The Hits Keep on Coming
There are no existing records (at least, none that we are aware of) of Carnival taking over the lives of two of the most naturally gifted songwriting talents Brazil has ever had the good fortune to produce: composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Both hit the ground running with their very first collaboration, and hardly paused to draw breath thereafter.
With the conclusion in November 1956 of their Orfeu da Conceição, both took on further challenges by throwing themselves into new work, the result of which led to an enviable (and nearly unbroken) string of song hits. “Between the years 1958 and 1965,” by writer Ruy Castro’s reckoning, “Vinicius produced close to 50 titles with Tom [alone], 40 with Baden Powell, and 30 with Ary Barroso, Moacyr Santos and others,” to include such promising newcomers as Carlos Lyra, Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, and Toquinho.
Researcher Sérgio Ximenes put the total for Tom at “over 250 works, with 29 albums recorded under his own name,” and as a guest artist or participant in approximately 37 more.
Even more impressive, musicologist Jairo Severiano, in his Uma História da Música Popular Brasileira, records that, “In the period 1963-1994, Jobim composed a hundred some-odd pieces of music that, taking into account those he had completed earlier, reached 230 recorded compositions. Besides sambas, sambas-canções, and other characteristic constructions…there were songs dedicated to ecological themes, expressed in his usual good-natured style and tinged with a degree of romanticism.”
Severiano cites such supreme examples of his art as “Águas de março” (“The Waters of March”), “Chovendo na roseira” (“Double Rainbow”), “Matita perê” (“Song of the Thrush”), “Passarim,” Borzeguim,” “Chansong” — a play on chanson, the French word for “song” — “Anos dourados” (“Looks Like December”), “Sabià,” “Retrato em branco e preto” (“Portrait in Black and White”), and those pretty little ditties with ladies in their titles (“Ana Luiza,” “Bebel,” “Lígia,” and “Luiza”).
The more songs the tunesmith turned out, it would seem, the more accomplished he became at it. The only thing that Jobim had failed at evolving was an appropriately thick skin to go with his compositional flair, something not even his most frequent working partner Vinicius had bothered to grow over a lifetime of living large in the public eye.
According to the composer’s self-analysis, timidity is the word that best described his reticent comportment around others. But be not deceived: Tom was no pushover when it came to defending his artistic turf; neither did he find it necessary to berate the opposition in the same demonstrative mien The Little Poet loved to exhibit. Audacity, intuition, curiosity, duality, obstinacy, unconventionality, and universality were the other key attributes of Jobim’s personal makeup, and they undoubtedly showed.
Still lionized as “the most beautiful man in Brazil” (which he was), he had grown increasingly discomfited over reports in the national press of his becoming too Americanized — journalistic shorthand for “going native” — for his introduction of jazz and bebop elements into the corpus of his work. (Actually, jazz owed more to bossa nova than bossa nova owed to jazz, but that made little difference to the naysayers of his day.)
These were the same baseless accusations that had dogged the footsteps of the late Carmen Miranda in her prime, the kind that forced the popular entertainer to pull up stakes in her home country and go seek her fortune elsewhere (in the United States, to be exact). Now they were winding their insidious way into Jobim’s world as well. He was even accused at one point of adopting the American form of “Tom,” a nickname younger sister Helena had tagged him with as a boy, as proof of his outside aspirations.
For a man whose middle name also happened to be Brasileiro (Portuguese for “Brazilian”), this was a savage blow indeed to his integrity and self-worth. Overcoming his own well-documented reserve, Jobim seriously contemplated putting out some sort of riposte while maintaining his vaunted coolness under fire, even in the face of mounting critical concerns.
His much-publicized 1970 interview with left-wing journalist and ex-politician Carlos Lacerda, for the Brazilian magazine Manchete (“the only serious piece that explains who I am,” Jobim announced to all), is a fair indication of how he conducted himself in hand-to-hand combat with the press. In it, Tom simply took on the same E daí? (“What of it?”) attitude the equally good natured Heitor Villa-Lobos once opted for when confronted with a similar situation in his past:
“I am Brazilian, and I write Brazilian music not because of nationalism, but because I don’t know how to do any other kind. If I were to do jazz, I’d be an idiot, since any black musician from their Lapa [the poor bohemian district of Rio] could play better than I.”
