Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man

By Gridley, Mark C. | Notes, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man


Gridley, Mark C., Notes


Antonio Carlos Jobim: An Illuminated Man. By Helena Jobim. Translated by Dário Borim Jr. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard, 2011. [xv, 267 p. ISBN 9781617803437. $27.99.] Illustrations.

This 2011 publication is the first English translation of the 1996 biography of Antonio Carlos Jobim by his sister, the distinguished poet and novelist Helena Jobim. Colorful and poetic in style, it is a detailed social chronicle of her brother's life. It richly recounts their family genealogy, including many entertaining anecdotes and character studies. Helena lovingly details her brother's social life as well as situations and inspirations that led up to many of his major compositions.

Antonio Carlos Jobim ranks with Cole Porter and Jerome Kern as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century with popular appeal. Like Porter, Jobim had entire albums of his songs recorded by the eminent American pop singers Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. In fact, Jobim was in such high demand in the United States that eventually he had to maintain an apartment in New York in addition to his home in Rio de Janeiro; in addition, he had to devote periods of his career to stays in Los Angeles. The composer is recognized in the United States primarily as author of the masterful bossa nova hits "Desafinado," "One Note Samba," and "Girl from Ipanema," but in Brazil he is viewed as the successor to Heitor Villa-Lobos, the acclaimed classical music composer. This fact underlines the extensive formal training that Jobim underwent, which may be news for many American readers. In his sister's book we learn how thoroughly he was versed in classical composition and orchestration, in addition to being an accomplished flutist, guitarist, and pianist. It also may surprise American readers to learn that only about twenty percent of his output consisted of pop songs. Jobim scored the music for more than twenty movies and wrote large symphonic works.

Helena Jobim recounts several particularly painful instances in her brother's career. Despite his successful tours of Europe and Japan and continued international acclaim, a number of particularly vocal Brazilian audiences and commentators rejected his music merely because it was popular elsewhere. Many of his countrymen downplayed the music because it was not a pure, shouting form of samba. Nor was he immune to the capricious and vicious assaults of music critics. After a Carnegie Hall performance that evoked standing ovations, one critic wrote, "Bossa nova, go home!" In Brazil another critic tried to make his own journalistic reputation by trashing him, just as a predecessor had done by trashing Villa-Lobos. Fortunately, a younger generation of critics understood the music's exquisite harmonic complexities and structures. One of them, Tarik de Sousa, remarked that Jobim's sambas "cannot hardly be played on a matchbox, like a traditional piece of samba. His songs incorporate modernity into traditional forms" (p. 225).

Particularly sad are Helena's commentaries about her brother's being denied royalties for his biggest hits on three continents because he did not take sufficient business precautions early in his career. Being cheated time and again, Jobim ultimately prevailed, though he never gained more than a fraction of the compensation due him.

An interesting sidelight to the book's musical and social history is Jobim's continuing interest in architecture. Helena treats us to comprehensive descriptions of every place her brother ever lived, including detailed design issues facing him when he was building new homes.

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