Snare. Cymbals. Kick. Piece by piece, Buddy Deppenschmidt extracted his drum kit from his Volkswagen Beetle and schlepped it into All Souls Church on the corner of 16th and Harvard streets NW. He remembers the morning of Feb. 13, 1962, as cold and clear.
“But I was so up, it could have been a cloudy day and I would have thought it was sunny,” says Deppenschmidt, 76, over the phone from his home in Ottsville, Pa. “I was just so happy we were finally doing this thing.”
This thing. “Jazz Samba.” The landmark album he was about to record with his boss, guitarist Charlie Byrd, and his hero, saxophonist Stan Getz. To everyone’s surprise, the album would be a spectacular hit, introducing American ears to the sweet nothings of Brazilian bossa nova and launching a pop craze that would survive to become one of the most enduring dialects in jazz.
Released on April 20, 1962, “Jazz Samba” lingered on the charts for 70 weeks, selling half a million copies in 18 months. It remains the only jazz album to ever top the Billboard pop chart. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley both latched onto bossa nova in its wake, while the works of Brazilian composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa eventually joined those of George Gershwin and Irving Berlin in the American jazz repertoire. Bossa nova’s pliant melodies and hushed rhythms expanded America’s notions of global pop music moments before Motown and the Beatles roared.
How unlikely that such a worldly, warm, intimate music was catapulted to prominence from a modest, boomy church auditorium in dead-of-winter Washington. The album’s seven tracks — which included Jobim’s iconic “Desafinado” and “One Note Samba”— were recorded in the church’s Pierce Hall, an auditorium with no built-in seating and a barely elevated stage. The acoustics weren’t as good as they were at the Morris Cafritz Center, 16 blocks down the hill inside what’s now known as the D.C. Jewish Community Center, where Byrd usually liked to record. Legend has it that heavy automobile traffic on 16th Street was too loud for that day’s session.
Emerging jazz producer Creed Taylor was brought in to oversee “Jazz Samba.” Getz flew down from New York. Bill Reichenbach helped with percussion. Byrd’s younger brother Joe (then known as Gene) played bass and rhythm guitar, and his regular rhythm section — bassist Keter Betts and Deppenschmidt — provided the music’s pulse. (Deppenschmidt is the only musician on the album who is still living. Charlie Byrd and Getz passed away in the ’90s. Joe Byrd died in a car accident in Edgewater in March.)
“I got there at 11,” Deppenschmidt says. “I was ready to hit my drums at 12.”
It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it session, with all but one track recorded in a single take. Deppenschmidt remembers packing up at 2 p.m. as his bandmates listened to playback. Getz hopped a plane back to New York that night, not knowing he had just recorded what would become one of the most influential jazz albums of all time.
“We had no idea this album would turn out to be so historically significant,” Deppenschmidt says.
He stuffed his drums back into the Bug and drove down Columbia Road to the Showboat Lounge in Adams Morgan. (Today, the building houses the District Underground nightclub.) It was there that the Charlie Byrd Trio had been dipping its toes into bossa nova since returning from a State Department-sponsored tour of South America the previous summer. The trio visited 18 countries in 14 weeks, introducing American swing to the diplomat set while sponging up unknown rhythms and melodies.
“Bossa nova was invented by the Brazilians, but it was already an amalgamation because they liked jazz so much,” Charlie Byrd told The Washington Post in 1981. “They had brought in many elements of American music, and it made it much easier for us to grasp it and identify with it.”
Deppenschmidt says he grasped it immediately. He spent nearly all of his nights on the tour learning from local musicians. In his hotel room, he’d turn ice buckets and trash cans upside down, trading swing licks for new rhythms on a makeshift drum kit. The lilting bossa nova was his favorite. But Deppenschmidt says he and Betts had to press Byrd to give the new sound a try.
And that’s where the story gets tangled. Aside from the $150 he was paid for the recording session, Deppenschmidt never received royalties from “Jazz Samba,” an album he says would not have existed without his push. He filed suit against Verve Records in 2001, a case David Adler reported on extensively in Jazz Times magazine in 2004. Deppenschmidt’s lawsuit came nearly four decades after Charlie Byrd filed suit against Getz and Verve’s then-parent label, MGM, for “Jazz Samba” royalties in the ’60s.
Deppenschmidt says he eventually settled out of court, and while not pleased with the outcome of the case, he says he’s still proud of “Jazz Samba.”
“I still hear new jazz groups doing all kinds of things with bossa nova,” he says. “I’m just glad I was able to be a part of it.”
Adler — still a contributor for Jazz Times and an adjunct professor of jazz history at Queens College — says the rhythms of bossa nova might be why the music has endured. “It brings something out in improvisers that’s a little different,” he says. “It really speaks to lasting beauty and integrity of the compositions themselves, beyond the pop and commercial appeal. They’re great little works of art, these songs.”
Today, those songs are universal.
“If you buy a Casio keyboard or a drum machine, there’s a bossa nova button on it,” says Ken Avis, a local jazz guitarist. “In 1961, nobody outside a tiny group of people in Brazil were even using that term.”
Avis’s band Veronneau is saluting the 50th anniversary of “Jazz Samba” with a tribute album of its own called “The Jazz Samba Project.” The band will celebrate the release with a May 20 concert at All Souls Church and a panel discussion about the legacy of “Jazz Samba.” It has also been digging into the album’s history, making a film with jazz documentarian Bret Primack that they plan to post online this summer.
But for now, Veronneau wants to honor “Jazz Samba” in the neighborhood church where it was born.
“This is part of Washington, D.C.’s history,” Avis says. “Washington is not seen as a music town a lot of the time, but there’s so much music that’s happened here. . . . For Washington to have been the crucible for this catalytic album is pretty cool. I think we should be celebrating it.”