (in English) and João (in Portuguese); released as “The Girl From Ipanema,” the song won the 1964 Grammy for record of the year, and “Getz/Gilberto” was named album of the year.
After divorcing Astrud and, in 1965, marrying another singer, Heloísa Buarque de Holanda — known in her own career as Miúcha — Gilberto moved to Weehawken, New Jersey, and then to Brooklyn. In 1970 the couple relocated to Mexico, where during a two-year stay he recorded the album “João Gilberto en Mexico.” He then returned to the United States, where he stayed until returning to Brazil in 1980. (Gilberto and Miúcha separated in the mid-1970s.)
In the years away from Brazil, Gilberto widened his repertoire to accommodate a few of the great Brazilian songwriters who succeeded him as well as sambas and even boleros from before the bossa nova period. His best work included the minimal, transfixing “João Gilberto” (often referred to as the “white album”) in 1973 and the strings-drenched “Amoroso” in 1977. By the 1980s many of his recordings were of solo live performances. For a major figure, he produced relatively little: fewer than 10 studio albums under his own name in about 60 years of professional work.
Gilberto was championed by the generation of Brazilian songwriters that followed him, including Veloso, Moraes Moreira and Gilberto Gil. His final studio album was “João Voz e Violão” (2000), produced by Veloso. A few seconds more than half an hour long, it was a mixture of his own old repertoire and songs by Veloso and Gil, ending with another version of “Chega de Saudade.”
Gilberto lived an extremely private life in Rio de Janeiro, which fascinated the Brazilian news media. In 2004 he had a daughter, Luisa Carolina, with his manager, Cláudia Faissol.
According to The Associated Press, his survivors include Luisa; his son, from his marriage to Astrud Gilberto; and another daughter, Bebel Gilberto, a popular singer, from his marriage to Miúcha.
In 1997 Gilberto sued EMI, the licenser of his first three albums, because he felt his early music had been poorly remastered on a 1992 CD reissue; he maintained that the unauthorized remastering of the original tapes violated his rights. The albums in question were taken off the market, and in a 2015 ruling, Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice ruled in favor of Gilberto.
Through his music, Gilberto radiated a simplicity that could seem like inscrutability. He liked sentimental songs but did not give audiences emotional cues. He told Wilson of The Times that he believed singers’ feelings should not work their way into their songs.
“Maybe I would like to go back to when I was a boy,” he said. “After that I learned too many things, and they came out in my music. So now I refine and refine until I can get back to the simple truth.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.