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Interview: Carlos Lyra


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Carlos Lyra
Just before the British Invasion turned American teens into screaming consumers, a new style of romantic music with a jazzy Latin feel captured the hearts of young adults in the States. Known as the bossa nova, the music was a cooler cousin of Cuba's cha-cha-cha and a sophisticated folk form that was highly melodic and notably relaxed. What's more, the bossa nova crossed borders effortlessly and was highly addictive not only in Brazil but also in France and the U.S.

The bossa nova was born in the mid-1950s in the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro, at the Plaza Hotel's Boite Plaza piano bar and, later, in the smokey cafes of the Beco das Garrafas, or “Bottles Alley," where husky-voiced guitarists sang their potent melodies and those written by friends. In essence, the form took the Brazilian samba and let their air out of the parade music's tires a bit, focusing less on energy and stamina and more on passion and seduction. Among Rio's big four bosa nova singer-songwriters in the late 1950s were Johnny Alf, Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Carlos Lyra.

Now dig this—on May 26-30, Carlos Lyra will be making a super-rare appearance on guitar at New York's Birdland with pianist Marcos Valle (Summer Samba), who was part of the bossa nova's second wave of singer-songwriters in the early 1960s. To hear Carlos and Marcos perform together at Birdland in New York (presented by Delta Air Lines and produced by Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta) is sure to be a stunning, historic event for lovers of the bossa nova. Together, they have enough knee-weakening music in them and slow heat to ignite hearts. Don't miss this one. [Photo above, from left, Marcos Valle and Carlos Lyra]

Last week, I had a chance to catch up with Carlos Lyra, 76, and interview him on his music and the bossa nova's birth and evolution...

JazzWax: When you were writing bossa nova songs in the late 1950s, what was your poetic inspiration? Love? The sea? 

Carlos Lyra: My inspirations are never the sea, the moon or the flower or passion. Having a classical formation, not a romantic one, I would choose love, life and people as my big inspirations. [Photo of Carlos Lyra in the 1950s]

JW: For example what are a few your favorite songs, where did you write them and what inspired you?

CL: My song, Menina, was inspired by a true event. There was a young girl, a friend of mine, who had an admirer from Rio's lower class. They were in love and the girl’s family was very upset with the relationship. My lyrics and melody were inspired by what she was going through and they came together at once. The inspiration for Maria Ninguém (Maria No One) was a song by the famous Brazilian composer Noel Rosa. His song was called João Ninguém (John Doe). My song's lyrics pay tribute: “If John Doe is my name, I claim my Maria is Maria No One.” The irony of this song is that it was recorded in French and when the French actress Brigitte Bardot heard it, she loved it and recorded it in Portuguese.

JW: Was the song really a favorite of Jackie Kennedy?

CL: Saxophonist Paul Winter, who used to perform at the White House in the early '60s, told me that Maria Ninguém was Jacqueline Kennedy's favorite bossa nova song.

JW: You were there at the beginning of the bossa nova. Did the bossa nova surface because the samba couldn’t express the love songs that you, Jobim and others had in mind?

CL: Samba is a very popular form of music. Bossa nova is middle class and yet a classical form of art. Therefore it is cool and discreet. Samba is usually romantic, exuberant, more expressionist than impressionist.

JW: Why did the bossa nova emerge when it did?  

CL: The bossa nova was a cultural boom. We simply used to get together at friends' houses to show what we were composing and writing. A group of us younger writers, trying to do something new, with the impulse of creating a new form of Brazilian music that we could listen to, that expressed how we felt.

JW: Was West Coast jazz an influence?

CL: Yes, but much more. At that time, we wre listening to West Coast Jazz as well as American classics, Mexican boleros, French songs and the classical impressionists. You have to remember, there was no Brazilian music at the time that expressed the aspirations of our middle class. As a matter of fact, Jobim was not part of this group yet. He was a professional pianist and older than us, working at piano bars.

JW: Where was the first bossa nova concert?

CL: At a Hebraic club in 1957, where only Ronaldo Bôscoli, Roberto Menescal, Sylvia Telles, some musicians and me performed. At this place, the event manager of the club announced us as a bossa nova group. He used a slang that was not very common and we accepted this title. At the same time our group was getting together, other groups were also doing the same. We became aware of each other at Rio's Plaza Hotel, in the Copacabana district, where we use to go at night. That's where I met João Gilberto for the first time. We also got together at many parties and at gatherings on the beach at night. But there's not one specific moment and one specific place. The bossa nova just happened.

JW: Was the cool sound of Chet Baker's voice a direct influence? And if so, how did you hear these records?

