Last July it was announced on Facebook that the Brazilian bossanovista João Gilberto had died. The singer and virtuoso guitarist had collapsed at his home in Rio de Janeiro, aged 87. Thousands of fans took to Twitter to register their grief. Like Prince or Michael Jackson, Gilberto was a strange and wonderful artist; in the late 1950s he effectively invented bossa nova by reconfiguring black samba rhythms for affluent urban tastes, much as Elvis had done with rhythm and blues. In the wrong hands, of course, bossa is cocktail muzak. The Girl from Ipanema in Frank Sinatra’s version is heavy on the flutes and heavenly strings: the exquisite restraint of the original is lost. Gilberto alone gave the Brazilian dance beat a hushed intensity of emotion and saudade (Portuguese for “yearning” or “nostalgia”); his fragile singing voice spoke of solitude, melancholy and, not least, the sunswept seas and head-turning beach beauties of Copacana.
Rumours of Gilberto’s death turned out to be exaggerated: the Facebook page “RIP João Gilberto” was a hoax of the sort that famous people sometimes attract. Gilberto is still alive (and will be celebrating the New Year), but only just ; his old age is shadowed by the prospect of financial ruin and madness. His daughter Bebel Gilberto, a cabaret singer resident in New York, describes a life of “mental confusion” as the elderly João opens his door for restaurant deliveries only and leads a Howard Hughes-like existence dressed all day in his pyjamas. He weighs barely nine stone, if we are to believe the Brazilian press.
Living in a borrowed apartment, twice divorced, he is caught up in a family feud between Bebel and her brother, João Marcelo, on one side, and his latest ex-partner Claudia Faissol, a former journalist 40 years his junior, on the other. The siblings accuse Faissol of defrauding their father of royalties and other monies. “She tricked an elderly man. She belongs in jail,” says João Marcelo: Faissol, who has a teenage daughter, Luisa, by Gilberto, has not only made Gilberto a public bankrupt, but “confiscated” him from loved ones. Bebel, for her part, wishes to have her father declared legally “incapacitated”, and intercept his bank statements and other correspondence. She and her brother are forbidden access to Gilberto, however, after Faissol’s lawyers issued an injunction. (Neither Bebel nor João Marcelo lives in Brazil.) From the outside, the family bitterness appears to be motivated partly by money and other pettiness. Gilberto’s first record company, EMI, owes him US$45 million in unpaid royalty earnings, according to Brazilian lawyers. Should he die before the case is resolved legally, his heirs stand to gain from the fortune. (So far, EMI says it has restituted $400,00.)
Gilberto was last glimpsed in 2015 when he appeared in an internet video with his daughter Luisa, who was then nine years old; dressed in pyjamas he strums The Girl from Ipanema on an out-of-tune guitar. He looks doddery if content.
His self-imposed silence and solitude are said to be aggravated by loneliness and depression. While Bebel and João Marcelo impute the meanest of motives to Faissol, Gilberto remains on friendly terms with her. In 2017 she called round with Luisa in order to take him to the airport as he was due to collect an honourary music doctorate from Columbia University in New York. (“I am happy and honoured,” Gilberto had written to the university. “Thank you for this prestigious recognition.”) But there was no sign of him. He had moved to another apartment – one owned by the wife of the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso. Faissol was accused of breaking down the door with the help of the fire brigade; all she did, she insisted, was summon a locksmith. Bebel and her brother look on that episode as a day of family shame: Faissol’s intention all along had been to “kidnap” Gilberto and make him sign business contracts, they told Brazilian journalists. Gilberto never did collect his doctorate: feelings of humiliation and pain at his pauperism apparently prevented him from doing so.
The Brazilian classical pianist Marcelo Bratke (right), a friend of mine, spoke of his sadness at the family fighting. “Gilberto is the Mozart of Brazilian popular music – his sparse unadorned music hides the most complex musical structures.” Marcelo should know; he is recording the complete piano works of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos – a favourite with bossanovistas – and has interpreted love songs by the Oxford-educated bossa nova poet Vinicius de Moraes, who co-wrote The Girl from Ipanema. In Brazil today, Gilberto’s music recommends itself to every level of brow. “It’s become part of the collective memory of the Brazilian people,” adds Marcelo.
During the bossa nova glory days of 1958 to 1964, Gilberto was supremely impressive on stage partly because he managed to keep perfectly still. The slightest raising of an arm in time to the music or tapping of a foot was enough to make him more sexy and cool than any singer before or since. (Mick Jagger’s Danny La Rue-style flouncing is, in bossa nova terms, the opposite of sex.) Gilberto was one of the first popular singers to realise that one does not need a big voice to put across emotion. Bebel Gilberto’s best-known album, Tanto Tempo, the surprise hit of 2000, is thoroughly “Joãogilbertian” in its jazz-bossa guitar and languid samba tones. It is apparently Bill Clinton’s all-time favourite record.
João Gilberto himself would not have conquered the US without the enthusiasm of the Philadelphia-born saxophonist Stan Getz, who between 1962-4 recorded five jazz albums that introduced the “new thing” (bossa nova) from Rio.
The first of these LPs, Jazz Samba, was praised by Philip Larkin as “purely enjoyable”, while the legendary fourth, Getz/Gilberto, stayed at No 2 in the US charts for all of 1964. (The Beatles were unshakeably lodged at No 1.) With their off-key samba notes and precisely weighted piano chords of the Brazilian composer Tom Jobim, these albums showed the influence of Chopin, Villa-Lobos and the cool lyricism of West Coast Jazz. In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination they provided a musical balm, and launched what would become known as world music.
Now Gilberto is a recluse who sends no message from the darkness of his flat. Everything about his present state is mean, sad, lacking in style. Luisa can only visit him at his home, as he never goes out. Even Brazilians unfamiliar with Gilberto or his music write to newspapers to express their concern. Dreadful as his fate is, more dispiriting is the haggling between João Marcelo and Bebel. On Facebook João Marcelo recently accused his sister of keeping him in the dark about solicitors’ decisions. “I was not aware of the legal or physical machinations my sister took/is taking against my father.” For a man of Gilberto’s private nature and temperament, family squabbles of this sort are said to be upsetting; he has no loophole of escape or reprieve from the in-fighting.
For all his current woes, Gilberto has long been eccentric. A one-time heavy user of maconha (marijuana), in the early 1950s he was sent by his wealthy businessman father to a psychiatric sanatorium in his native Bahia in northern Brazil, where he gazed abstractedly out of a window. “Look at the wind depilating the trees,” he announced to his psychologist, who replied: “But trees have no hair, João.” Gilberto answered tetchily: “There are people who have no poetry” and left. His astonishing debut album Chega de saudade (No more sorrow), released in 1959, rescued him from a nervous breakdown. To a Brazilian audience accustomed to Carmen Miranda and accordion-heavy bolero, the album was a brazen avant-garde masterwork and more rhythmically intense than anything by Elvis. Brazil had just won the World Cup, and João Gilberto’s bossa nova caught a new mood of modernity and optimism. Meanwhile the man they call Il Maestro Supremo eeks out his last, pyjama-clad days in Rio as an enigma. I wish him a very happy new year.
This is a longer version of an article which first appeared in the Irish Times, 9 August 2018