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Tom Jobim and Vinicius, the Brazilian Odd Couple Who Started It All – Part Four

Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim Upon the satisfactory completion, in France, of his Orfeu da Conceição, and after its having attained the formal status in Brazil of an award-winning play of extraordinary merit and substance, Vinicius made the determined decision to have his glorified text set to music. He went about the task of searching for a composer of equivalent stature, someone who could do his poetic Orphic tragedy the musical justice it so richly deserved.

We can spare curious readers the needless suspense, since, as any reasonably knowledgeable bossa nova fan will tell you, Antonio Carlos Jobim was the individual chosen to perform that estimable deed. How his future songwriting partner happened to pick Tom from among the wealth of available talent that samba-driven Sin City had to offer is a familiar yet infrequently expanded upon topic worth delving into at length.

All of the existing accounts either corroborate or confirm what we already know about how these two industry giants gradually came together at the Casa Villarino Bar, located in the old cultural center of Brazil’s former capital, Rio de Janeiro.

Although the gist of their historic union resulted in the hesitant Tom’s halting commitment to write a score for Vinicius’ as yet un-produced masterpiece, there are still enough differences in the small details as to make those with inquisitive minds want to ask who did what to whom to bring this mighty encounter to musical life.

Take, for instance, the erstwhile contributions of writer-composer Ronaldo Bôscoli, one of Vinicius’ closest journalistic companions and an early proponent of bossa nova, as well as his future brother-in-law. A behind-the-scenes radio commentator, music critic and all-around authority on Brazilian popular culture, Bôscoli is often credited with being the first to mention Jobim by name as a possible candidate for the poet’s consideration.

Other sources hint at newspaperman Lúcio Rangel, a mutual friend, historian and popular-music buff, as the person most likely to have brought the two artists together. There was even a third party present, disk jockey Haroldo Barbosa, who was an eyewitness to the “earthshaking” event, as were many others, I’m sure, all of them steadfast in their recollection of what was said and done and why.

It would better serve us to know, with some clarity, the circumstances under which composer-musician Antonio Carlos Jobim rose to the forefront of one of the most respected and fruitful collaborations of recent times.

In the same year that Orfeu received deserved distinction in São Paulo, the youthful Tom Jobim – a mere 29 at the time, and the same age as de Moraes when the poet first met Orson Welles in Rio some twelve years earlier – had been eking out a passing existence as a copyist by day and part-time piano player by night.

He even toyed with the idea of arranging and producing, along with being a sometime songwriter, primarily for the Continental record company. Gravitating towards the larger Odeon label, where the novice Carmen Miranda made a mark a generation or so before, Jobim learned his craft from the ground up through the expert guidance of master arranger, producer and composer Radamés Gnattali, who had a major influence on his style, as did Pixinguinha, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

The early sambas and sambas-canções (“samba-songs”) he whipped up during this critical formative period – though nowhere near the subtlety and harmonic invention of his lasting work with de Moraes, Newton Mendonça, Chico Buarque and other greats – were admired and recorded by some of the era’s biggest singing stars, among them Bill Far, Nora Ney, Lúcio Alves, Dolores Duran and the mellow-voiced Dick Farney (real name: Farnésio Dutra).

Naturally, such consistent exposure in the marketplace soon attracted the notice of the local pop-music mavens. It’s probable too that Vinicius and Tom may have unknowingly crossed paths with each other – as spectator and guest performer, respectively – during one of their frequent nocturnal sorties into Rio’s exuberant nightlife.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that by April 1956, Antonio Carlos Jobim was a known and welcome quantity to those who wandered into his artistic milieu, which basically assured his discovery at some point in his life.

“Is There Any Money In It?”

The spot where the formidable Carioca pair would finally meet and be formally introduced turns out to have been a favorite hangout for Marvelous City’s intellectual and literary community, sort of the Greenwich Village coffeehouse of its day.

As memorialized in Brazilian author Ruy Castro’s book, Chega de Saudade (“No More Blues”): The History and Stories of Bossa Nova, “It is almost unbelievable that the partnership of Vinicius and Tom Jobim could have been born in [a place such as] Casa Villarino,” only because no one took very seriously what came out of that easygoing establishment, knowing full well the detrimental effects that too much alcohol had on the proffered wisdom of the bar’s regular customers.

But no matter: the now historic gathering of music-loving and poetry-reading compatriots and cohorts would take place there on a late afternoon in the autumn of 1956.

By that time, Jobim had a full-time day job to slave over, and a growing family of his own to concern with. He happened, quite by accident, to have been seated at a separate table inside Casa Villarino when his friend, Lúcio Rangel, called him over to speak to the notoriously opinionated bard.

Unbeknownst to him, however, was the fact that the veteran Vadico, a longtime collaborator with the tubercular Noel Rosa and an old hand at songwriting, had recently turned down Vinicius’ request to provide him with the music for his still scoreless play.

Not expecting much in the way of progress after the proposed tête-à-tête meeting with Vadico fell through, Vinicius, for his part, spent most of his getting-to-know-you session with Tom summarizing Orfeu‘s plot and story line to the visibly incurious composer.

Jobim, no doubt worried about his financial future, risked adding insult to injury by his justly famous inquiry, “Tem um dinheirinho nisso?” – “Is there any money in it?” (A slight variation of which is often given as “Is there any money involved with this story?”)

Numbed at this tantalizing yet disingenuous remark, Rangel stared blankly at Jobim for a moment, then responded with a quotable line of his own: “But Tom, how can you bring money up to the poet at a time like this?” (Or something to that effect.)

How could he, indeed, but that’s exactly what Jobim did – and he had a good laugh about it later, too, when recalling the incident for reporters.

After a few more rounds of back-and-forth bargaining, to include copious amounts of liquid “persuasion,” an agreement was finally struck and a long-running partnership formed. For the next several weeks, the newly cemented working outfit would barricade itself in Tom’s Ipanema stronghold until the musical portion of their program was over – thanks again to liberal helpings of native-Brazilian brew (!).

On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25th, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro – and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his own consular activities – playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:

“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country – but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, to feel, in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native Carioca hills.”

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.


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