That’s telling them, Tom! Lacerda gave the composer free rein to air his pent-up feelings and frustrations to a nationwide audience. Before the dust had time to settle, though, the wily reporter and would-be shrink made the following annotations about them:
“It seems to me that [Jobim’s] worries were not about criticism of his music. His songs get better over time. His critics only get worse. He’s accused of being Americanized? Nonsense! The Americans speak of French influences. The French know, after Black Orpheus, that he’s very much Brazilian. The most Brazilian there is, since Heitor Vila-Lôbos [sic]. What he’s incapable of hiding is his musical education.”
In the decades that passed since this piece first saw the light, many a “black musician from their Lapa” would unhesitatingly step up to the stage and pay tribute to Tom’s “musical education.” In Antonio Carlos Jobim: Um Homem Illuminado (“An Enlightened Man”), an unusually intimate portrait of her dearly departed older sibling, novelist and poet Helena Jobim remembers what one of them, the reclusive pianist Thelonius Monk, had to say about Brazil’s lasting contribution to his particular style of music making: “Bossa nova gave to New York’s intellectual jazz community what it lacked, that is, rhythm, balance, and a Latin heat.”
Tom was quite beside himself to hear how Americans had taken to the harmonically advanced chord progressions he and Vinicius hammered out for their chart-busting single, “The Girl from Ipanema” from 1963,* thanks ever so much to saxophone great Stan Getz and the sensuous come-hither sounds (speaking of Latin heat) of Astrud Gilberto. Their recording came in at Number Five on the Billboard Top Pop of 1964, while reaching Number One on the Adult Contemporary scene. It was kept under wraps for a solid year before being released into a market dominated by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, The Rolling Stones, and other formidable folk.
And the World Goes ‘Round
For now, there was no jumping off the bossa-nova bandwagon. On the contrary, Jobim was more anxious than ever to hold on for dear life and keep the mutual admiration society going. “More and more,” his little sister acknowledged, “Tom respected the U.S. as a country that received, with open arms and without prejudices, artists from all over. He felt himself a citizen of the world there,” and with good reason.
From 1963 until his death, in December 1994, of heart failure following surgery for bladder cancer — another uncanny reference to his hero, Villa-Lobos — Jobim divided his time between the American East and West Coasts, and the southeastern tip of Brazil. While in the States, he recorded many of his most fondly remembered works (including two classic sessions with Sinatra) for Warner-Reprise, as well as for the strictly jazz label Verve and the R & B-based A&M Records. His two pet projects, the albums Matita perê (1973) and Urubu (“Vulture,” 1976), were roundly rejected in Rio but eventually picked up here by MCA and Warner, in that order.
Having gone their own way since the middle of the 1960s onward — the motive behind the amicable split being Moraes’ need to share his poetic insights with other, lesser-known adherents — the once inseparable duo reunited as a quartet in September 1977 for a now-historic series of concerts. Backed by Toquinho, Vinicius’ then-current touring partner, and Chico Buarque’s sister, Miúcha (recently wed to the equally hermetic João Gilberto), the group played Rio’s Canecão nightclub for seven straight months, then took their show on the road to such places as São Paulo, London, and Paris.
Ruy Castro recounts, in his fact-filled tome Ela é Carioca: Uma Enciclopédia de Ipanema (“She’s a Carioca: An Encyclopedia of Ipanema”), one of the high points of their encounter: the nostalgic “Carta ao Tom,” followed immediately by its parody, “Carta do Tom” (“Letter from Tom”), in which the composer and his lyricist Chico bemoaned the loss of innocence once associated with Ipanema’s tranquil, middle-class neighborhood.
“Their music,” Castro informs us, “woke audiences up” to the shocking realization that “a marvelous world was about to pass on,” to be replaced by “another, more somber and alarming one.” He concluded his musings with a painful reminder of what was to come: “At the end of 1978, when the show finally closed due to the members’ complete exhaustion, no one could imagine that Vinicius had less than two years to live.”
(End of Part Nine)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* From F-sharp major at the words “Oh, but I watch her so sadly” and on “How can I tell her I love her?” to G minor at “Yes, I would give my heart gladly,” back down to A major with “But each day when she walks to the sea,” ending on D major, then G major for “She looks straight ahead,” and finally returning to F-sharp major on “not at me,” in Norman Gimbel’s sultry English-language verses.