Getz, Gilberto, And The Birth Of Brazilian Jazz

I’ve been a fan of jazz for something like fifty years, starting with big band music and continuing into later variations, and for most of that time I’ve had two constants. First, I’ve always been partial to the reed section of a band, possibly because I played a reed instrument myself (badly). My instrument was a clarinet, but if I ever find myself stranded on a desert isle with only one type of musician available, I’d vote for a saxophonist. There’s just something about good sax.

My second constant, and it’s one that showed up surprisingly early in my musical evolution, is my affinity for Latin music. Some of the early Latin bands, such as those of Pérez Prado or Xavier Cugat, were very popular in the US in the period during and after World War II. (I’ve written about this era before, in an article about Los Indios Tabajaras.)

The evolution of all jazz – including the Latin variety – has continued through the years, as has my appreciation for it. And although there are a lot of different types of Latin jazz around, probably the best-known and most popular is Brazilian jazz, a genre that has its roots in dances such as the samba, mambo and rumba. (And don’t ask me about the differences in those dances — the only thing I know about dancing is that I don’t do it. Try to imagine a grizzly bear in a tutu.)

There are some different opinions about the history of Brazilian jazz, but there’s little doubt that tenor saxman Stan Getz was one of those making it popular in those days with songs like “Desafinado”, written by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Others such as Sergio Mendes helped fan the fire, and Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto and his wife Astrud burst onto the scene with “Girl From Ipanema”, another Jobim song. It became a mega-hit, and probably marks the genesis of bossa-nova as a mainstream sensation.

I enjoyed it right along with everyone else, but what really did it for me was when my favorite conventional jazz group, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, joined in with their best-selling album, Bossa Nova USA. I absolutely loved that album, and especially the solos by alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, who was already a big favorite of mine. Desmond seemed made to order for the music, with his melodic, lyrical style, and apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, because he ended up recording a lot of Latin music throughout the rest of his career.

One of his later recordings is a song I’ve always loved, and it’s been performed by a lot of musicians. It’s another Jobim composition, and I’m willing to bet that you’ll instantly recognize the melody, even if you don’t know the title. It’s from Desmond’s 1975 album Pure Desmond, and it’s simply called “Wave”.

Brazilian jazz, and in a larger sense, all Latin jazz — a genre that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

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