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From Showboat-to-Samba: Transculturation of Brazilian Music in America

From Showboat-to-Samba: Transculturation of Brazilian Music in America
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The bossa nova wave was one of the first significant impacts on jazz since Miles Davis, Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans restored balance between the ensemble and the soloist in the late 1940s.
—Troy A. Hoffman
By 1957, jazz music was fully stretching out and the bossa nova movement was one of the many impacts. American artists of all types had been expanding their knowledge of international cultures for quite some time, specifically Latin countries and the musical rhythms driving them—one of the earliest being Cuban culture, which began popularizing in the U.S. during the 1920s—fully transcending into all realms of American art by the 1950s. Music from Brazil was beginning to popularize as well, due in part to Felix Grant, a Washington DC radio DJ, who began exhibiting Bossa nova records from Brazil on his American station. The French film, Black Orpheus (Lopert, 1959)—directed by Marcel Camus and shot in Rio de Janeiro during festival season—was also sparking American interest, featuring a score by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, who's delicately intricate arrangements were creating a sensation across South America.

As Brazilian influence slowly seeped into the American mind, musicians began gradually experimenting with bossa nova and samba rhythms, but it wasn't until after the initiation of the Mutual and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 that the music finally got the necessary push that it deserved. The Act was built off of various pieces of legislature, dating back to the Fulbright Act of 1946, where it states its purpose as a way for the government "to increase mutual understanding between the people of other countries by means of educational and cultural exchange." It directly relates to the "new alliance for progress" that President Kennedy spoke of in his inaugural address, as well as the need to "encourage the arts and commerce." In particular, it provided (specifically selected) musical groups the opportunity to perform in outer nations.

Many of the musicians for the South American tour performed at Washington DC's Showboat Lounge at 18th and Columbia, where Embassy personnel often frequented. One of the chosen groups was the Charlie Byrd Trio, who had been performing at the Showboat over the past five years and had recorded three live compilation albums there. In 1961, Charlie's Trio consisted of the guitarist himself, Charlie Byrd (protégé of Spanish classical guitarist, Andrès Segovia) on acoustic guitars, Keter Betts (who later joined Ella Fitzgerald) on upright bass and Buddy Deppenschmidt (previously of Billy Butterfield and Newton Thomas) on drums. Deppenschmidt was specifically ecstatic about being part of the trip. The young drummer had been listening to Latin radio stations since he was a child in Richmond, VA and had played rumbas, sambas, tangos and mambos at the Arthur Murray Dance School as a teenager.

The Embassy Tour began in Caracas, Venezuela and then on to Brazil, where they hit all of the major cities, but Rio. In Bahia, the band was invited to Judge Carlos Coqueijo Costa's home for dinner, where they were introduced to the Joao Gilberto records, Chega de Saudade (Odeon, 1959) and O Amor, O Sorriso e A Flor (Odeon, 1961). These albums were stirring up attention in Brazil before most jazz players of America had caught on. The members of the Byrd Trio were some of the first Americans to be introduced to the music of bossa nova first-hand.

In Porto Alegre, a young woman named Malu Pederneiras invited the drummer (Deppenschmidt) to her home, where her brother, Mutinho, taught him how to play the bossa beats—gifting the young, American his own personal, "on-the-spot master class" on samba and bossa nova. In return, he schooled the Brazilian natives on American jazz rhythms. This was a true act of "transculturation," which Bronislaw Malinowski described in 1940 as a "give-and-take... modifying each side of the equation." American music had its own influence on South Americans as well, including the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim himself, who became a massive fan of Frank Sinatra as a result of American radio's availability over AM throughout South America. Buddy Deppenschmidt and Keter Betts were always spending their off time on Tour hanging out with the locals and they "would pass out sticks and strings," George T. Simon of Roanoke's "The World News" scribed, as a friendly gesture toward the Natives, acting as a form of "instrument-sharing communication."

Upon the Byrd Trio's return to the States, Deppenschmidt and Betts were pushing for an all-out Bossa tribute on record. They had been listening to the Gilberto albums on repeat since their arrival back home and were eager to pay homage to the music of Brazil. They had started featuring styles of it in their live sets, but the US record label executives were not yet convinced for bossa nova's success among the masses until the beginning of 1962, when Verve Records agreed to produce a session on February 13 in DC, at All Soul's Unitarian Church—a space known for its beautiful acoustics.

Legendary tenor saxophonist, Stan Getz, was brought on for the recording, who had just released an orchestral-jazz record called Focus (Verve, 1959) less than two weeks prior and was at the top of his game. Gene Byrd joined them on rhythm guitar and bass, while drummer, Bill Reichenbach sat in alongside Buddy Deppenschmidt. The record was cut in just a few hours and titled, Jazz Samba (Verve 1962), being exactly what it was—an American, jazz interpretation of samba and bossa nova compositions. All songs, but one ("Samba Dees Days," by Byrd) were composed by Brazilians, two of which being by Jobim ("Desafinado" and "Samba de Uma Nota So").

The record stands the test of time and is still prodigious to listen to. Jazz Samba is an interpreted homage to bossa nova and samba. Yes, the tempos may not be authentic to Brazilian standards, but they weren't meant to be. Hence the terms "interpreted" and "homage." Jazz Samba helped ease American listeners in with its lounge-like approach. Whether or not bossa nova and samba had already been established in the US (which it definitely had) is irrelevant. The point is the album's contribution to that establishment.

