A New Flair: A Brief History of Bossa Nova

“They Sang of waves, sailboats, flowers, blue skies, and, most of all, women.”

Rio de Janeiro was a gorgeous place in 1950s and 1960s. From 1956 to 1961, President Juscelino Kubitschek put the country on a course to modernization that sent Brazil into the spotlight. In 1958, the Brazilian National soccer team won its first World Cup. The new national capital city of Brasilia was under construction. The times were bright and the future looked prosperous to the citizens. The emerging styles of music reflected the era perfectly. Three small, overcrowded clubs on a small alley street would be the setting for the birth of a new musical movement that blends Brazilian samba with the detailed harmonic concepts of bebop and the relaxed, smooth sound of West Coast cool players like Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. Musicians in the Zuna Sul (Southern District) region of Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro favored jazz and American movies and would soon create style of music that is best described as fresh, laid-back and cool. Composers and musicians such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfá, João Gilberto, and eventually Americans Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz gained celebrity status between the years of 1956 and 1965 in the movement known as Bossa Nova.

Sir Isaac Newton stated that “With every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This law often holds strong pertinence in the world of music. The up-tempo, virtuosity of Bebop in the 1940s was eventually eclipsed by the smooth sound of Cool in the late 1950s and 1960s. This new sound quickly made its way to the Brazilian people and influenced a new, elegant music that did not catch on in the United States until 1961. Johnny Alf is perhaps the first artist to truly hint at bossa nova. His 1953 single, “Falsete,” exhibited new harmonic thinking and casual, laid-back lyrics that would eventually become key aspects in bossa nova. Unfortunately, an invitation to work in Sao Paulo in the mid 1950s caused Alf to move away just as the musicians who would popularize the emerging style were getting together.  By the time he moved back to Rio de Janeiro in 1962, the bossa nova movement had peaked and Alf was never able to achieve the acclaim he deserved. Although some artists such as Luiz Bonfá and Carlos Lyra started composing songs in styles that closely resemble bossa during the mid 1950s, any history of the style would be incomplete without first explaining the huge contributions to the development of the style by composer/musician Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim was born on January 25, 1927 in the Tijuca area of Rio de Janeiro. In 1928, his family moved to Ipanema where he grew up “running in the dunes, swimming, playing soccer in the sandy, unpaved streets, and contemplating the birds, trees, dolphins, and other aspects of nature that were much more abundant in Rio in the 1930s.” When he was fourteen, Jobim’s stepfather found him playing his sister, Helena’s, piano and because of his great interest, decided to get him lessons. His teacher was, German born, Hans Joachim Koellreuter (b. 1915). Koellreuter was a graduate of the Berlin State Academy of Music. During World War II, he fled to Brazil and went on to teach many popular Brazilian avant-garde pianists. Despite the fact that Jobim learned much from Koellreuter about theoretical aspects like Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, his hobby was not his first ambition. He first aspired to become an Architect. He got a job at a nearby architect’s office, but, before long, was bored with the monotony of blue collar life and decided to take the path that seemed most logical for him, music.

Although he continued to study with other music teachers, such as Lúcia Branco and Tomas Teran, his hobby did not inspire him until he heard the music of Brazilian composer Villa Lobos, who merged baroque musical forms with Brazilian folk-music. Jobim immersed himself in the theoretical aspects of music, all the while keeping Brazilian popular music in the back of his mind.

Around 1950, he started performing in the nightclubs of Rio de Janeiro. Two years later he landed a transcribing job at the Continental Record Company. The year after, he started working for the Odeon label as an artistic director. It was during this time that Jobim started writing songs with his friend and pianist, Newton Mendonça (1927-1960). In 1954 he began his career as an arranger, eventually arranging records by Dick Farney, Os Lariocas, and Elizeth Cardoso. He also composed the ten-inch album, Sinfonia do Rio de Janeiro – Sinfonia Popular em Tempo de Samba.

