Brazilian Heroes #3 – Tom Jobim

Tom Jobim was one of Brazil’s most beloved musicians, and is credited with some of the countries most famous songs, including the ubiquitous ‘Girl from Ipanema’. He kick started the Bossa Nova craze, and secured Brazil’s reputation as a musical nation. He is so well known that, in 1999, the main airport in Rio was renamed in his honour.

Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim (25/01/27 – 8/12/94), better known as Tom Jobim, was a Brazillian musician who played a major role in the development of the bossa nova style. His musical talents extended to composing, songwriting, arranging, singing and playing both the piano and the guitar, and many of his songs have become jazz standards. His most famous song is ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, which was released on the Grammy award-winning album ‘Getz/Gilberto’, an album which has sold 500,000+ copies. He was described by Charlie Byrd as “the most significant writer of popular music in the second-half of the 20th Century.”

Early Life

Tom Jobim was born and raised in Rio, making a home amongst the forests and beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. His birth-father, Jorge, a poet and diplomat, died when Tom was 8, so it was left to his step-father, Celso Frota Pessoa, to oversee the youngster’s education. The first formal musical training that Tom received was in piano, under Hans Joachim Koellreutter, although he was also undoubtedly influenced by the local choro and and samba-canção scenes (both types of musical lamentation), including the work of the legendary Pixinguinha.

As Tom passed into adulthood, he continued to involve himself in the Rio music scene, playing in small bars known as inferminhos (little hells), while also working as an arranger and copyist for local recording studios. At the age of 25, Tom began to work at Continental Records and was able to release his first single, ‘Incerteza’. Further releases followed, and Tom’s career gathered pace, leading to his first commercial success, ‘Tereza da Praia’. In 1954, Tom was introduced to Vincius de Moraes, a playwright working on his latest production, Orfeu da Conceição, a play based on Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Tom was commissioned to write the musical accompaniment for the play, which was eventually adapted into a oscar-winning movie, exposing Tom’s soundtrack to a global audience.

Global Success

The success of Black Orpheus led to a surge of international interest in Brazillian culture and music. In 1961, in an attempt to counter USSR cultural propaganda, the US State Department sponsored a ‘goodwill’ tour of Brazil, featuring US jazz musicians, including flutist Herbie Mann and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Ironically, during this trip, the US musicians absorbed Brazillian rhythms, importing them back to the US on their return home. A series of collaborations followed, producing many classic albums, including the pioneering ‘Jazz Samba’, ‘Herbie Mann and João Gilberto with Antonio Carlos Jobim’ and ‘Getz/Gilberto’. The relaxed tempo and sophisticated melodies were a breath of fresh air in comparison to the hard-driving bebop being played in the US during the early 60’s. This popular trend became known as Bossa Nova, because, in the words of Tom Jobim:

“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. These convexities correspond to the concavities of gray matter in the brain. So, if a guy has 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’.”

In 1963, the arrival of Beatle-mania dampened enthusiasm for Bossa Nova, but Jobim had already cemented his status on the international scene. Taking advantage of a continued interest in latin rhythms, Jobim collaborated with many high-profile US pop-musicians, most notably with both Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Although the Bossa Nova craze subsided further in the late 60’s, Jobim continued to tour and release solo material. In Brazil, the reception of Bossa Nova had always been more frosty than in the US. As US interest peaked, native opinion turned against Bossa Nova, portraying it as an Americanisation of a traditional Brazillian style, although Jobim always contested that Bossa Nova was more within the samba genre than the jazz genre. As with many musicians of the era, Jobim’s music was also examined for subversive elements by the Military regime during the junta, although he was not forced into exile, like some of the revolutionary artists within the MPB movement.

Jobim’s later albums, such as ‘Jobim’ (1972), and ‘Urubu’ (1975), demonstrate a move away from the cool, Bossa Nova style, as his compositions became more orchestral. As a mainstay of Brazillian popular culture, he was honoured with carnival floats dedicated to his work. He died in 1994, in his adopted home of New York.


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Tom Jobim