Shortly after my interview series with Bud Shank last week on the alto saxophonist's critical contribution to the bossa nova's evolution, I received a lovely e-mail from Von Babasin. Von is the son of Harry "The Bear" Babasin [pictured], the late, great West Coast Jazz bassist who recorded the first Brazilian jazz albums with Bud Shank, Laurindo Almeida and Roy Harte in 1953 and 1954. Von is in the process of making a documentary about his dad and hosts the Jazz in Hollywood website here.
As you'll see below, Von adds valuable information to the West Coast Jazz-bossa nova story:
Thank you for your three-part interview with Bud Shank [pictured] on the origins of the bossa nova. It was great to read Mr. Shank's wonderful recollections about my dad, bassist Harry Babasin, and the importance of West Coast Jazz in the bossa nova's development.
True creative originators rarely recognize or celebrate the magnitude of their accomplishments, and the job of clarification is often left to historians and documentarians. Musicians play what feels and sounds good to them at the time, and they leave the rest to us.
For some reason, there are many writers who have neglected to give this group of West Coast musicians the credit they have long deserved. Too often Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto are portrayed as the creators of the bossa nova—as if the history books aren't big enough to include the groundbreaking Brazilian jazz that Bud Shank, Laurindo Almeida, Harry Babasin and Roy Harte recorded in 1953 and 1954 [all pictured].
This recognition by no means diminishes the genius of the musicians who continued Brazilian jazz's evolution. I merely suggest that those who started the genre should no longer remain in anonymity. If the 1953 and 1954 Laurindo Almeida Quartet recordings aren't the true "birth of the bossa nova," as many believe (including me), they certainly are far more influential than Bud Shank humbly would care to take credit for. I, for one, feel it's time for this inventive group to receive the recognition it so richly deserves. There is enough documentation out there to support this theory:
The story of bossa nova's start is told quite nicely by journalist John Tynan, in his article from the November 8, 1962, issue of Down Beat magazine called "The Real Story of the Bossa Nova." It states:
"But despite several attempts at delineation in the press and liner commentary on recordings, a central fact concerning the practical beginnings of this jazz samba has been ignored: bossa nova, as we know it, is neither new nor wholly Brazilian. Its roots trail back a decade, and its practical application as a new form found birth in Hollywood, Calif." [pictured, the Haig nightclub in Los Angeles]
The article goes on to explain that Brazilian jazz actually had its start six years earlier. Harry Babasin's [pictured] association with Laurindo Almeida dates back to 1947, when they met on the set of the movie, A Song Is Born, starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Harry was with Benny Goodman's rhythm section at the time and was the credited bassist in the film. Laurindo was hired as an extra in the large, group musical scenes.
Harry and Laurindo [pictured] immediately struck up a musical friendship. They would play between takes of the film and experiment with Laurindo's traditional Brazilian baiao rhythms. As they maintained their relationship over the years, they found themselves developing the idea in 1952. Almeida was quoted as saying, "The idea of putting samba and jazz together was different. As long as samba is 2/4 and jazz is a la breve, why not put the two together?"
But Babasin found the two-beat bass line to be too constraining, so he added notes in a syncopated fashion, and "the result was the basis for bossa nova," Tynan writes in the 1962 Down Beat article.
In the same article, drummer Roy Harte adds, "[Combining Brazilian music and jazz] was Harry's idea, and his bass parts provided the lead rhythmically." Harte continues, "The whole thing, was to combine the baiao beat with jazz. That was what we were aiming at—a jazz baiao." [Babasin pictured with Charlie Parker and Chet Baker]
As Mr. Tynan put it, "In almost total obscurity the first examples of bossa nova were put on tape in a small studio on Hollywood's Santa Monica Blvd. in 1953."
As far as the spread of these particular recordings and the influence they contributed, the article states:
"Later in 1953 Almeida returned to Brazil to visit. With him he took 25 copies of the album. 'I gave copies to many of my friends,' he said, 'and it was given close attention.'"
One last note from the Down Beat article: Almeida credits a well-known Brazilian entertainer, Carioca, for coining the phrase "bossa nova." Alternately, Robert Farris Thompson of the Saturday Review wrote:
"'Bossa' literally means 'hump on the back,' according to Prof. Malcolm C. Batchelor, who teaches Portuguese at Yale, and he adds that 'bossa nova' is slang for 'the new wrinkle.' According to Time, various experts claim the 'Portuguese slang expression 'bossa nova' can mean 'the latest thing' or 'the new beat' or 'the new wrinkle'." [pictured: Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s]
In that same issue of Down Beat, other articles on the bossa nova appeared, citing Bud, Laurindo, Harry and Roy as being very influential in the artform's development, if not its true originators.
What I enjoyed most in the 1962 Down Beat, however, is a section of record reviews on page 24 called the Bossa Nova Bandwagon. It featured reviews of seven different bossa nova albums, including Brazilliance Vol. 1 and Brazilliance Vol. 2. The only album on the page to receive a full five-star rating is Brazilliance Vol. 1, a compilation of the original group's two 10-inch LPs on Pacific Jazz, with Harry and Roy on bass and drums.
Many times, when a new artform is introduced, it has a rudimentary form that is then improved upon. In this case, the genre's originators set the bar high. Though Babasin [pictured] had created that rhythmic structure first as a duo with Almeida and then as a trio with Harte, it truly was the addition of alto saxophonist Bud Shank [pictured] that breathed life into the music. The sax became the voice that defined the modern jazz influence on the traditional Brazilian rhythms that became the style that set the standard for its artform.
In 1994, John Goldsby, a New York bassist who, at the time, performed with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and a scholar of bass history who teaches at William Paterson College in New Jersey, wrote an article in the April issue of Bass Player Magazine about Harry Babasin. In it, he states:
"Traditional Brazilian bass parts are usually played with only half-notes, as shown in Ex. 1 [diagramed in the article]. Babasin changed the feel of these lines by adding eighth-notes (Ex. 2), and this is the basis for the bossa nova bass lines most of us play today.
"Babasin [pictured with Roy Harte] went further, exploring various embellishments on the bossa nova beat that give the bassist further freedom (Ex. 3). A recording of the seminal bossa nova jazz band with Babasin and Almeida was made in 1953 and has been reissued on CD called Brazilliance Vol. 1."
Mr. Goldsby has since authored a book in 2002 called The Jazz Bass Book: Technique and Tradition. Apparently, he felt Harry Babasin and the bossa nova contribution, among other innovations introduced by Harry, were important enough to occupy a chapter.
Whether or not you believe that what the Laurindo Almeida Quartet recorded was the actual birth of the bossa nova is neither here nor there. The truth of the matter is this group represented the first time in recorded history the fusion of traditional Brazilian rhythms and modern jazz. That event, in itself, is an innovation worthy of inclusion in the history books. It's been clearly documented that these albums made it into the hands of those who followed, so its influence cannot be ignored.
Thank you, Marc. for giving jazz a great platform with such insightful commentary!