Brazilian Jazz: In Search of an Art Form

Brazilians wrangle over the notion of Brazilian jazz. Some say it doesn't exist at all; the whole thing is a farce; all there is is Brazilian instrumental music. Others are more accepting; influences, at least, do exist; improvisation sets the stage. Both camps seem to exclude vocal music; generally, Brazilians don't sing jazz standards in English, and in the absence of a tradition of vocal improvisation, how can there be a Brazilian vocal jazz? The bottom line is this: Brazilians resist playing traditional swing styles and resist calling their music "jazz." Can we then discover "Brazilian jazz" as a definable genre? 

Defining an art form requires searching for origins, practices, styles, events, works, participants. Defining a syncretic art form requires looking for points of contact, exchanges, effective interactions. Brazilian jazz poses both demands: its roots exist within the history of Brazilian music and its wealth of rhythms and genres; its identifiable forms exist as the product of interactions with foreign elements. These interactions determine how the cultural and artistic phenomenon emerged and sustained itself in time.

The difficulty in defining Brazilian jazz lies primarily in two factors that determined how Brazilians related historically to the American genre: the first is Brazilian music itself and its vigorous originality, which kept providing musicians with their core rhythmic and melodic vocabulary; the second is the political mindset that emerged during the twentieth century in regard to the national culture and its relation to the United States. Both factors are embedded in a dialectic of attraction and repulsion to jazz that evolved over time without ever being resolved. On one side, Brazilian music is sturdy, albeit not impervious to influence; on the other, politics fluctuates, and left and right ideological frontiers continue to play a major role in how Brazilian musicians and the public perceive jazz, at times under conflicting dispositions.

The richness and strength of the native urban music that existed in Brazil since the late nineteenth century influenced how jazz was received in the country and contributed to the difficulty we encounter today in identifying Brazilian jazz as a universally accepted concept or genre. From the start, the Brazilian native music resisted jazz at various levels. As I will show through examples in the next page, early in the twentieth century jazz was hailed by the public as a high-spirited novelty, but the musicians themselves incorporated it primarily as a label, transfiguring it almost immediately to accommodate the national styles, including the vocal music sung in Portuguese. Great part of the musical strength of those urban original forms resided in their rhythmic aspects, which denoted the African heritage of heavy syncopation and polyrhythms. Those rhythms had been incorporated into a national music that, like American jazz, was structured around principles of tonal harmony inherited from Europe and based on a mixture of popular and classical elements. Also like jazz, this music had grown into the lives of an emerging urban middle class, being incorporated into an industry that produced notation and publication, public performance, and commercial distribution. The original Brazilian music that was blooming when jazz reached the country was thus not a folk form, but a well-established type of Western music, and the performers of this music were the ones who would assimilated, or not, the suddenly incoming jazz.

The native rhythms employed in the Brazilian urban forms reflected the country's miscegenation and syncretic culture, where a strong African element had become part of the mainstream musical expression. By the time jazz reached Brazil early in the twentieth century, the rhythms employed in the national urban music were no longer identified as originally African, having been assimilated through a long process of cultural formation. Brazil was a nation whose territory had been closed to foreign contact for more than 300 years during its existence as a Portuguese colony (from 1500 to 1822) and where since the independence it struggled to find its identity. The long colonial period produced a distintictive culture, and the African elements that were imported through centuries of slave traffic melted into the evolving national expression. A Brazilian identity came to be conceived under the so-called "myth of three races," a historical construct supported by the imperial government established in 1822 and based upon the idea of racial convergence being at play during the most heroic moments of the nation's history. At the musical level, the rhythms employed in the national repertory confirmed the partial truth of that mythic racial convergence: Brazilian composers working in the accepted European forms were themselves a product of the country's miscegenation and they relied heavily on syncopated patterns derived from African traditions. One could say that, rhythmically, the Brazilian early twentieth-century music that circulated among the middle class was African through and through, even while racist ideologues vilified the music and dance performed in the lower class communities of black majority. 

Whatever their significance in terms of the complex racial relations in course, the fact is that those rhythms survived the impact of jazz on the Brazilian musical landscape that started during the second decade of the twentieth century. More than part of any conscious resistance, however, these rhythms worked as a subliminal force that advanced a cultural form of national self-assertion. Speaking from the point of view of their persistence over the decades, and considering especially how they interacted with the traditional swing feel of jazz, one could argue that the African rhythmic heritage of Brazilian music was, paradoxically, what made it resist jazz in its purest form. To put it bluntly, throughout the decades following the appearance of jazz in Brazil the 2/4 rhythmic pattern of samba music continued to prevail, remaining as the hegemonic form even in the more stretched out bossa nova, while the 3 feel of swing never truly set root among composers and performers. The bottom line is that when Brazilian musicians play jazz today, they almost always lapse from swing into one of the national rhythms, thus altering what jazz purists would define as proper jazz. Needless to say, the difficult task of defining Brazilian jazz overlaps with that of defining jazz itself. In any case, however, it is worth calling attention to the fact that the Brazilian reluctance to incorporate swing is, as would be expected, more clearly identifiable among drummers, a fact that points to idiosyncratic patterns of musical upbringing and transmission of drumming and rhythmic techniques in the country.   

