A brief history of Bossa Nova

The Brazilian jazz

A brief history of Bossa Nova

Bossa Nova is a musical sub-genre derived from samba and with strong American jazz influences. Initially, the term Bossa Nova referred to a way of singing and playing samba but gradually became one of the most important movements in what is known in Brazil as MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, or, Brazilian Popular Music).

Bossa Nova peaked in popularity between 1957 and 1963, right after its birth in Rio de Janeiro's south zone (which comprises areas such as Ipanema and Copacabana). Today, while no longer the most popular genre of music in Brazil, it has found worldwide fame and is often associated with well-known musicians such as João Gilberto, Vinícius de Moraes, Antonio Carlos Jobim (who collaborated with Frank Sinatra) and Luiz Bonfá.

The typical instruments heard in Bossa Nova songs are the classical guitar, piano, electronic organ, acoustic bass and drums. Furthermore, a key element in Bossa Nova is something that usually goes unnoticed, and is not commonly used in music, which is silence. As Tom Jobim, one of the fathers of Bossa Nova, used to say: “music is the silence between the notes”.

This movement was organized mostly by very young people because they chose to compose more optimistic music to describe their generation as opposed to the suffering in the tunes and lyrics of songs from the previous decades. Bossa Nova brings a sophisticated mix of melody, harmony and rhythm with more elaborate lyrics tied to every day life. In order to create a more relaxed way of singing, this genre of music values pauses and silence. The optimism and enchanting rhythms found in Bossa Nova have captivated and influenced singers and composers all around the world.


The word “bossa” was said for the first time in the 1930s in “Coisas Nossas” (Our Things) a popular samba song by Noel Rosa. The expression “bossa nova” started being used in the following decade to describe the “samba de breque”, which improvised sudden stops in the music in order to have words.

Bossa Nova as we know today officially started in 1958 when the vinyl (LP) “Canção do Amor Demais” (Song of Too Much Love), recorded by Elizabeth Cardoso, with music by Tom Jobim and lyrics by Vinícius de Moraes was released. This vinyl included the well-known songs “Chega de Saudade” and “Outra Vez”, where João Gilberto plays the acoustic guitar and a new beat is introduced. Later on, this new beat would be identified as the birth of Bossa Nova.

Collaboration between composers and singers is at the heart of Bossa Nova, and famous people from the genre like Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, Ronaldo Boscoli and others would often get together to listen to each other’s music and exchange ideas.

Due to these meetings where so much creative exchange happened, Bossa Nova evolved, changed and became tremendously successful.

Main names in Bossa Nova

  • Antonio Carlos Jobim (known as Tom Jobim) - Tom is considered one of the most important people in the history of Brazilian music and one of the fathers of Bossa Nova. Known for singing and composing Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema), which he later recorded with Frank Sinatra.
  • Vinícius de Moraes - He was nicknamed “Poetinha”, or the little poet. Vinícius along with Tom, universalized Bossa Nova and was criticized by many who believed that he brought too many American influences to the genre. In reality, it was Bossa Nova that influenced American music (especially Jazz) at the time.
  • João Gilberto - Also one of the creators of Bossa Nova in the 1950s. He is a musician who sings and plays the acoustic guitar. Known as one of the singers of the hit 'Chega de Saudade'.
  • Roberto Menescal - A jazz guitar player who was one of of the founders of Bossa Nova and one of its most important composers. A key member of the regular meetings that took place for singers and composers to exchange ideas.

Most famous Bossa Nova songs:

  • Chega de Saudade (No More Blues) - Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes. Considered the first Bossa Nova song.
  • Garota de Ipanema (Girl From Ipanema) - written by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes, performed by João Gilberto and Stan Getz. About a beautiful girl they spotted in Ipanema.
  • Desafinado (Slightly Out of Tune) - composed by Tom Jobim, with lyrics by Newton Mendonça. Talking about a slight dischord to the playing of Bossa Novas that gives the music its tension.
  • Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) - written by Tom Jobim. Refers to the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
  • Águas de Março (Waters of March) - composed by Tom Jobim. It was nominated in 2001 by a famous Brazilian newspaper after a poll of around 200 journalists, the best Brazilian song.
  • Mas Que Nada (Come On) - written and performed by Jorge Ben in 1963. The title means “no way” or “come on!”. This song got very famous recently after Sérgio Mendes made a version together with the Black Eyed Peas.

Further reading

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