On April 20, 1962, Jazz Samba was released and was an immediate hit. Max Barker of Crescendo magazine wrote that, "Jazz Samba is undoubtedly the most popular modern jazz album to hit the market in many years." Its hit track, "Desafinado," got play on every commercial radio station across the country and by 1963, had reached number one on the Billboard charts. "The first Bossa nova LP to hit the popularity list" announced Ernet Weaver of the "Birmingham Post-Herald." The album cannot be denied importance on its contribution to the bossa nova fad in America, which during the latter half of 1962 was in its most fruitful stage. To American jazz enthusiasts, bossa nova was known as "The New Bag," being not so much a genre, as it was a state of mind and Jazz Samba acted as a blueprint for the fresh phenomenon that rapidly swept the nation. Many hypotheses surrounding the easily accepted emergence of Brazil's music in the United States still exist today.

Ken Avis, a filmmaker, journalist and musician, born and raised in the UK, explains: "I think it has something to do with World War II. America became the center of culture, science and technology. It hadn't been bombed and everything was working. America was wide open and at a cutting edge." Rami Stucky (historian, professor and musician), shares, "I would say that bossa nova's ability to be malleable helped Americans ease into the genre. Bossa nova was thus a style of music that was kind of like a chameleon, showing up in places you would least expect, because as a rhythm, it was easily transferable." Stucky also touched on the bossa-wave coinciding with the Cuban embargo. "I have nothing to support this theory," he says, "but one of the big sources of Latin music in the United States gets cut off in February 1962 and then, a bossa nova fad emerges immediately afterwards."

Bossa nova was most certainly malleable and a practical next step for American musicians, after the styles of African & Cuban jazz spread across the country. "Musicians have just souled themselves out," Ralph Pena bluntly stated in his 1962 Crescendo article, entitled "'Bossa Nova?': It won't last—but it's nice." In Autumn of '62, Stan Getz sat in with Byrd four nights at New York City's Village Gate. There, an interview was conducted by Max Barker, where the guitarist voiced an opinion about bossa nova's rhythmic interpretations in the States. "American drummers play it so square. There are only three or four drummers who can come close. One of them is Buddy Deppenschmidt." Byrd explains about the Richmond drummer, who soon went on to dedicate the rest of his life to teaching drums and educating in Bucks County, Pennsylvania up until his passing in 2021.

Stan Getz only joined the band those four nights in the fall of '62. His album Focus was topping the charts overseas and the tenor great was planning a rigorous tour with a full orchestra. Although we never got a full Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz Jazz Samba tour, the two musicians would each soon go on a full-fledged bossa nova recording binge in the studio over the next several years, using both American and Brazilian musicians alike. The historical performances of bossa nova at Carnegie Hall in New York took place next, just two weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis in November of 1962. In Washington DC, radio DJ Felix Grant hosted a performance of Brazilian and American musicians playing bossa nova, which coincided with the show.

With Brazilian musicians now allowed to work in America, the country was fully engulfed by the music. It was romantic, introspective and produced an overall delight to American ears. The bossa nova wave was one of the first significant impacts on jazz since Miles Davis, Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans restored balance between the ensemble and the soloist in the late 1940s. By the early '60s, Americans were searching out for a more "progressive" vibe, which the bossa nova provided, enhancing the language of American music and for a brief moment in time... enhancing the world.

Sources:

  • Adler, David. "Give the Drummer Some." Jazz Times. 7 June 2004.
  • Adler, David. "Buddy Deppenschmidt, Whose Drumming Brought Bossa nova Into The Mainstream, Is Dead At 85." WBGO. 24 March, 2021.
  • Avis, Ken. Interview. Conducted by Troy A. Hoffman. 5 January, 2023.
  • Barker, Max. "Low-Down On Bossa Nova." Crescendo. December, 1962. 
  • "Black Orpheus." Directed by Camus, Marcel. Lopert 1959.
  • Deppenschmidt, Buddy and Josmar Lopes. "The Drummer Speaks." Curtain Going Up!. 27 March, 2021.
  • Dinardo, Kelly. "The Celebrity Filled Past of H-Street." Washingtonian. 1 October, 2007. 
  • Fulbright-Hays Act, 22 U.S.C. § 2451 (1961).
  • Kennedy, F. John. "Inaugural Address." 20 January, 1961.
  • Kennedy, F. John. "Executive Order 11034— Administration of the Mutual and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. www.presidency.ucsb.edu. 25 June 1962.
  • McGowen, Chris. "Another Side of Jazz Samba: An Interview with Buddy Deppenschmidt." The Brazilian Sound. 24 April, 2013.
  • Myers, Marc. "Birth of American Bossa nova." Jazzwax. 12 February, 2019.
  • Lopes, Josmar. "It's Jazz Samba Time! Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Landmark Bossa nova Album." Curtain Going Up!. 28 December, 2015.
  • Lopes, Josmar. Interview. Conducted by Troy A. Hoffman. December 28, 2022. 
  • Pena, Ralph. "Bossa nova? It wont last—but it's nice." Crescendo. 1962.
  • Simon, T. George. "Virginian Takes Jazz South, Runs Into Boos, Then Cheers." The World-News. 16 September, 1961. Pg 21.
  • Stucky, Rami. Interview. Conducted by Troy A. Hoffman. 6 January 2023.
  • Vianna, Hermano. "The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil." UNC Press. 1999. Pg 36.
  • Weaver, Emmett. "Record Corner." Birmingham Post-Herald. 3 November, 1962. Pg 7.

Related Photos

Courtesy Buddy Deppenschmidt

Courtesy Buddy Deppenschmidt

Courtesy Buddy Deppenschmidt

Courtesy Buddy Deppenschmidt

Courtesy Buddy Deppenschmidt


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