July 25, 2021

When Bossa Nova came to New York and it was a failure

The stellar night of bossa nova in New York did not have the expected triumphant taste. One of the greatest references of the genre would have said when he entered the dressing rooms of Carnegie Hall, half joking, half frustrated “Bossa Go Home!”, A phrase that would have inspired the title of the chronicle of that meeting in the newspaper The New Yorker. Beyond the veracity of this urban legend, the concrete thing was that the enormous display of Brazilian artists on this important New York stage it was nothing short of frustrating.

Almost 59 years ago, on the cold and rainy night of Wednesday, November 21, 1962, some 40 musicians specially arrived from Rio de Janeiro presented “La noche de la Bossa Nova, en Nueva York”. A show that captured the attention of the city and whose main artists were Joao Gilberto (1931-2019), Tom Jobim (1927-1994) and Luiz Bonfa (1922-2001), a superlative troika that promised the best of that cool genre of Brazilian music. However, the management of the festival had serious deficiencies that led the critic of The New York Times, John Wilson, to define the meeting as “A forest of microphones and a muddy amplification reduced the instrumental groups to a monotonous porridge”.

Indeed, bossa nova, gender born in the mid-50s, in Rio de Janeiro, with influences from samba and an evident approach to modern jazz, that is, to bebop, has as one of its central elements an intimate atmosphere that the Carnegie Hall technicians simply overlooked.

João Gilberto was one of the first calls for La Noche de la Bossa Nova in New York. Photo DPA

Eleven stage microphones produced uncomfortable reverb throughout the performance; in addition to this important mistake, the continuous rise and fall of stage musicians created a state of amplified confusion due to the poor handling of the lights that, on more than one occasion, took his time to find the artist. They say that in the rush the artists collided in that sloppy coming and going. In short, a complicated night with such obvious and avoidable errors that led, for example, the French actress and singer Juliette Grecco to consider herself in an interview with the newspaper The state of Sao Paulo: “I think there was an intention to sabotage the show.”

A trip with illusion (and coffee)

So much expectation in the presentation generated a huge illusion in the artists Brazilians who arrived in New York from the hand of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Itamaraty, as that chancellery is known, not only financed many of the tickets, but also used the festival to promote Brazilian coffee, who competes head to head with the Colombian.

Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto, in 1962, at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto, in 1962, at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The agreement was achieved by an American record producer Sidney Frey, owner of the record label Audio Fidelity. This entrepreneur, following the movie Carnival Orpheus (1959), he knew Jobin’s music and decided to present it together with Gilberto, in New York.

By the way, the pianist had already been paving his way to the United States with some compositions published in that country. It all started with Frey’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro in November 1961 to hire Gilberto and Jobim and he had the salutary suggestion to visit the famous Beco das Garrafas, cradle of carioca bohemia and the bossa in Copacabana. It was in that alley where he found the cream of the genre and one of the most creative spaces in artistic terms in Brazil. “They were all there; they were amazing nights and that’s where my idea of ​​a festival dedicated entirely to bossa nova was born, “said Frey.

Of the two musicians that Frey was going to initially hire, Gilberto, Jobim, Luis Bonfá, ended up traveling to the United States. Oscar Castro Mendes, Sergio Mendes, Ana Lúcia, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Chico Feitosa, Milton Banana, Normando Santos, Sergio Ricardo, Carmen Santos, Agostinho Dos Santos and Dom Um Romao, among others. According to reports, Jobim was not sure if he would participate in the meeting and only at the last minute did he join the show.

Lack of experience and too many musicians

The organization had flaws, perhaps due to the lack of experience of the producer and because of the short time to prepare a scenario of these characteristics. Magazine BillboardIn his Review Live, he added fuel to the fire with his catastrophic title: “Debate at Carnegie Hall” and he counted that there were 42 presentations in 180 minutes.

In addition, as if there were few Brazilians, they joined the tenor saxophone Stan Getz (1927-1991) and the vibraphonist Gary McFarland (1933-1971).

