Vance Garnett is a noted writer who has been frequently published in The Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Mr. Garnett writes a weekly column for The Washington Times Communities. He is especially knowledgeable about music, having sung in nightclubs in L.A., D.C., and Miami, in the U.S. Army Special Services, and, for one year, aboard an Italian Cruise Ship sailing from Miami to the Bahamas. While in L.A., he took time out to compete on the popular NBC TV game show, “Name That Tune,” and became a champion by naming the song “Born Free” after hearing just the first three notes. Throughout his singing career, Vance has included bossa nova music in his repertoire, believing it to be a smooth and mature art form with romantic rhythm, and its lyrics, in both Portuguese and English, among the finest in popular music.
We had a number of questions and Vance showed an enthusiastic eagerness to discuss bossa nova.
BN: First off, Vance, when and how did you first become conscious of bossa nova music?
VG: I am pleased to say that, in the United States, I was in on the ground floor, so to speak, of this unique and delightful music form. The reason for this is attributable to renowned radio host Felix Grant in Washington, D.C. Mr. Grant possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and was personally acquainted with the great musicians in the jazz field. His program was tremendously successful in the 8 p.m. to midnight time-slot of D.C.’s then largest radio station, WMAL.
In the late 1950s, Grant made a life-changing trip to Brazil where he discovered personally a whole new culture and music. When he returned home to our nation’s capital, he brought with him a storehouse of long-play record albums by Brazilian artists. Immediately he began playing these LPs on the air every night as part of his show called “The Album Sound.” Regular listeners like myself quickly became familiar with names like Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, and Joao Gilberto. Grant’s promotion of this new bossa nova music in the U.S.A. would earn him, in 1964, the Order of the Southern Cross, Brazil’s highest civilian award.
BN: That’s great, and Felix Grant deserves a lot of credit for this. But can you tell us how bossa nova music began to be played in the United States at large?
VG: This, too, happened in Washington and was spearheaded by Mr. Grant. You see, on a number of occasions Grant told renowned classical and jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd about this music. Grant urged Byrd in fact, to make a trip to Brazil and hear this unique music for himself. Through the U.S. State Department, Mr. Byrd travelled to South America promoting jazz. However, in Rio de Janeiro he heard the bossa nova live and in-person for the first time.In this city, Mr. Byrd was not teaching or promoting; he was, in fact, absorbing. Charlie Byrd returned home to Washington, D.C., as racked with bossa nova fever as Grant had told him he would be.
BN: Other than through Mr. Grant, what further exposure to bossa nova music did you enjoy?
We had a store in Washington called the Disc Shop. It featured International music. I was propelled to go out and buy L.P. albums of the musicians that Felix played on the air. Then I saw the movie, “Black Orpheus,” and was virtually consumed with bossa nova music. Then an event occurred which ignited the interest of the whole United States music culture.
BN: A singular event? And what was that?
VG: I said that Charlie Byrd was smitten with bossa nova music. Well, shortly after his return, he called the award-winning jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and proposed the idea of their recording an album together devoted to bossa nova music. The two of them, he suggested, would be joined by Charlie’s own fine rhythm section. Getz liked the idea, and Byrd took the initiative of setting up a recording date with Verve Records. So on an overcast Tuesday morning, February 13, 1962, at the All-Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets in Washington, D. C., the recording date took place. Ironically, at the time I was living at the Claiborne just two buildings away from that church. Yet I knew nothing of this private recording event. After all, it was not known if the session would work or if the album would, in fact, be released by Verve. No audience was wanted for this somewhat experimental event.
BN: It seems to have been a well kept secret, that recording session.
VG: Yes. But it must be remembered that these men had never played together as a group before. And on top of that, they would be playing a new form of music. They unpacked their gear from the various cars, vans and one VW Beetle and unloaded the boxes, instruments and equipment in an empty room called Pierce Hall. They set up equipment, and tuned up their instruments, ran scales. Creed Taylor, Verve’s new engineer, set up his recording paraphanalia. They did sound-checks. And at 11:30 they were ready and launched into their first song. About two hours later they were finished. All but one song was done in a single take.
The men pulled up metal folding chairs around the speakers and listened to the playbacks. Then they stood, carried boxes and equipment out to be loaded back into their cars and vans. They shook hands on Harvard Street and drove off. Charlie Byrd drove to his Showboat lounge just a few blocks away on 18th Street. Getz, on the other hand, headed to National Airport and flew back to Manhattan. The session was history. What happened in the future was chiefly in the hands of the Verve recording company.
BN: That album was called “Jazz Samba.” And it did pretty well, didn’t it?
VG: That’s right. Let me tell you how well “Jazz Samba” did. Released on April 20, 1962, and containing but seven tracks, it became the best selling jazz album of all time. It stayed on the charts for 70 weeks. In 18 months it sold half a million copies and became the first jazz album to secure the Number One slot on Billboard’s pop chart. The album boasted two songs by Jobim, “Desafinado” and “One Note Samba.” For “Desafinado,” Stan Getz won a Grammy for Best Jazz Performance. The album itself was awarded a gold disc.
BN: What followed that?
VG: Getz’s next album, “Getz/Gilberto” sold well, too. It, of course, featured the fabulous Brazilian masters, Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. However, the album is best known for introducing, as vocalist, Astrud Gilberto with “The Girl From Ipanema.” That latter song was issued as a single and became a chart-busting hit. It proved to be a perfect song for a day at the beach or for “tooling” down the highway.
BN: Is there any other significant experience you enjoyed regarding bossa nova music?
VG: The most significant happened in New York’s Greenwich Village in the historic night club on Bleecker Street called the Cafe Au Go Go. On August 19, 1964, I was one of 200 people permitted into the club for a special event: a recording session of the new Stan Getz Quartet featuring Astrud Gilberto. The combo was cutting a record album which was planned for released under the title, “Getz Au Go Go.” A funny experience: I remember Getz calling out the upcoming tune to 18-year-old vibe player Gary Burton and the band, “Rainy Day.”
What a great song. At the time I had never heard it before. I couldn’t wait to hear the song again and the Getz album wouldn’t be coming out for two months, so I went to dozens for record stores, asking for any record with the song “Rainy Day.” Nobody seemed to know the song or what I was talking about. When the Getz album did came out two months later, I was first in line to buy it. And I saw that the full title was, “Here’s That Rainy Day.”
During the recording session, Astrud Gilberto was sweet and unassuming. Her soft voice and gentle accent made her very appealing. She was trying to quit smoking at the time, but she periodically bummed a cigarette from Stan. I could not help noting that they seemed to enjoy a special rapport each time Stan lighted a cigarette for her. On the song, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” the introduction has a sax riff which Astrud was supposed to repeat vocally, but she missed the timing three times, requiring retakes. I observed Getz’s patience. Then, on the fourth take, it was he who missed his reentry. He quickly admitted his mistake and it created a loose and relaxing moment for all. I might add that Stan’s father was present for the recording session. I got to talk with him and he was indeed the proverbial proud father.
BN: How does bossa nova fit into your life today and how do you think it fits into U.S. music today?
VG: It’s a vital genre of music. I have bossa nova recordings by Frank Sinatra and Jobim, by Vince Guaraldi and the finest jazz musicians. And yet bossa nova is not a separate entity; rather, it has been integrated into the musical landscape. Today if you own a Casio keyboard, there’s a bossa nova button. How could there not be? It is an integral part of U.S. music and musicology in general. In 1962, the bossa nova hit the U.S. like a gentle tidal wave. It was, however, not a fad. Fads fade. It was, as the name means, a “new wave.” The United States caught that wave and has never let go.