João Gilberto 1931-2019

The singer, songwriter, and guitarist who largely defined Brazilian bossa nova has passed away at 88

João Gilberto in 2006
João Gilberto in 2006 (photo: Tuca Vieira)

João Gilberto, a Brazilian guitarist and singer/songwriter who was one of the creators (and arguably the most iconic performer) of the bossa nova genre, died July 6 at his home in Rio de Janeiro. He was 88.

His death was announced by his son, João Marcelo Gilberto. The cause of death was an unspecified illness. “His fight was noble,” the younger Gilberto said in his statement.

Along with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, Gilberto was one of the architects of the bossa nova (or “new beat”) sound that took both Brazilian popular music and jazz by storm in the early 1960s. Gilberto’s 1959 recording of Jobim and Moraes’ “Chega de Saudade” is usually regarded as the first bossa nova record and was certainly the first one to achieve popular success, inaugurating the trend. Gilberto’s lilting baritone voice and delicate, nuanced guitar playing immediately became a central pillar of Brazilian music.

Gilberto took his newfound star with him to the United States, where he spent nearly 20 years collaborating with the leading lights of American jazz. Returning to Brazil in 1980, he was feted as a musical legend and pioneer by his peers and disciples. Although he performed regularly through the 2000s, he lived a reclusive life in Brazil and rarely recorded.

Gilberto was “the greatest genius of Brazilian music,” wrote Brazilian singer Gal Costa on Twitter. “He will be missed but his legacy is very important to Brazil and to the world.”

João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira was born June 10, 1931 in Juazeiro in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. His father, an affluent merchant, gave him his first guitar at the age of 14. Within two years, young João had dropped out of boarding school for the sake of that guitar. In 1949 he moved to Salvador, Bahia’s capital city, to become a musician; a year later, he was in the nation’s cultural capital of Rio de Janeiro.

Making a single recording in 1952, Gilberto became largely an itinerant musical figure, gigging occasionally but refusing to work in clubs whose patrons talked too much. Maintaining such standards eventually drove him to poverty. He ultimately found himself living in 1955 in his sister’s house in Minas Gerais; in the isolation (and acoustically resonant confines) of her bathroom he cultivated his own syncopated variation on traditional Brazilian samba. Before that year was out, however, Gilberto, at his father’s behest, had spent a week under observation at a Salvador mental institution.

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After that rock-bottom, Gilberto began a meteoric rise when he returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1957. He met composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who detected a kindred spirit in the musician’s gentle, nuanced, jazz-influenced singing and guitar playing. Jobim adapted a song in progress, “Chega de Saudade,” to Gilberto’s style, enlisting the guitarist to accompany singer Elizete Cardoso on the song’s first recording in May 1958. A few months later, Gilberto recorded his own version—a smash hit that from its release began reinventing the Brazilian musical paradigm.

Bossa nova also crossed over internationally, helped by Gilberto’s hit single and his subsequent three albums. In November 1962 the singer/guitarist was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York; the following year, he moved to the United States, where he and his wife Astrud collaborated on a recording with jazz saxophonist Stan Getz. Their 1964 album Getz/Gilberto featured a new Jobim/Moraes composition, “The Girl from Ipanema,” featuring both Gilbertos’ vocals; it became a worldwide hit even greater than “Chega de Saudade.”

Stan Getz and Joäo Gilberto

Gilberto’s career continued, as did his collaborations with American musicians like Getz, flutist Herbie Mann, and vibraphonist Gary Burton, among others. (However, his marriage to Astrud ended in 1965; he married singer Miúcha that same year.) He also recorded under his own name, albeit sporadically; there were nine studio albums between 1959’s Chega de Saudade and 2002’s João Voz e Violão. Live recordings were much more frequent, including a 1976 concert with Getz and pianist Joanne Brackeen that was released in 2016.

With the exception of a two-year stay in Mexico, Gilberto remained in the United States until 1980, when he returned to Rio de Janeiro. By that time, two new generations of musicians had followed in his footsteps and venerated him as a musical and cultural icon. The artists celebrated each other, with Gilberto expanding his repertoire to include songs by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil just as those performers had included his songs in theirs. (Brasil, Gilberto’s first album after his return, featured Veloso, Gil, and singer/songwriter Maria Bethânia.)

Though he continued performing, Gilberto’s life in Brazil was famously reclusive, confined to a quiet residence in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro. He ceased live performance in 2008, not even appearing publicly when he won an honorary doctorate in music from Columbia University in 2017.

In addition to João Marcelo, Gilberto is survived by his two daughters: Isabel “Bebel” Gilberto, an internationally renowned singer/songwriter in her own right, and Luisa.

The family has announced that there will be no public funeral or memorial.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.