In a broader sense, resistance to jazz resulting from emphasis on local rhythms is not a phenomenon limited to Brazil, occurring also in other parts of Latin America. The most obvious example is Cuba, where attempting a definition of Afro-Cuban jazz poses as much difficulty as it does in the Brazilian case. From this perspective, we could regard the jazz-related music produced in Latin America as a result of what Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz (1881–1969) called transculturation, namely the phenomenon of converging cultures inhabiting a single work or art form, as opposed to acculturation, that is, the acceptance and assimilation of a foreign form within a given cultural milieu. This becomes more evident when the transmission of jazz to Latin America is regarded comparatively with other areas of the globe. We know that jazz emerged early in the twentieth-century in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (1898), reaching Japan shortly after. We also know that jazz flourished in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, when the Western powers divided and occupied the city. Shidaiqu (時代曲), literally "the songs of the era," emerged from the works of composer Li Jinhui (黎錦暉 1891–1967) in collaboration with American trumpet player Buck Clayton (1911–1991) as a fusion of Chinese and Western music, becoming thus the starting point of Chinese popular music. Even a "Chinese Jazz Age" emerged in the period, with the lavishly sensual performances by the Bright Moon Song and Dance Troupe's (明月歌舞团) female dancers sweeping the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong. However, the fusion enacted in shidaiqu notwithstanding, the absence in China of a preexisting native tradition of urban popular music colored by African rhythms prevented the sort of resistance to swing we find in the Latin American case. What applies to China applies also to the Japanese and Korean assimilation of jazz. Turning our gaze towards Western Europe, France aligns with the East Asian case, with jazz being more acculturated than "transculturated" since the time swing music and dance became a virtual a craze in Paris in the 1920s. In sum, even if instances of fusion between jazz and folk songs and styles may be found in the history of jazz in Europe and East Asia, with manouche jazz in France being perhaps the most noticeable example, still the original American swing feel prevailed, providing a case for the argument that jazz in these areas became more American than native. 

Back to the specific case of Brazil, another aspect that further complicates the relation between jazz and the local music is the strong cultural nationalism that set root in the country since at least the independence from Portugal in 1822. After that date, music became entangled with the nation-building policies implemented by the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889), which were entrusted to the IHGB (Brazilian Historic and Geographic Institute), a government office established in 1838 with the aim of promoting the research and preservation of the national culture, namely a culture that had to be defined in contrast with that of the former metropolis (Portugal). The IHGB was the actual starting point of the above-mentioned "myth of three races," which summarized the State's efforts to employ the country's ethnic diversity in favor of nation building. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the Emperor himself was supporting the musical career of composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836–1896), deemed to be the first New World composer to be successful in Europe and whose operas presented heroic visions of Brazil's indigenous peoples. This nationalist mindset in the arts recurred throughout the twentieth century. Brazilian Modernism, for instance, emerged in the 1920s as one of the few international avant-garde movements whose manifesto was devoutly anti-European and nationalist, calling for the discovery of the true Brazilian aesthetic. The title of defender of Brazilianness in music at that point was given to Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), the prolific composer of orchestral and chamber works who would take charge of Brazilian musical education during the dictatorial period that followed starting in 1937. Jazz itself, however, was not openly declared a target of modernist nationalism. The culture to be opposed was primarily that of Europe, understood in the broad sense as a white culture that could not assimilate the more variegated colors of the tropics. Brazilian modernism's attitude towards jazz was, on the surface, welcoming and based upon a futurist inclination that followed that of Marinetti's movement. To a certain extent, it also reproduced the above-mentioned craze for jazz in course in Europe in the 1920s and expressed with enthusiasm by George Antheil in Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology (1934). Paradoxically, a more ambivalent attitude towards jazz can be discerned in the music that was actually produced, and which was a result of the movement's overt nationalism. More specifically, Villa-Lobo's elegant modernist music conflicted with jazz in that it emphasized those same Brazilian rhythms that were taking the place of swing in the Brazilian version of jazz music, that is, the same rhythms that had become part of the national musical essence since the second half of the nineteenth century in the works of composers such as  Joaquim Callado (1848–1880) Chiquinha Gonzaga (1847–1935), Zequinha de Abreu (1880–1935), Ernesto Nazareth (1863–1934), and that was to be continued in those of Bonfíglio de Oliveira (1894–1940), Jacob Pick Bittencourt, better known as Jacob do Bandolim (1918–1969), and Alfredo da Rocha Viana, better known as Pixinguinha (1897–1973). This was the choro tradition; and this was the African-influenced music that resisted jazz at the rhythmic level.