Stan Getz and João Gilberto recorded an album after Carnegie Hall, which had an English version of "girl from ipanema".  AP Photo

Stan Getz and João Gilberto recorded an album after Carnegie Hall, which had an English version of “Garota de Ipanema”. AP Photo

The most interesting moments of that night and that somehow redeemed the Brazilian musicians and composers were the performances of Bonfá, in duet with Agostinho Dos Santos, with Carnival morning; Tom Jobim, with One note samba Y Corcovado (that apparently he missed the tone and started again) and Joao Gilberto with samba from my land, Desafinado Y Again. His shy, delicate and elegantly rhythmic style conquered the audience.

The follies of the organization were exposed also in the material recorded live; Tom Jobim was left out of the album released by Audio Fidelity. The recording technician ignored it. The disc Bossa Nova At Carnegie Hall came out in February 1964.

A luxury audience

Another historical photo from Bossa Nova Night in New York, taken in November 1962, at Carnegie Hall.

Another historical photo from Bossa Nova Night in New York, taken in November 1962, at Carnegie Hall.

Precisely, the night summoned a select audience, among which were Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonbal Adderley, Herbie Mann and the complete Modern Jazz Quartet, among others. The 3,000 people who packed Carnegie Hall saw off the Brazilian artists standing on that historic night, but that left a bitter taste in the artists for the incompetencies surrounding the festival.

After the festival, a mixture of unease and joy reigned among the artists; no doubt the performances were obscured by technical inconveniences but they did not go so far as to ruin this international presentation.

In New York, the atmosphere towards bossa nova was downright stimulating, to the point that the consul in that city, the poet Dora Vasconcelos, organized on December 3, at the Village Gate, a bossa nova session in an intimate club setting, with impeccable performances by Joao Gilberto, Carlos Lyra, Sergio Mendes, Roberto Menescal and Sergio Ricardo.

The delegation of Brazilian artists, at Carnegie Hall, in 1962.

The delegation of Brazilian artists, at Carnegie Hall, in 1962.

Days later, they performed at the Lisner Auditorium, Georgetown University, in Washington, with an audience mesmerized by the quality of these musicians and compositions of inexhaustible richness. After the concert they were received at the White House por Jackie Kennedy.

In the meantime, controversies occurred in Brazil about the convenience or not of having brought the youthful bossa nova to that stage. The concert suffered attacks, even from some artists who saw the festival counterproductive in terms of exposure. However, reality was on the side of those who saw The Night of Bossa Nova as a timely window to enter a market like the North American. “The reaction was so good that we couldn’t ignore it. I’d almost say it was a surprise to us. This concert was fundamental for the dissemination of Brazilian music ”, stated Gilberto Gil.

Stan Getz y Joao Gilberto

After Carnegie Hall, Stan Getz and João Gilberto entered a New York studio to record their album "Getz/Gilberto".  AP Photo

After Carnegie Hall, Stan Getz and João Gilberto entered a New York studio to record their album “Getz / Gilberto”. AP Photo

Another positive aspect of Bossa Nova Night at Carnegie Hall was the creation of the Stan Getz quartet with Joao Gilberto, Tom Jobim, and Milton Banana. They released an emblematic album in 1963, in which Gilberto’s wife appears, Astrud singing girl from ipanema in English and that revolutionized the American music scene. It could be said that from this record work, artists like Frank Sinatra or even Elvis Presley added bossa nova to their repertoires.

A historic alley

Beco das Garrafas (Alley of bottles) is an alley between 21 and 37 Duvivier Street, in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, with three clubs -Little Club, Bacarat and Bottle’s- where bossa nova would have been born. The activity began in 1959 and the name was due to the fact that the neighbors threw empty bottles at them to the alley for the music to be turned down.

Great artists passed through these spaces such as Elis Regina, Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Joao Donato, Joao Gilberto, Baden Powell, Luiz Bonfá, Jorge Ben, Leny Andrade, Wilson Simonal and Sergio Mendes, among others. The peculiarity of these clubs is that they were also the places to listen to modern jazz, the beloved bebop.