João Gilberto, Brazilian bossa nova pioneer, dies at 88

João Gilberto at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro in 2008.
João Gilberto at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro in 2008.
(Ari Versiani / AFP/Getty Images)

João Gilberto, a Brazilian singer, guitarist and songwriter considered one of the fathers of the bossa nova genre that gained global popularity in the 1960s and became an iconic sound of the South American nation, died Saturday, his son said. He was 88.

João Marcelo said his father had been battling health issues, though no official cause of death was given. “His struggle was noble. He tried to maintain his dignity in the light of losing his sovereignty,” Marcelo posted on Facebook.

A fusion of samba and jazz, bossa nova emerged in the late 1950s and gained a worldwide following in the 1960s, pioneered by Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim, who composed the iconic Girl From Ipanema, which was sung Gilberto, his wife Astrud Gilberto and others.


In 1961, Gilberto finished the trilogy of albums that would make bossa nova known around the world: “Chega de Saudade,” “El Amor, La Sonrisa y La Flor,” and “João Gilberto.”

His 1964 album “Getz/Gilberto” with U.S. saxophonist Stan Getz sold millions of copies and popularized bossa nova. Over his career he won two Grammy awards and was nominated for six.

“It was João Gilberto, the greatest genius of Brazilian music, who was the definitive influence on my music,” singer Gal Costa wrote on social media. “He will be missed but his legacy is very important to Brazil and to the world.”

Born in Bahia in northeastern Brazil, he moved to Rio de Janeiro at a young age. Gilberto was influenced by U.S. jazz greats and recorded songs in the United States, where he lived for much of the 1960s and 1970s.

Journalist and bossa nova scholar Ruy Castro called the death of Gilberto a “monumental” loss.


Castro wrote in his book “The Wave that Built in the Sea” that Gilberto loved soccer and was a fan of the Fluminense club, whose games he liked to watch with a guitar in his hands.

“He managed to create a mystique about him abroad, being who he was and not even speaking English,” he told the Globo television station.

The musician had spent his final years wrapped in legal troubles and debts. His last live performance was in 2008 and he canceled a commemorative show to mark his 80th year because of health problems.

With little interest in giving interviews, he’d become known as the “reclusive genius” in the streets of Leblón, the neighborhood where he lived but was seldom seen.

He is survived by three children.

Singer Daniela Mercury called Gilberto a “genius who revolutionized popular Brazilian music. He taught us now to sing in the most beautify way in the world.”

“Go in peace, maestro,” she wrote.