Although Jobim was not a great instrumentalist or singer, his compositions were unique and were helping him to build a reputation for himself in the Brazilian music scene. He continued composing with Mendoça and, eventually, Luiz Bonfá until he met the man who would become his greatest songwriting partner: Vinícius de Moraes. This team eventually composes songs such as “Insensatez” (How Insensitive), and “Garota*** de Ipanema” (The Girl From Ipanema).

According to Chris McGowan, author of The Brazilian Sound, bossa nova was born in 1956 when Jobim met acclaimed poet Vinícius de Moraes. That same year, they collaborated on “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues) and the music for the play Orfeu de Conceiçao, set in Carnival as a modern, Brazilian, version of the Greek love story of Orpheus and Eurydice. This is also the time that the pair composed the highly successful “Desafinado” (Off-Key). Vinícius later wrote about Jobim on those times: “I did not know I was giving this young composer from Ipanema a signal to begin a new movement in Brazilian music. About the same time, by a kind of telepathy, other young composers like Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, and Oscar Castro-Neves were beginning to compose in a similar style.” Both the play and its soundtrack were big hits. Songs such as “Se Todos Fossen Inguais a Você” (If Everyone Were like You) and “Eu e o Amor” (Me and Love) became instant Brazilian classics.

When production of the Orfeu de Conceiçao movie (to be re-titled Orfeu Negro) began in 1958, French producer Sacha Gardine requested that original music be written. Jobim and Moraes composed new songs for the movie, including the hit “A Felicidade” (Happiness). Luiz Bonfá also contributed to the score with tunes like the title track, “Manha de Carnaval” (Morning of the Carnival) and “Samba de Orfeu “(Orpheus’ Samba). The soundtrack for the movie is now considered “early bossa nova.” The film showed the idyllic image of Rio de Janeiro: pristine beaches, nightclubs, and beautiful women. This image is vital to the mood and feel of bossa pieces.

“In 1958 the songs of Tom and Vinícius met the guitar and voice of João Gilberto, and the bossa nova style crystallized.” Gilberto, born in 1932 in Joazeiro, single-handedly created the bossa nova rhythm on his 1958 LP, Conçao do Amor Demais (Song for Excessive Love). This album premiered a new way of strumming chords on the guitar that came to be known as violāo gago (stammering guitar). According to Jobim, this album, “constituted a boundary mark, a fission point, a break with the past.” It was a ‘bossa nova’. It was a new thing.

This new way of playing was, in essence, a whole samba ensemble played on a single instrument. With his thumb, Gilberto imitated the drums and bass by playing root-fifth movements on the lower two strings. The rest of his fingers imitated the tambourines, ganzás, and agogôs on the upper four strings. The three examples below show three of the classic syncopations that João typically used:

Bossa Nova Rhythm Example

Bossa Nova Rhythm Example

This kind of accompaniment, along with his highly syncopated and melodic singing, filled any possible empty spaces in the music.

Thanks to Jobim’s connections at the Odeon label, where he once worked as artistic director, Gilberto was able to record and release his first single, “Chega de Saudade.” Many consider this to be the first real bossa nova recording. Although the single was slow to catch on, it did well enough that Odeon let Gilberto record a full length LP. This was to become the 1959 classic Chega de Saudade, which is considered the first bossa nova album. The new sound of this album quickly captured the Brazilian people and bossa nova became the sound in everyone’s hearts.

The Orfeu Negro movie was released this same year and only helped to compel the bossa nova movement into the worldwide spotlight. The movie won first prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnival,” became a worldwide success and ended up selling millions of copies. Both Bonfá and Jobim became world famous. Although Capitol Records released João Gilberto’s Brazil’s Brilliant João Gilberto in 1961, the American public was still reluctant to bite. It would take Charlie Byrd and a trip sponsored by the U.S. State Department to trigger the eventual North American invasion of bossa nova.

When guitarist Charlie Byrd toured South America in the spring of 1961, he became heavily influenced by the bossa nova craze. Artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, and Coleman Hawkins also toured the continent that year looking for the roots of the Afro-Cuban influence in jazz. When Byrd returned, he brought back numerous scores and recordings, some of which he played for saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz was fascinated by the style of João Gilberto and he and Byrd decided to record their own album in the new style.

