Lost in Translation: Introducing Bossa Nova to American Listeners

Midwest Music Research Collective; September 22, 2018

The Annual Conference of the South Central Graduate Music Consortium; September 30, 2018


In 1962, Verve Records released “Desafinado,” a single recorded by Stan Getz and Charlie  Byrd that stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for sixteen weeks. The success of the single propelled the  album, Jazz Samba, to the Billboard pop charts where it stayed for seventy weeks. In March 1963, the  Recording Academy awarded Getz a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance thanks to his playing on  “Desafinado.” The album’s incredible success led the Chicago Defender and Washington Post to credit  Getz and Byrd with introducing Brazilian bossa nova to American listeners.


However, their rendition differed from the original “Desafinado,” which was composed by  Antônio Carlos Jobim and first performed by João Gilberto on the latter’s album, Chega de Saudade  (1959). The bridge to “Desafinado” – which oscillates between A-major and A-minor in Gilberto’s  recording – stays in A-major during the Verve rendition. Additionally, Jobim’s long 60-bar form  confused the band. After one statement of the melody, Charlie Byrd took an acoustic guitar solo  over an F9 vamp provided by bassist Keter Betts. However, Gene Byrd, Charlie’s brother, thought  that the band would solo over the 60-bar form. After 16-measures, Gene heard his chords clashing  with the vamp and stopped playing. But such errors did not deter Verve producer Creed Taylor. The  Brazilian rhythms, like those played rather faithfully by the album’s percussionists Buddy  Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach, Sr., sounded too fresh and novel to American ears.


More importantly, these errors and differences in Verve’s version of “Desafinado”  profoundly impacted American popular music. By stripping “Desafinado” of its modal mixture and  emphasizing static vamps, Getz and Byrd inadvertently created a style of music that merged  Brazilian percussive rhythms with the American blues. Artists such as Cannonball Adderley and  Quincy Jones capitalized on their predecessor’s success and released recordings marketed as “bossa  nova” that followed their formula. Throughout the 1960s, r&b, rock, and soul artists infused their  blues harmonies with bossa nova rhythms. Although the music of James Brown typically does not  evoke the easy-listening sounds of Getz and Byrd, songs such as “Bring It Up” and “Licking Stick”  are nevertheless indebted to Verve’s “Desafinado.”