Thanks to Charlie Byrd, the Bossa Nova stole America's heart

First recorded in a D.C. church, the Bossa Nova celebrates its Golden Anniversary. Photo: Rio de Janeiro, where the Bossa Nova started

WASHINGTON, May 5, 2012 — On February 13, 1962, in Washington, D.C., a limo turns onto Columbia Road and parks behind a Volkswagen. Two vans park, one in front of the VW, one behind the limo.

It’s a cold but clear Tuesday morning in the nation’s capital. Bundled up men, carrying various sized cases and boxes, straggle from the vehicles to the side door of All Souls Church. Once inside, they enter empty Pierce Hall and begin unloading their items.  

They are setting up for a recording session. Then they start warming up their musical instruments and adjusting music stands. Engineers are testing microphones, reeling off cable cords and positioning speakers. The producer adjusts his headset and asks for a sound check.  

In a few minutes they will begin taping a record album for the Verve label. These musicians will be playing together as a unit for the first time. More significantly, they will be playing a musical form new to America, that is, new to North America. They can only hope the producers of Verve will like the innovative music enough to see the project through. 

Stan Getz, Joe Byrd, Charlie Byrd, 1962

New Wave Jazz from Brazil

The music is jazz, colored by Brazilian influences and rhythms. In Brazil, it is called the bossa nova or “new wave.”

The leader of this ad hoc combo is acclaimed guitarist Charlie Byrd, who owns and operates a jazz nightclub on 18th Street. Mr. Byrd had arranged this recording date, hoping to launch this new fusion of jazz and bossa nova in the U. S. He had personally discovered it in Brazil the previous year. His first choice for the session was renowned tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, winner of numerous Downbeat awards.

The playlist consists of songs by composers famous only in Brazil, two of which are by  composer-guitarist Joao Gilberto: “Desafinado” (“Slightly Out of Tune”) and “Samba de Uma Nota So” (“One Note Samba”), and one of which is a Charlie Byrd original.

The session proceeds song by song and only one requires a second take. In a few hours the session is over. Byrd’s masterful acoustic guitar chords, Getz’s lilting, smooth sax riffs, the easy soft samba beat of the rhythm section, and the jazz/bossa nova session is preserved on tape. It will be hand-carried by producer Creed Taylor to Verve records.

Now it is time for the playbacks. The men slide folding chairs around the speakers and listen. The proverbial pin dropping would sound like a percussion section in stereo. These men themselves, after all, will be hearing this music — jazz and bossa nova intertwined – for the first time. 

Cover of the bossa nova album, Jazz Samba

They listen intently. The tape ends. They pack up and begin loading the instruments and equipment back into the vehicles. They shake hands. They say goodbye. The session is ended. “We’ll see how it goes,” Getz says. The others “Amen” that.

Getz flies back to New York. Byrd and his brother, Joe who played rhythm guitar, drive down Columbia Road and turn left on 18th Street to the Showboat. Bassist Keter Betts drives home to eat and dress for that evening’s gig.

Drummers Bill Reichenbach and Buddy Deppenschmidt load their instruments into their respective vehicles and drive away. The session is past tense. Time, technology and business will take over from here.

How It Went

A few months later, April 20, to be exact, the LP album, “Jazz Samba,” is released. It stuns the music world and surprises even Verve records with its acceptance and impact. It shoots to the top off the jazz charts, then crosses over to the pop charts. It will remain there for weeks on end. It will become the best selling Long-Play (LP) jazz album of all time, selling half a million copies in just 18 months.

Music history was made that day by a group of local musicians augmented by Stan Getz ,who winged in from the Big Apple for a few hours in the nation’s capital. It is stunning to learn that all this had taken place just two buildings from the Claiborne, where I was living at the time.  

Soon the bossa nova became a household word. Every singer and musician wanted a piece of it. The Brazilian songs caught on big time, like a soft, summer breeze. It was a joy to listen to while “tooling down the highway.” It floated that spring and summer from sidewalk cafes, bars, passing cars. It was the ultimate essence of the beach experience. It seemed to underscore the summer feeling, to warm the crevices of a young life.

One Name Is Missing: Felix Grant

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd have been consistently credited with launching the bossa nova craze. This album, which is now celebrating its golden anniversary, remains to this day the only jazz album to list as number one on the Billboard pop charts.

Yet one person, unfortunately, is too often left out of the bossa nova story. His name is Felix Grant. Any article on the subject is incomplete without highlighting the influence of Mr. Grant in transporting this Brazilian music to the U. S. The elegant and mellifluous host of the weeknight radio show on WMAL, “The Album Sound,” had begun making trips to Brazil in the late 1950s. He discovered  a new culture and a whole new music.

Bringing back LPs of authentic Brazilian artists, Grant began playing the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luis Bonfa, Joao Gilberto, and the soundtrack of the Brazilian motion picture, “Black Orpheus” on his show.

It was Grant, in fact, who first told guitarist Charlie Byrd of this new and exciting music. He urged his guitarist friend to travel to Brazil to see for himself the beauty of the bossa nova sound. Charlie Byrd arranged a government-sponsored trip. In 1961, he traveled throughout South America to demonstrate jazz music in a number of countries. In Brazil, however, he sponged up the music Felix Grant had told him about. And he returned to the U.S. as smitten as Felix himself and as delirious with bossa nova fever.

Honors and Awards

Stan Getz won the Grammy as that year’s Best Jazz Performance for his excellent work on “Desafinado.” The album became a best seller and won a golden disc. Felix Grant would, two years later, receive Brazil’s highest civilian award, the Order of the Southern Cross, for introducing its music in the United States. The bossa nova would become a new and prized genre of American music.

And, incredibly, it all began in a Washington church 50 years ago.

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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