In 1927, Ipanema was a sleepy suburb to the south of Rio de Janeiro. Its pristine white beaches were popular among locals and some adventurous global travelers, but on the whole the town was quiet and few people outside of the region had ever heard of it. In that year, however, a man was born in Ipanema who would change its standing in the world forever. His name was Antonio Carlos Jobim, and he would become one of the greatest musicians of his time.
Right from the start, Jobim showed a precocious talent for music, and his parents put him under the tutelage of Hans Koellrotter, a famous German musician who was living in Rio at the time. Koellrotter introduced Jobim to European experimental and avant-garde music, but the young man seems to have been more interested in American jazz. He would always be indebted to European composers such as Ravel and Debussy, but it was a performance by the Duke Ellington band that had the decisive influence. Once Jobim saw the band in the 1940s, he was immediately hooked on jazz. His great musical works throughout his life would combine jazz harmonies with the swaying rhythms of samba, the popular dance style in Brazil.
Jobim would be rocketed into stardom with “Girl from Ipanema” (Garota de Ipanema in Portuguese). The song was composed in 1962 with Portuguese lyrics of another great figure of Brazilian popular music: Vinicius de Moraes. The iconic performance by Stan Getz and João Gilberto was recorded in 1964. It blends whispering vocals and subtle, swaying chords played on the guitar, all adding up to the musical equivalent of a relaxing breeze across blue ocean waves. Its lyrics describe a young man in love with a beautiful girl in Ipanema – and one immediately thinks of Gilberto’s relationship with Astrud Weinert, the lovely young bossa nova singer who would perform intermittently with Getz and Gilberto. (This love would not last, however, as Astrud divorced Gilberto shortly after the song was released, and started going out with his close friend and collaborator, Getz.)A dressed-up Jobim singing a bilingual duet with his American pal. “Girl from Ipanema” was a stunning success, peaking at #2 on the US pop charts. For a few weeks, only the Beatles were more popular in America than Jobim. Over 200 artists would cover the song, including Frank Sinatra and, later, Diana Krall. Almost overnight the song’s popularity transformed Ipanema beach into a world-class tourist destination. Already the nearby Copacabana beach was a favorite destination for the emerging jet set, and these affluent travelers were seduced by the gentle swaying rhythms of Jobim’s song. By the end of the 1960s, Ipanema beach was one of the most popular beaches in the world, and a major epicenter of surfing, beach volleyball, and sunbathing. Years later, the city of Rio showed Jobim its gratitude naming its international airport after him.