Nothing captures the sound, the mood or the languor of summer quite like the bossa nova. Invented along the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, the quietly swaying Brazilian music became a worldwide phenomenon a decade later and has never gone away.
Everyone knows that the flair and sensibility of the music come from Brazil. What is not so well understood is that the bossa nova craze was launched here in Washington.
On Feb. 13, 1962, a day that dawned with a temperature of 16 degrees, six musicians convened at a Washington church and, much to their surprise, created an album that has endured as the eternal soundtrack of summer.
“Jazz Samba” was released under the names of Washington guitarist Charlie Byrd and the album’s featured soloist, saxophonist Stan Getz, who flew down from New York for the day.
It was a casual undertaking, and no one had any inkling that it would become something extraordinary. After recording seven tracks with Byrd’s group, Getz was back in New York in time for dinner.
By the end of the year, though, “Jazz Samba” was beginning to catch on. There was something about the shifting-sands rhythm, the drifting melodies and Getz’s soaring saxophone that captured the public imagination.
The album began to rise on the pop charts and became an unlikely hit. In March 1963, “Jazz Samba” reached the top, the first and only time an instrumental jazz album has been No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. It stayed on the charts for 70 weeks, and in that time the bossa nova became something more than a mere passing fad.
Two years ago, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Jazz Samba,” Washington guitarist Ken Avis and his group, Veronneau, presented a concert at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, where the original recording was made.
Bit by bit, his efforts have continued to grow. Avis teamed with writer and filmmaker Bret Primack to produce a documentary, “Bossa Nova: The Music That Charmed the World,” that will have its world premiere Monday as part of the Jazz Samba Project at the Strathmore music center in North Bethesda.
“The whole thing has been a story waiting to happen,” says the British-born Avis, who has been in Washington since 1996. “It was a bit of a dream — wouldn’t it be great if we could pull all these things together? Every door I knocked on, people answered it, and the wind was in the sails.”
Avis’s group, which released a bossa nova album in 2012, will perform June 8 during the Strathmore’s weeklong celebration of Brazilian music. Other events include a concert June 6 with Brazilian music stars Sergio Mendes and Eliane Elias, followed the next day by a symposium about the legacy of the “Jazz Samba” recording.
The distinctive music of Brazil has evolved for centuries, leading over time to the upbeat samba rhythm that underlies most of the country’s music of the past century. (The 1933 movie “Flying Down to Rio” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers included a popular song based on the samba, Vincent Youmans’s “Carioca.”)
In the 1950s, a group of young Brazilian musicians began to experiment with the samba beat, by adding syncopated patterns and making it slower. Influenced by American “cool jazz” of the ’50s, Brazilian composers such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa relaxed the samba into something that was gentler and more melodic: the laid-back intimacy of the coffeehouse rather than the street heat of Carnaval.
The Brazilian film “Black Orpheus” highlighted the new music in 1959, which was about the time bossa nova got its name. Depending on which interpretation you prefer, it means the “new beat” or the “new thing.”
Before then, a few American musicians and disc jockeys were aware of the emerging music from Brazil. As early as 1953, Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank, a California saxophonist and flutist, were recording music that, in retrospect, is recognizable as bossa nova.
In 1961, Byrd, who learned to play guitar while growing up in the small Tidewater town of Chuckatuck, Va., took his Washington-based trio on a State Department-sponsored tour of South America for three months. Byrd, bassist Keter Betts and drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt were taken with the music they encountered in Brazil. Betts and Deppenschmidt, in particular, spent time learning the intricate bossa nova rhythms from local musicians.
“Bossa nova was invented by the Brazilians, but it was already an amalgamation because they liked jazz so much,” 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.”
There is some debate about how Getz got involved in the recording project. The most oft-told story is that Byrd’s wife, Ginny, suggested that Getz’s lyrical style would be perfect for bossa nova.
According to Donald L. Maggin’s 1996 biography of Getz, the saxophonist first discussed the bossa nova with Byrd in December 1961, when Getz appeared at a club in Washington. Two months later, they came together at All Souls.
The other musicians on the session included Betts, Deppenschmidt, percussionist Bill Reichenbach and Byrd’s younger brother Joe Byrd (called “Gene” Byrd on the original release) on bass and rhythm guitar. Deppenschmidt is the only one in the group still alive.
The producer of the session was another native Virginian, Creed Taylor, who worked at the Verve record label with Getz. It was Taylor who came up with the simple, descriptive title, “Jazz Samba.”
One week before the recording date, Byrd paid $50 to rent Pierce Hall at All Souls church. Fifty-two years later, the acoustically vibrant auditorium, with its 30-foot ceiling, is essentially unchanged from the day “Jazz Samba” was recorded.
“I suspect that the reason Charlie Byrd wanted to record here was the reverberance and the quiet,” Thomas Colohan, a former music director at All Souls, said in an interview in the hall.
Before his death in 2012, Joe Byrd said his brother chose to record at All Souls because he sometimes attended the church and knew its minister.
Sound engineer Ed Greene, who often worked with Charlie Byrd on recording projects, said in a telephone interview that he recommended the location to Byrd because “acoustic music should be in a natural acoustic setting.”
In any case, Byrd picked the music for the album — six tunes by Brazilian composers, plus one, “Samba Dees Days,” that he wrote. There was no formal rehearsal, just a rough outline of the order of the solos and musical introductions. Greene set up six microphones on the stage, and at about noon the musicians began to play.
Getz had never seen the music before, but the solos he improvised on tenor saxophone were so graceful, tender and assured that, in a single day, he forever defined how bossa nova should be played. He won a Grammy Award for best jazz solo on “Desafinado,” the album’s opening track.
The album contains about 34 minutes of music, and there are no “lost tracks.” Most of the tunes were recorded in a single take, and the entire session lasted less than four hours.
“The combination of Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz really clicked,” said Primack, director of the new documentary and a longtime jazz writer. “There’s something timeless and universal about all great music, and that’s certainly true of ‘Jazz Samba.’ ”
When the album was released in April 1962, it received its biggest push from Washington disc jockey Felix Grant, who had featured Brazilian music for years on his jazz program on WMAL-AM. Within six months, “Jazz Samba” had sold 500,000 copies, setting off a wave of bossa nova fever.
Everyone from Elvis Presley (“Bossa Nova Baby” single) to Sonny Rollins (“What’s New?” album) took a turn at the music, which became so popular that in 1963 Eydie Gorme had a hit song called “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (No. 7 on the Billboard chart).
Getz and Byrd would perform together only one more time, on Perry Como’s television show in October 1962. Getz later made a series of recordings with Brazilian musicians, including Jobim, Bonfa and Joao Gilberto. His 1964 album, “Getz/Gilberto,” sold millions of copies and won the Grammy Award for album of the year.
The album featured Jobim’s ever-popular “The Girl From Ipanema,” in which Getz solos behind the whispery vocals of Astrud Gilberto, who was not a professional singer at the time and had to be coaxed into performing the song in English.
A half-century on, bossa nova is as familiar a musical style as the blues or the waltz. “Jazz Samba” may not have been the first bossa nova recording or the most authentic, but millions of copies are in print, and it sounds as fresh and vibrant as ever.
It’s hard to say how the magic was stirred on that cold February day in Washington, but after all these years, “Jazz Samba” remains the accidental masterpiece, timeless and true and endlessly seductive.
A two-week festival at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md., with concerts, exhibits, and lectures, starting Friday. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org .