What is Bossa Nova?

João Gilberto
As I said, in Vienna, Austria, I graduated as a classical singer, but my greatest passion is the bossa nova, which... Wait! Uh... You don't know, what bossa nova is?
Bossa nova emerged in the late 1950s. Young Brazilian musicians residing in the South Zone of Rio de Janeiro (Copacabana and Ipanema) were more interested in jazz than in the Brazilian music of that time, which for them sounded very antiquated. Brazilian songs then were sung in a rather artificial manner, with a classical voice, as if they were opera arias. The lyrics were, so to speak, archaic as well, the words were not those used by the youth in their everyday language. Young musicians used to play at nightclubs and bars of Rio de Janeiro. Although they were big fans of jazz, they composed and played Brazilian music, but under the strong influence of jazz, they let consciously or unconsciously peculiarities of that music style flow more and more into their work, resulting in that their music sounded different from what most of the people were used to hear. Frequently they also gathered at each other’s house to make music or just hear the new jazz album that one of them had bought. They knew they were creating some new kind of Brazilian music, but they did not have yet a homogeneous style of music that would establish an own movement.
That changed when a young man called João Gilberto, from the Brazilian State of Bahia, moved to Rio de Janeiro to try a career as a musician. Rio that time was the capital of Brazil and therefore the center of the artistic activities of the country. For some years he performed here and there, mainly as a singer, without success. Unable to afford the rent of an apartment, he lived as a guest at other musicians’ places. Despaired, João Gilberto left Rio de Janeiro many times for several months. Known for his eccentricity, he sometimes locked himself in the small bathroom of his sister's house and played on the guitar one and the same chord for many hours in a row, obsessed with the idea of finding a new way of playing the instrument.
And he found it. He stylized the samba rhythm, applying jazz chords to it, not strumming the strings, but playing the bass notes with the thumb and gently plucking the other strings at once with three fingers. As for the singing, if until then Brazilian singers sang with operatic voice, João Gilberto started to sing quietly, in a soft and velvety way, without vibrato. Returning to Rio, he showed his new way of playing and singing to the other musicians.
Frank Sinatra & Tom Jobim
One that was impressed was Antonio Carlos Jobim, better known as Tom Jobim, who would become the most important bossa nova composer. “Nova”, in Portuguese, means new and “bossa” protuberance or swelling, but in the slang of that time it stood for talent, fashion, sophistication, something or someone that excels. So, bossa nova means something like “new fashion”, “new (cool) way”.
In 1958 the singer Elizeth Cardoso recorded an album entitled “Canção do Amor Demais”, entirely with songs by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. On this album, João Gilberto accompanied Elizeth on the guitar in two tracks: “Chega de Saudade” and “Outra Vez”. This was the first record to register João Gilberto’s new way of playing the guitar. Three months later João Gilberto recorded his own album, singing and playing, with one song by himself, “Bim-Bom”, and one by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, “Chega de Saudade”. The bossa nova was officially born.
American and European musicians, who traveled to Brazil, started to take notice of this new music style and took the novelty with them to their countries. Bossa nova became so popular in the United States that in 1962 Brazilian musicians were invited to perform at the Carnegie Hall in New York, in a concert entitled “Bossa Nova (New Brazilian Jazz)”. In the audience were jazz icons, like Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Herbie Mann. The concert was broadcast live to several American and European radio stations. Two weeks after New York, the cream of the bossa nova musicians performed in another concert, this time at the George Washington Auditorium, after which they were welcomed at the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy.
From then on the bossa nova conquered the entire world. According to Performing Songwriter magazine, the song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), by Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, is worldwide the second most recorded song of all times.
Paul Béthencourt

While appreciating some album covers, listen here to the first records to feature the guitar beat invented by João Gilberto and which gave birth to the bossa nova music style:

Chega de Saudade (1958)

Composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim & Vinicius de Moraes

First record: Voice by Elizeth Cardoso, guitar by João Gilberto
Second record: Voice and guitar by João Gilberto