João Gilberto, Bossa Nova Pioneer, Has Died at 88

João Gilberto, native of Bahia and pioneer of Bossa Nova, which put Brazilian popular music on record players in homes across the planet during the 1960s, has died aged 88 in his adopted Rio de Janeiro.

His cultural importance to Brazil, and indeed the world, is immeasurable.

João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born on June 10, 1931, in Juazeiro, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, the son of a local businessman and amateur musician, Juveniano de Oliveira, and the youngest of seven children born to Dona Patu, Mr. Oliveira’s second wife.

Starting with his 1958 single “Chega de Saudade,” Mr. 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” — Mr. 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 Mr. Gilberto to Carnegie Hall and led to a Grammy Award, given to him and the 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Gilberto said in an interview with the 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.”

Mr. 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.

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 Stan Getz and the guitarist Charlie Byrd, was strongly influenced by Mr. Gilberto’s recordings; released in the spring of 1962, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. That November, Mr. 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, the ethnomusicologist Kariann Goldschmitt wrote, the phrase had been used to advertise “cashmere sweaters, throw rugs, ice cream and new haircuts.”

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Gilberto.

Through his music, Mr. Gilberto radiated a simplicity that could seem like inscrutability. He liked sentimental songs but did not give audiences emotional cues. He told Mr. Wilson of The Times that he believed that 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.”

Pay tribute by listening to his own debut album, Chega De Saudade, in its entirety:


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