Overdue Ovation: A Bossa Nova Pioneer Celebrates His Latest Rebirth

Carlos Lyra, 86, has released an album of unrecorded songs stretching back 50 years

Carlos Lyra (photo: Kaká B.M Café Braga)

Many tourists who land in Brazil think that bossa nova, the country’s most renowned musical export, is still wafting through the palm trees and pulsing from oceanside boîtes. The truth is that by the time bossa had made its American splash in the ’60s, its six-year Brazilian heyday had begun to fade. The music’s blithe, breezy elegance, redolent of the middle-class good life, had grown trivial with the dawn of a military dictatorship, which squelched free speech and tortured dissenters.

Today in Rio, bossa is almost nowhere to be heard. But on a posh, tree-lined street in Ipanema lives one of the music’s last surviving pioneers: composer and singer Carlos Lyra, 86. Lyra’s trademark songs—“Você e Eu,” “Minha Namorada,” “Coisa Mais Linda,” “Primavera”—are so ingrained in the national psyche that audiences of a certain age sing along without prompting. Drawing on the cool, meticulous swing of ’50s West Coast jazz and the harmonies of the French impressionists, his music is exceptionally refined, and tuneful as anything bossa produced.

But such was the shadow cast by Antonio Carlos Jobim, the genre’s reigning monarch, that no other writer could ever compete outside Brazil. Saxophonist Paul Winter, who has championed Lyra since the ’60s, places his catalog “right up there next to Jobim’s. As things happened, Jobim’s body of work became well-known in America and Carlos’ didn’t, which in a way makes it an undiscovered treasure.”

Itamar Assiere, pianist for many a Brazilian legend, calls Lyra “one of the most creative and complete composers in Brazil. He has an incredible capacity to renew himself. He understood that bossa nova was eternal as music but temporary as a movement. So he took that sophistication and brought it to the samba and other forms of Brazilian music, like the marcha-rancho and the baião.”

Even so, Lyra’s hits grabbed almost all the attention. Countless songs languished, unrecorded, some for over 50 years. It was the dream of his wife and manager, Magda Botafogo, to bring his non-bossa material into the light, while giving this lion in winter the showcase of a lifetime.

This year, the album she produced, Além da Bossa (Besides Bossa), was released in Brazil. The songs, which Lyra wrote between the ages of 23 and nearly 80, have a gentility and grace that evoke Villa-Lobos, one of Brazil’s most esteemed classical composers. There are collaborations with great Brazilian lyricists (Ronaldo Bastos, Paulo César Pinheiro); settings of historic poets; and musicians of high prestige, including Dori Caymmi, Marcos Valle, João Donato, cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, and Assiere. Due to a shoulder injury in 2015, Lyra no longer plays guitar. But he always sang better than his fellow bossa composers, and on this album, his cozy, conversational baritone is in the forefront. Features in major newspapers have proclaimed him a grand elder statesman. “I never saw so many people paying homage to me!” Lyra marvels.

Visiting him this past April, I wallowed in his hilariously dishy yet astute eyewitness tales from the past, voiced in Portuguese and near-perfect colloquial English. Magda and their friend Red Sullivan, an Irish jazz flutist who lives in Rio, joined in the laughs. Lyra knows where the bodies are buried, and having outlived almost all his contemporaries, he’s close to having the last word. Wicked impersonations and opinions tumble out of him. Of the fabled singer/guitarist João Gilberto: “I called him Dracula because he was a vampire. He never came out in the light.” Lyra recalls Stan Getz, with whom he toured in the ’60s, as “a fun guy, but he was always drunk.”

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Yet musically, as Lyra doesn’t mind telling you, he was an “aristocrat.” Though born a few neighborhoods away, he flowered in Ipanema, which Magda describes as “a very calm place. Jobim used to swim in the lake. Rio was the capital of Brazil, so all the politicians used to meet in the bars and restaurants, discussing the country.” Lyra’s grandfather was a poet, his father a naval officer. At home were records ranging from Ravel and Debussy to Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, and Shorty Rogers—whose style, says Lyra, was “very classical. It was my direction in life, the coolness, the classical posture in art.”

He and his young musical friends, all from well-to-do families, shared a disdain for Brazil’s overwrought star singers. “They would scream, they would roll their r’s, that kind of shit. But bossa nova canceled all that. It was like talking. Everything was cool, like you were whispering in the ear of your love. I call it ‘the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.’”

Bossa exploded in 1958 with the first João Gilberto album, which contained three Lyra songs. Philips Records signed Lyra to his own contract. In 1962, when bossa came to Carnegie Hall in a notoriously messy and unfocused concert, Lyra was among the performers.

Government officials were leery of his participation. While the bossa crowd was largely right-wing, Lyra liked the socialists’ interest in culture and education, and he briefly went Communist. As musical director of the Centro Popular de Cultura, a Communist-leaning arts center in Rio, he helped bring black samba masters from the slums to public attention. He was at the CPC when a guerrilla group riddled it with bullets. On April 1, 1964, a military coup plunged Brazil into a 21-year dictatorship. “It was the end of a dream,” Lyra says.

New ones awaited him in Manhattan, to which he moved. Bossa was now popular in the States thanks to Stan Getz’s No. 1 hit album Jazz Samba, and his smash single of “The Girl from Ipanema,” which featured its composer Jobim on piano, as well as both Gilbertos. Paul Winter, a Columbia recording artist, had recorded two Lyra songs on his album Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova, a favorite of the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. Winter persuaded Columbia to let him make a whole Lyra album with the composer. Then Getz hired him to go on tour.

Unfortunately, Lyra and Getz never recorded together, and the album with Winter, The Sound of Ipanema, failed to ride the wave. “I never had the marketing spirit that Jobim had,” Lyra admits. A few translations of his songs wound up on albums but went mostly unnoticed. Bossa—absurdly marketed as a dance craze—lapsed into what Lyra calls “a joke.”

When the Getz group passed through Mexico in 1966, Lyra stayed; Mexicans loved bossa and work was plentiful. Five years later he and his American wife, actress Kate Lyra, returned to Rio and bore a daughter, Kay, today a bossa nova singer. Lyra had plenty to say about the country’s political realities, and he got a bitter taste of them when his 1975 album of protest songs, Heroí de Medo (Hero of Fear), was zapped by censors.

He never stopped performing or composing, but time had to pass before he acquired the golden glow of a legend. In 2015, Lyra returned to New York for the first time in 50 years to play Birdland, in a smash engagement shared with Marcos Valle. And in February of this year, he reunited with Paul Winter after 54 years for a concert in São Paulo.

Now, with Além da Bossa, Lyra is loving his latest rebirth. “I always sang to demonstrate my songs,” he says. “Now I’m singing to demonstrate me.”

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.