In April of 1962, Jazz Samba was released. The album immediately shot to number one on the Billboard pop chart and received a five-star review in Downbeat magazine. Their recording of “Desafinado” made it to the top 20 in Billboard and earned Getz a Grammy for best solo jazz performance. Critics often debate whether or not this is the first U.S. Jazz-Bossa album or whether it was a jazz-bossa album at all, due to the word ‘samba’ in the title. Given that “Desafinado” is the quintessential bossa nova composition and the syncopations of the melody are commonly found in most bossa nova compositions, most scholars agree that it is the first.

This album was the catalyst for the North American bossa nova boom. A month after its release, Dizzy Gillespie recorded his own version of “Desafinado” in New York. Herbie Mann recorded the album Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, Jobim, and Sergio Mendes, as well as other Brazilian musicians (as to produce a more authentic sound). Saxophonist Paul Winter recorded Jazz Meets Bossa Nova after hearing a Gilberto album. Elvis Presley even cashed in on the new crazed with Bossa Nova Baby. For jazz, bossa nova was a “rediscovery of mellowness, lightness, and a subtle but irresistible tunefulness,” that seemed to have been lost in jazz after the bebop revolution of the 1940s.”

After the release of Jazz Samba, Getz and Byrd went their separate ways, but neither stopped exploring the new style. Charlie Byrd went on to explore the Brazilian style in many of his albums into the late 1980s, such as Once More/Charlie Byrd’s Bossa Nova and Byrd at the Gate. Getz also continued to explore the style, becoming the prominent figure in the Americanization of bossa nova. His second jazz-bossa album, Big Band Bossa Nova, reached number 13 on the pop charts and his album Jazz Samba Encore with Luiz Bonfá in 1963 was also a great success. However, both of these albums do not even compare to his next release.

Joined by João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Getz/Gilberto was released in 1964 when the bossa nova movement was starting to lose its strength. The album immediately went to number two on the pop charts, only getting beat by the Beatles, and stayed within the top 40 for ninety-six weeks. It won three Grammys (best album, best jazz performance, and best engineering), and one for “The Girl from Ipanema” for best song. The album features Getz on tenor saxophone, João on guitar and vocals, Jobim on piano, Milton Banana on drums, and Tommy Williams on bass. Gilberto’s wife, Astrud, who had no professional experience, also appears on the album, singing the English vocals on “Garôta de Ipanema” (The Girl from Ipanema) and “Corcovado”. The Girl from Ipanema immediately went to number five on the Billboard singles chart. It is the most recorded bossa nova composition of all time. It is also one of the most often performed songs of all time. It is the epitome of the bossa nova style and is the apex of the Bossa Nova movement.

Written in 1962, “The Girl from Ipanema,” exemplifies all the best aspects of bossa nova: the rhythm, the natural rhyme of the Portuguese language and the simple, elegant melody. Jobim first recorded it in 1963 with the Tamba Trio and singer Pery Ribeiro.  Eventually, Norman Gimbel added English lyrics for the Getz/Gilberto album. The story of the songs creation is one that draws the most colorful picture in the mind. Jobim and Vinícius were regulars at a bar named Veloso near the Ipanema beach and frequently saw a beautiful woman, named Heloίsa “Helô” Eneida Pinto, going to and from the beach. It wasn’t long before her beauty inspired them to immortalize her in a song.

