Cool, swaying, seductive and sophisticated, a new sound emerged fifty years ago at the crossroads of samba and jazz in Rio de Janeiro. Known as bossa nova (“new flair”), it blended – like Brazil itself – elements from Africa, Europe and the Americas.
In the 1950s, Rio’s more affluent residents had access to music education and places to listen to jazz recordings. Trained guitarists discovered then that jazz-influenced chords could be played far more comfortably than conventional Brazilian guitar fingerings allowed.
The resulting sound was softer, more sophisticated: bossa nova, a “revolution with beauty” in the words of three of its legendary founders, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Carlos Lyra.
The bossa movement took hold in the apartments of Copacabana and Ipanema, in bossa academies, at university music festivals and in a lively alley in Copacabana. Called the Beco das Garrafas (Bottle Alley), its colorful bars attracted prostitutes, late-night carousers and musicians experimenting with jazz. From neighboring residential buildings, bottles were often hurled at the boisterous crowd below, giving the alley its popular name.
In 1956, Jobim teamed up with Vinicius in the revolutionary musical drama Orfeu da Conceição. The play’s film adaptation Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
As the ’50s came to an end, bossa nova was propelled from Rio’s magnificent Teatro Municipal onto the world stage. João Gilberto, who had come to Rio from Bahia, became bossa‘s first major artist.
Bossa nova‘s poetic lyrics, distinctive rhythms, breezy vocals and sophisticated harmonic complexities soon reverberated far beyond Brazil. In 1962, Jobim and Vinicius introduced the world to Rio’s fashionable Ipanema Beach with “Garota de Ipanema” (Girl from Ipanema), one of the most recorded songs of all time.
Among those who found musical inspiration in Rio during those eventful years was a boy named Antonio Adolfo. The son of Yolanda Maurity, a music teacher and orchestral violinist at the same theater where Orfeu was staged, Antonio started violin lessons at age seven and piano at 15.
While still a teenager, Antonio performed regularly at Bottle Alley. He describes the narrow street with its high-society visitors then as “three hookers’ bars and another where jazz was played, the Bar das Garrafas (Bottles Bar). It was dark, smoky and noisy, and had maybe 15 tables and an upright piano against the wall. No stage. Whiskey and Cuba libres were popular at that time.”
As bottles rained down on Bottle Alley, pure jazz reigned at the Bottles Bar from 1959 to 1962. Chet Baker was popular. Then the Copa Trio started to play “samba-jazz” there, fusing jazz with bossa nova.
Brazilian greats Leny Andrade, Sérgio Mendes and Elis Regina performed there, too, and foreign jazz artists started to appear at the Bottles Bar late at night, after their performances in Rio’s concert halls. Horace Silver, Paul Winter, the Modern Jazz Quartet and other jazz legends jammed with the local musicians.
From his gigs at the Bottles Bar, young Antonio Adolfo was invited by Vinicius and Lyra to perform as a musician in their play Pobre Menina Rica. From there he started accompanying important artists of Brazilian popular music, including one of Brazil’s best-known singers of that period, Elis Regina. Adolfo remembers reaction to the new Brazilian sound on their European concert tours: “sophisticated and exotic.”
Adolfo was 20 when he traded law studies at the university for the more bohemian life as a professional musician, composing his first major song, “Sá Marina,” on guitar and piano. It was one of the earliest bossa-influenced toadas (a traditional musical style favored by guitarists from the interior of Brazil) to become a hit, and it catapulted Adolfo into his new career.
Adolfo collaborated with lyricist Tibério Gaspar on “Sá Marina.” Marilyn Bergman, who is now the president of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and her husband Alan Bergman penned the English lyrics.
“Unfortunately,” says Adolfo, smiling, “they gave it a title in English that we Brazilians can’t easily pronounce: Pretty World.” He quietly repeats the title a few more times, attempting the elusive American pronunciation.
During the past four decades more than 200 artists have recorded that song, including Stevie Wonder, Sergio Mendes, Earl Klugh, Joe Cocker, Herb Alpert and the composer himself on his most recent CD, “Antonio Adolfo e Carol Saboya Ao Vivo,” selected as the best 2007 recording of Brazilian music in the United States.
A renowned pianist, Adolfo also plays guitar, violin and percussion. He has performed and recorded with many of the best-known musicians of our times, from Mick Jagger to Toots Thielemans. His compositions have been recorded by a constellation of stars, including Nara Leão, Elis Regina, Emílio Santiago, Beth Carvalho and Dionne Warwick.
As an arranger, he has worked with Elizeth Cardoso, Rita Lee, Maria Bethânia and many others. During the mid-60s, Adolfo was a frequent guest at Jobim’s home in Rio, a popular gathering place for musicians. He later taught Jobim’s daughter, son and grandson.
In 1977, he said “bye-bye Brazil,” moving to Paris with his wife Ana to escape the commercialism of the music world and to delve into macrobiotics.