CL: Oh yes. We had access to all the West Coast jazz albums, including records by Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Stan Kenton, Barney Kessel and the Modern Jazz Quartet. We had excellent record stores that imported those albums. We were always in there looking for new releases. As I mentioned earlier, there were two forms of art—classicism and romanticism. Bossa nova is pretty much identified with classicism. Classicists are the impressionists like Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Villa-Lobos, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and West Coast jazz. The romantics are Beethoven, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Irving Berlin, John Coltrane and New York jazz. This is the reason why the spiritual distance between Rio and Los Angeles became shorter than the one between Rio and New York.

JW: Where and when did you first meet Antonio Carlos Jobim?

CL: I met Jobim through João Gilberto, and we all influenced each other. João was especially informative to me as a guitarist. João, at that time, was new in Rio. He didn’t have a house to live in. Sometimes he slept at my house and sometime at the homes of others. I met João in the mid-1950s at the Plaza Hotel's piano bar. He was playing guitar in a very strange way that held my attention.

JW: Singer Sylvia Telles was first to record one of your songs—Menina—in 1955, yes?

CL: Yes. And the day Sylvia Telles's single was released, with Menina on one side and Jobim's Foi a Noite on the other, with lyrics by Newton Mendonça. João, who was staying at my house, called Jobim from my phone and introduced us. I remember Jobim playfully asking, “Is this the other side of the record? I liked your song very much! I send you a kiss!” Bossa nova hadn't even  been baptized yet.

JW: Where you at the Telles recording session?

CL: No, I wasn’t there. Actually, Sylvia (above) was one of the very first to record bossa nova. She also was a very liberated woman for her times. There were no real bossa nova clubs in the mid-1950s but she was at the piano bar in the Plaza Hotel almost every night. The big attraction was pianist-songwriter Johnny Alf, one of the precursors of bossa nova.

JW: Were you excited when João Gilberto recorded three of your songs on his 1959 album, Chega de Saudade? Were you at the recording session?

CL: No, I wasn't there. I was recording my own first album, but I was very excited by João's recordings. It was João's idea for us to record each other's songs, since he isn't exactly a composer but an interpreter. That's why he decided to record three of my songs and three of Jobim’s, plus the only two songs he had composed at the time.  

JW: What was the inspiration for your Saudade Fez un Samba?, a gorgeous song.

CL: As far as I know, the music came to me from nowhere. The lyrics were written by Ronaldo Bôscoli (above). I played my song for him at home, and he wrote the lyrics on the spot. He loved the melody. As he told me, his palms sweat a lot when he liked what he was doing. And they were sweating.   JW: Your first album, Bossa Nova (1959) remains a sensational recording. So little is known about it in the States. Who arranged it?

CL: It was not released in the U.S. The arranger was the late maestro Carlos Monteiro de Souza, a very dear friend.

JW: Many artists like Gilberto, Jobim, Walter Wanderley and others relocated to New York and recorded here starting in the early 1960s. You didn’t. What kept you from coming to the States to record steadily?

CL: Actually, I did record with Paul Winter, on a 1962 LP for Columbia called The Sound of Ipanema. It was produced by John Hammond.

JW: But you didn’t remain in New York the way Jobim and Gilberto did. Why not?

CL: After I performed at the first bossa nova concert in the U.S. at Carnegie Hall in late 1962, I stayed until the beginning of '63. I returned to New York in 1964 and remained there until 1966. Meanwhile, I toured with Stan Getz in the U.S., Japan, Brazil and Mexico. I also performed with Stan Getz in 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival.

JW: And that was it, yes?

CL: Yes. The Newport Jazz Festival concert was my last performance in the U.S.—50 years ago. Also, while I was in the States, I recorded with Tony Bennett. When he recorded his album If I Ruled the Word: Songs for the Jet Set album in 1964, they called me to the studio to record guitar on the bossa nova tracks because nobody could play them at that time. The songs were Song of the Jet, Corcovado and How Insensitive.

JW: So what will you and Marcos play at Birdland?

CL: Mostly our standards plus a new song that we wrote together. It's called Até o Fim (Till the End).

JazzWax tracks: For albums by Carlos Lyra, go here or to iTunes or Spotify.

JazzWax clips: Here's Carlos Lyra singing and playing his song Ciúme from his 1959 album Bossa Nova...

Here's Carlos with daughter Kay Lyra in 2011 singing two of his biggest hits—Você e Eu and Coisa Mais Linda.

And here's the great Marcos Valle, playing and singing one of his big hits, Crickets Sing For Anamaria...

JazzWax note: A big thanks to Marcos Valle; Magda Botafogo, Carlos Lyra's wife; and Pat Philips. For more information on Carlos Lyra, go here and here.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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