The A sections speak of how Heloίsa’s beauty amazes everyone as she passes. Jobim wrote “When she walks she’s like a samba that swings so cool and sways so gentle.” The B section expresses longing for the woman. “But I watch her so sadly. How can I tell her I love her? Yes, I would give my heart gladly, but each day when she walks to the sea, she looks straight ahead not at me.” The song concludes with: “I smile, but she doesn’t see, she just doesn’t see. She just doesn’t see. No, she doesn’t see”

The song follows a 40 bar AABA song form in the key of Db major (instead of the published version in F major) with each A section being 8 bars and the B section being 16 bars. This form is repeated four times altogether. For the first A section, João begins the tune singing wordlessly then comes in singing in Portuguese and playing guitar by himself. Twenty-three second into the song, Williams and Jobim join in. It is interesting to note that the melody begins on the 9th of the chord and leaps down to the 7th and then the 6th. These colorful tones, along with Gilberto’s soft, nasally tone, set the vocals apart from the predominant preceding samba-cançao singing style, which featured a “strong, theatrical voice projected over an orchestral accompaniment.”

For the B section, the song modulates up a half step to D major. Although modulations are also common in jazz, they are usually approached by means of a ii-V or some other short harmonic progression. However, bossa nova compositions commonly achieve half-step key changes directly, without introducing the new key.

The second chorus features Astrud Gilberto singing the English lyrics. Her smooth, velvety tone fits perfectly with the rest of the band. The third time through is a solo by Stan Getz. John P. Murphy, Associate Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of North Texas, states that “his warm and breathy tone is the perfect instrument counterpart to João Gilberto’s voice, and his thorough harmonic knowledge enabled him to choose excellent notes to go with the chord progression.” Jobim plays the melody on piano for the fourth chorus while Astrud sings and Getz continues to solo. This song and the entire album is the result of when simplicity, originality, beauty, and tone all coalesce musically.

A few months after its release, Jobim recorded “The Girl from Ipanema” for his album The Composer of “Desafinado” Plays. Not long after, like all great styles of music, Sir Isaac Newton’s law came into play. The times reacted to the bossa nova movement. The Americanization of bossa nova included the translation of Portuguese lyrics into English and pushed the trend even closer to pop music. The style became watered down and lost the natural elegance that the Portuguese language possesses. The book Latin Jazz states this transition best. “Language and melody are so closely intertwined that a tune that is subtle and glancing sung in Portuguese can simply sound banal in English.” The sound that charmed the American people only three years early was showing signs of slowing down.

When the Brazilian government was toppled by a military coup in 1964, many bossa nova composers turned their attention away from beaches and women and toward politics and more socially oriented lyrics. Artists such as Marcos Valle, Sérgio Ricardo, and Carlos Lyra turned their attention to poverty and politics. During the bossa nova movement, lyrics focused on “o amor, o sorriso e a flor” (sun, smiles, and flowers), the title of João Gilberto’s second album, and themes like the love and beach life. Unfortunately, the new youth wanted music that expressed the new, harsh reality of Brazilian life. The country’s widespread inflation and huge foreign debt caused the emergence of a new music style that more properly reflected the state that Brazil was in. Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) developed because of this new way of thinking.

Antonio Carlos Jobim explained the origin for the term ‘Bossa Nova’:

“In Portuguese, a bossa means a ‘boss’ – a protuberance, a hump, a bump…. And the human brain has these protuberances – these bumps in the head…. So if a guy has a bossa for something, it is literally a bump in the brain – a talent for something. To say that he has a bossa for guitar would mean that he has a genius for guitar. So it has come to mean a flair for something – and bossa nova was a ‘new flair.’

Bossa Nova was a new way of thinking. It was a new way of making music. Compositions such as “Chega de Saudade,” “Desafinado,” “Samba de Uma Nota Só,” and of course “Garôta de Ipanema” reflect this period perfectly with their lyrics that speak of the sea, sun, nightclubs, and women. Like most musical styles, Bossa’s prominence was brief (1956-1965). The style branched out and influenced many other musical styles from avante-garde to pop music. Although the Bossa Nova movement lost its strength in the 1960s, the impression it made on music was everlasting.


Lawn, Richard J. Experiencing Jazz. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.

Leu, Lorraine. Brazilian Popular Music. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006.

McGowan, Chris and Possanha, Ricardo. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil. New York: Billboard Books, 1991.

Murphy, John P. Music in Brazil. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Roberts, John Storm. Latin Jazz. New York: Schirmer Books, 1999.