In Paris he had the good fortune to audition for one of the greatest music teachers of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger. A friend had recommended Adolfo and she granted the young pianist a 15-minute audition between students. On the way, traffic-choked streets caused him to arrive five minutes late and out of breath, having had to abandon the car to Ana and sprint the final blocks to Boulanger’s studio.
Nervous, sweating, panting and with just ten minutes to make an impression, Adolfo started playing something from the classical repertoire. Boulanger stopped him. “Play what you truly want to play,” she urged him. Taking a deep breath, he shifted to his beloved Brazilian music, allowing it to flow from his heart to the piano. Boulanger’s expression changed to a beneficent smile, and she took him on as a student, admonishing him never again to arrive late.
At that audition, Adolfo discovered a key to his new teacher’s influence on generations of musicians: “She taught technique and passion.” Adolfo, Ana and Boulanger became friends. When the couple returned to Rio in 1975 for the birth of their first child, Boulanger wept.
Back in Rio, Adolfo launched an independent recording label, Artezanal, to champion his music and the works of 19th and early 20th century compatriot composers Ernesto Nazareth, Chiquinha Gonzaga and João Pernambuco. Inspired by his mentor in Paris, he also started teaching privately at his home and found that he loved it. He says that, like Nadia Boulanger, he looks for passion in his students, encouraging them to play both expressively and thoughtfully.
His lessons are highly personalized. At one of my first piano lessons with Adolfo, we discussed the bittersweet sentiment of “saudade,” or longing, that seems synonymous with being Brazilian. He demonstrated how saudade can be expressed musically through particular chords and intervals, shifts in key, descending melody lines, rhythmic changes.
Beyond the music theory and mathematical beauty of his explanation, it was fascinating to contemplate how vibrations of an instrument – sound waves, music – can convey complex emotions like saudade.
Adolfo enjoys working with musicians of all ages and abilities, from children to professionals. He has taught in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, New Orleans and Miami as well as in Brazil, Denmark and the Netherlands. He started the Centro Musical Antonio Adolfo in Rio in 1985, now that city’s leading music school with more than 1,000 students at three sites.
With the popularity of his music school in Rio, Adolfo decided last summer to start a series of weekend Brazilian music workshops in Hollywood, Florida. He wanted to do something meaningful in South Florida, his second home. “Nowadays, teaching is my most useful activity.”
The first workshops had such a tremendous response that Adolfo soon expanded to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings to accommodate the demand for lessons. The school offers solo and ensemble classes in various instruments, focusing on jazz and Brazilian genres in addition to music in general.
Artist Eleonora Goretkin takes voice and ensemble lessons there. “This school is a part of Brazil here in Florida, a place for people who love Brazil and Brazilian music,” she says. Goretkin remembers singing “Sá Marina” as a child in Rio and can’t believe that today she sings it with the composer himself.
I asked what images bossa nova music evokes for her. “Bossa captures the mood and the landscapes of Rio,” she explained, lost for a moment in her thoughts. “It’s like gliding over the city.”
Brad Hartung of North Miami Beach studies piano with Adolfo, focusing on the music of Jobim. Although he has not yet visited Brazil and is a relative newcomer to its music, bossa resonates with him.
“Bossa nova is textured, rich, simple, complex, and sounds good at all skill levels,” he says. About his teacher: “It’s unusual in life to come into contact with someone so talented, and then to get access to him as a teacher. Antonio is a master.”
Attending an ensemble class one Saturday afternoon recently, I watched Adolfo in action with eight musicians rehearsing Hermeto Pascoal’s “Bebê” for an upcoming gig at the Hollywood Beach bandshell. The musicians hailed from the U.S., Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Czech Republic. Other than music, the unifying language in the studio is English (spoken with diverse accents, another form of musicality), with occasional comments in Portuguese, Spanish and French.
As the improvisation started to stray, the maestro stopped the ensemble with a wave of his hand. “F-sharp minor…I’m not feeling it!” Then, setting the rhythm again with his triangle, “1-2, 1-2-3-4,” the rehearsal continued. And this time, F-sharp minor emerged from the shadows.
Weaving through the performers, Adolfo encouraged the ensemble members using various percussive instruments along with his body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and creative vocalizing (clicks, humming, singing, harmonizing, whispering).
By the end of the session, Hermeto Pascoal’s complex music had emerged, cohesive and uplifting, and I observed smiles all around the studio. And, at that moment, it seemed to me that Antonio Adolfo – performer, composer, arranger, educator, author and producer – had the most radiant smile of all.
Visit antonioadolfo.net for more information on Antonio Adolfo’s Brazilian Music Workshops.
This article appeared originally in “Soundings, arts in depth” on progreso-weekly.com. The author, David Whitman, is a writer and photographer who loves Brazil: davidwhitman.com.