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Flora Purim Has Stories to Tell

From fusion stardom to drug conviction, from Brazil to America and back again, and from her days with Stan Getz and Chick Corea to her first studio album in 17 years, the vocal legend has got plenty to talk about

Flora Purim
Flora Purim (photo: Mel Gabardo)

In 1978, Bruce Meyer of UPI called Flora Purim “the most popular jazz singer in the United States, which is to say she is the top jazz singer in the world.” As the muse of the fusion movement, Purim, a Brazilian with a Jewish name, was a wild bird, flapping its wings in a jungle of electronics and psychedelia. She pushed her girlish voice to its limits, scatting in daredevil unison with instruments, letting out guttural growls and ear-splitting squeaks, hopping deftly through minefields of shifting meters. In accented English, she sang of reaching a nirvana “five hundred miles high” where “your love stays so free that it can never die.” Egging her on was her “old man,” percussionist Airto Moreira, known simply as Airto. Barechested and bearded, he conjured voodoo-like spells with his array of animal bones and objects; sometimes he babbled as though speaking in tongues.

Unleashed on the world by Chick Corea and his seminal fusion group Return to Forever, Purim and Moreira were the genre’s rock-star couple. Purim’s work, says the Rio-based music producer Arnaldo DeSouteiro, “was more modern than anything in Brazilian music.” Yet like Astrud Gilberto, whose languid but vacant murmur had turned “The Girl from Ipanema” into a fabled symbol of Rio, Purim was a U.S. creation. “I’m not a Brazilian singer,” she explained. “I’m a jazz singer, and jazz is American.”

That stance did not endear her to Brazil; to this day her birth country barely knows her. And if her career resulted from meeting the right people, she also fell in with the wrong ones. A singer who chanted, “I am free! I am free! I am free!” wound up in jail, convicted of drug possession with intent to sell.

Now 80, Purim is finally home in Brazil, not by choice. This past spring, the U.K. record label Strut issued her first studio album in 17 years. If You Will is a slick mélange of samba, space-age synth, and choral overdubs; Flora, now calmer and slower, offers her trademark panaceas—“In the clarity of this life/Miracles happen every day”—while letting her daughter and costar, singer Diana Purim, handle the fireworks.

If You Will triggered a deluge of interview requests, proving that Purim’s myth, with all its contradictions and vaguenesses, is far from forgotten. Our discussion occupied three long Zoom sessions. Stories tumbled out of her in vivid but often fantastical detail, reflecting a life that she would have us believe was touched by magic.

Fiercely ambitious from the start, Purim wanted to “learn, learn, learn,” she says. “I didn’t want to be famous or rich, because I was raised by a middle-class family and I had everything.” She grew up in one of Rio’s better neighborhoods, Laranjeiras, in a home with three housekeepers. Her Romanian father was an amateur violinist; her mother, a Brazilian Jew, played classical piano at home and collected jazz records. Flora studied guitar and piano as well as English, French, and Spanish. She also became a competitive swimmer and diver at Fluminense, Brazil’s most famous sports club, which was next door. But the dream to sing won out, and she got hired as vocalist with an orchestra that played seedy dance halls.

Her father was dead set against that ambition, and for a time she gave it up as she wed a psychoanalyst and had a daughter. Though brief and stormy, the marriage spawned one of the many fanciful flukes she likes to recount. Around 1963, the singer explains, she and her husband were fighting as they drove through Copacabana, and he made her get out of the car. She walked and walked until she found herself at Beco das Garrafas (Bottles Alley), a club that helped foment the bossa nova. Drummer Dom Um Romão, a favorite of Antônio Carlos Jobim, was outside on a break. Seeing her crying, he invited her in for a drink. She started going there nightly. Soon she had left her husband and moved in with Dom.

When she told him she wanted to make an album, he enlisted some of the top musicians in Rio to back her. In 1964, RCA Victor released Flora é M.P.M. Contrary to its title (Flora Is Modern Popular Music), the disc reveals an unformed singer, often out of tune and beneath the challenges of her sophisticated samba-jazz setting. “Flora grew up after that album,” says pianist Dom Salvador, who played on it.

She kept finding musicians who could teach her. Moving to São Paulo, she began singing at João Sebastião Bar, where her drummer was Airto. “He hated singers,” she says, and he bashed as she sang. But even while she and Dom were still involved, a romance with Airto budded. His reputation was rising; soon he would help form a groundbreaking instrumental group, Quarteto Novo. Along with the standard Brazilian percussion (berimbau, cuíca), Airto began using oddball items that made sounds he liked, such as a refrigerator tube and a donkey’s jaw with rattling teeth.

At another club, Stardust, Purim sang with Quarteto Novo’s pianist, Hermeto Pascoal, who was pushing Brazilian jazz into uncharted harmonic territory. In the fall of 1967, hocus-pocus struck again. At Stardust, Purim claims, she met a frequent customer, a music-crazed doctor. He asked about her dreams, and she told him she wanted to spend a month in New York and meet her jazz idols. Two days later, she says, a roundtrip plane ticket arrived. (Some who knew her say she also wanted to chase Dom, who had moved to New York; Airto, in turn, followed her.)