American ragtime, Argentine tango, Cuban habanera, and Brazilian choro are all urban popular styles that incorporate rhythms and harmonic textures coming from Europe and Africa. These styles are deeply rooted in people's feelings and could never be easily replaced by foreign forms. In Latin America, they assumed what I suggested is a subliminal form of resistance to jazz and eventually became a banner for musicians to assert their national identity. They are part of an ambivalent attitude towards American culture that involves a complex web of forces of attraction and resistance that persists in time and continues to determine how jazz music is perceived and played in Latin America today. In the case of Brazil, while a cultural rupture with Europe became State policy at various points in the country's history, relations with the United States tended to be favored at the government level throughout the twentieth century. At the political level, attraction to American ideals of freedom and to the American Revolution as a model existed since the eighteenth century, when popular revolts broke out in Bahia and Pernambuco with separatist and republican dispositions. Commercial and cultural relations with the United States grew after the establishment of the First Brazilian Republic in 1889, which meant a clear rupture with Europe, whose political presence in the country had always been associated with the Portuguese monarchy. Relations with America further deepened during the office José Maria da Silva Paranhos Jr., the Baron of Rio Branco (1845–1912), in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs starting in 1902. The Baron perceived the United States as a model to be emulated. In the following decade, as mentioned above, Brazilian Modernism and its Anthropophagic Manifesto, one of the high points of cultural nationalism, remained anti-European in its post-colonial discourse, showing, however, no clear signs of anti-Americanism. Cultural exchanges that supported musical interaction with the United States emerged during President Roosevelt's good neighbor policy in the 1930s and 40s. From 1946, Brazilian liberal democracy again favored American culture, a tendency that was further amplified in the 1950s, a time of growing urbanization and economic internationalization. A more ambivalent attitude towards jazz emerged in the second half or the 1960s, when leftist intellectuals began to denounce American cultural imperialism after the military coup of 1964. This tendency took strong roots among Brazilian artists, with signs of Soviet infiltration of government offices and higher education institutions becoming a propagator of anti-American feeling among artists and intellectuals. This coincided with the emergence of what appears to be the musicians' self-imposed requirement to express a Brazilian aesthetic in the music. Musicians associated with jazz and improvisation began effectively policing one another and emphasizing the value of "Brazilianness" in rhythm and phrasing as a parameter for musical worth. This tendency survived throughout the 1980s, even though after the end of the military dictatorship the economic liberalization that was set in course made jazz again politically acceptable. This was a time when jazz festivals began to emerge in the country and take root among a middle-class thirsty for foreign products. During this period a psychological line still divided Brazilian musicians and American ones when it came to playing jazz. Looking at the first few editions of the Free Jazz Festival, a large-scale music event that started taking place annually in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in 1985, we find a very distinct musical attitude in regard to swing emerging from Brazilian and American musicians. The former's avoidance of the traditional rhythmic fell of jazz is remarkable. This tendency remains in what we might call twenty-first century Brazilian jazz, with the distinction that the former fusion or jazz-rock type of music that was common among Brazilian musicians during the 1980s and 90s has given place to a more technically sophisticated production with greater emphasis on the polyrhythms found in the native, African-derived expression. These rhythms, on the other, albeit asserting a national cultural standpoint, provide for a new and potentially fruitful bridge between Brazilian music and American modern jazz, whose growing incorporation of the original 3:2 polyrhythms of Africa, paradoxically, brings it closer to the Latin American rhythms that developed apart from the waltz-influenced swing.   

As Jazz evolves over time, definitions become more and more elusive. Defining non-American forms of jazz poses further problems related to the musical worth of native forms and musicians. This, undoubtedly, can only lead to much discussion, or to many book-length studies by a great number of trained musicologists. In any case, Jazz keeps assuming different meanings in different areas of the globe. In Asia it went from a symbol of openness and cosmopolitanism in Taisho Japan and during the Chinese Jazz Age to full proscription as a product of the enemy's culture in Showa and Mao's times. In Brazil it was initially hailed in the 1920s as high-spirited novelty, but was immediately de-characterized and subsumed under national forms. It was then welcomed again in the 1950s as a sign of the new, international and cosmopolitan Brazil of the Kubitschek years, but still disguised at the performance lever under the local samba-canção style. In the 1960s jazz was then demonized by sectors of the left as a product of American imperialist culture, and then hailed back again in the second-half of the 1980s as part of the cultural climate of the supposedly newly democratized nation. 

Looking at these ups and downs, perhaps we will have to forfeit a definition of Brazilian jazz. Or maybe the art form doesn't exist at all; all there is is Brazilian instrumental music. Or could we see Brazilian jazz simply as American jazz played by Brazilians? This seems to be more of an acceptable definition for French or Japanese jazz, namely music that follows more closely the American tradition played in those places and by those peoples. Or is Brazilian jazz a form of Brazilian music that uses jazz instrumentation and improvisation? And what is "jazz instrumentation"? Should singers be excluded?  Whatever the case, the bottom line is that Brazilian musicians, as opposed to French, German, British, Japanese, or Korean, tend to resist more clearly identifying themselves as jazz musicians. They tend also to resist playing swing music; under their fingers, jazz standards almost invariably turn into samba. In any case, since my musicological skills fail me and I am unable to offer a definition of it, maybe I should illustrate what I mean by Brazilian jazz. If you are interested in the paradox-filled story of how Brazilian jazz emerged as a subliminal form of resistance to American jazz, or if you want to know precisely what rhythms I have in mind when I suggest that there is a rhythmic resistance to swing among Brazilian musicians, or if you'd simply like to listen to some great music, feel free to click the button below.