Before she left, Pascoal offered some advice: “Flora, don’t go there and try to sing jazz like the girls who were born there. Be different. Use your voice as an instrument. Do sounds.” Asked Purim: “What kind of sounds?”

“You’ll find out.”

One day Wayne Shorter played Purim an album by the 1950s exotica sensation Yma Sumac. “Wayne said, ‘Can you sing like this?’ I said, ‘Nope. But let me think about it.’”

Arriving on a snowy December day, Purim found herself in “wonderland.” The next night she ventured uptown to Club Baron, a Harlem jazz club. The doorman, she insists, tried to bar her because she was white. (In fact, Club Baron welcomed many white musicians and fans; the resident big band of trumpeter Clark Terry was, he said, “about half and half.”) As Purim tells it, a tall man in a Muslim skullcap overheard the exchange and escorted her to his table. He was Thelonious Monk. Purim reels off an improbable list of the other attendees: Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Carmen McRae, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan.

She stayed briefly at Dom’s apartment without him; he was in Chicago with another woman. But one of his neighbors was Moacir Santos, a Brazilian composer and arranger who would earn comparisons to Gil Evans. Santos coached Purim in sight-reading and “incredible time signatures,” she says—“eight-twelve, five-eight, seven-four.”

When Airto joined her, the couple, dressed like hippies, checked into a fleabag hotel in Times Square. Dead broke, they played for food in a club where the musicians included Reggie Workman, the bebop bassist. Workman took them to visit Cannonball Adderley’s bass player Walter Booker. His roach-infested apartment was a magnet for musicians, in part because Booker was known as one of the premier cocaine dealers on the New York Jazz scene. He let Purim and Moreira sleep on the floor. The dwelling contained a recording studio where bassist Stanley Clarke, the future heartbeat of Return to Forever, played at the age of about 19. “There were a lot of people going in and out,” he says. “It was a place that—I’ll put it this way—was very colorful.”

Purim was “living in heaven,” she says, “because every night I would be jamming with the cream of the jazz world”: Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter. Jazz had begun a renewed enrapturement with Brazil, and with few Brazilian musicians in New York, Purim and Moreira found themselves in demand. Getz took Purim on the road to play guitar and sing in the breathy bossa style of Astrud Gilberto, his former golden girl. Pianist Duke Pearson featured the couple on his largely Brazilian album for Blue Note, How Insensitive. In 1969, Miles Davis hired Airto to play on Bitches Brew, the album that detonated the fusion craze. From there, Airto joined the group.

Fusion was bringing rock energy and youth to jazz, and bands rose up rapidly: the Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Purim’s singing remained fairly conventional, but that soon changed. One day Shorter played her an album by the 1950s exotica sensation Yma Sumac, a Peruvian-American soprano whose coloratura solos ranged from baritonal grunts to birdlike, stratospheric tweets. “Wayne said, ‘Can you sing like this?’ I said, ‘Nope. But let me think about it.’”

Gil Evans gave her another push. The revered arranger, then approaching 60, had begun exploring fusion; briefly he used Purim as an instrument in his band, and prodded her to sing louder and higher.

In 1971, while visiting the Village Vanguard, she ran into Chick Corea, Airto’s bandmate for a time with Miles Davis. After leaving Davis, the pianist had formed an avant-garde band, Circle, but he confided in Purim that he was sick of playing free music that no one could hum. His thoughts had been rewired by the Church of Scientology, the controversial cult-like religion he had joined. It preached a philosophy of replacing emotional trauma and self-doubt with a clear-headed positivity. But the church also thrived on mind control and on siphoning members’ money, and Corea didn’t have much.

Musically, he needed to broaden his reach. His plan included using a singer as a megaphone for his new beliefs. After a rehearsal at his apartment “on the third floor of a very shitty building in the East Village,” she says, Purim signed on. Airto, Clarke (soon to become a Scientologist himself), and the soprano sax and flute player Joe Farrell followed. The group’s style emerged quickly: bright as sunshine pop, precise as a chamber group, and fiery as rock. Corea, who had traded piano for keyboards, began writing tuneful, shape-shifting fantasias with catchy hooks. Clarke could pluck with bulletfire speed and use his bow to spin out luscious melodies. Airto supplied a feral bed of jungle sounds.

Purim performed her own high-wire act. In “Return to Forever,” the song that gave the band its name, she whooped, howled, climbed wordlessly into the clouds, and doubled Farrell’s serpentine flute lines. “I had to work with Joe for hours and hours to perfect our unison,” she says. Corea’s friend Neville Potter, a British poet and Scientologist, wrote lyrics that expressed the church’s utopian views: “Sometime ago I had a dream, it was happy, it was lasting, it was free/And now in life, oh, can’t you see/How we can make that dream into reality.”

The giddy Cloud Nine from which she sang wasn’t faked, as she eventually told Leonard Feather in the Los Angeles Times. “I was stupid,” she confessed. “I was using cocaine, smoking weed, taking pills.” Today she explains: “I didn’t want to be that white girl who wouldn’t touch anything. I wanted to be part of the group.”

James Gavin

James Gavin is the author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne, and Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of Cabaret. He is a regular contributor to JazzTimes.