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Antonio Carlos Jobim. An Illuminated Man.
Helena Jobim, translated by Dario Borim.
338 pp. £19.99
Antonio Carlos Jobim died of bladder cancer at 67. A Portuguese biography, written by his sister Helena, appeared in 1996, but we have had to wait until now to see an English language edition of this eye-witness account about one of the important songwriters of the 20th century. Many musicians will rank Jobim alongside George Gershwin as the most famous and respected of twentieth-century songwriters. Eventually, The Girl from Ipanema became the second most often played song on earth, beaten only by a Beatles tune. "But they were four," said Jobim! The actor Peter Sellers said that Jobim's music was among the ten classiest things on the face of the world.
Because of his (and his sister's) inability to pronounce his own first name when very young, Jobim grew up referring to himself as 'Tom'. Thus, the 'Tom Jobim' described throughout this account is the man whom the rest of the world knows as Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tom played the piano and guitar. He also sang and played the harmonica.
He is mentioned as having read the great orchestration and arranging texts of his time, including those by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glenn Miller. Of an inquiring mind, at the age of fourteen Tom bought a tuning fork to spend time tuning and detuning his own piano to learn about the subtleties of the tempering system. Later he was employed at Continental Records in Rio de Janeiro, where he would transcribe songs written by those songwriters who didn't know music theory. At that time, the early 1950s, there were no portable recorders. "The recorders we had were like pieces of furniture, real prehistoric monsters", he says. He carried a briefcase with manuscript paper, pencil, eraser and a razor blade. At Continental, Tom listened to everything new that came up, which provided an exceptional educational experience.
When writing his own compositions Jobim's method would be to elaborate on the harmonic threads, then develop the melody. Last, he would polish the lyrics, then finally notate everything on the staff. Elsewhere in the book he is described as writing music and words at the same time. Thus, although there are frequent mentions of Tom's songwriting activities, much remains unclear, coming as it does through the filter of Helena's own descriptions (clearly, she is not an educated musician), then through the equally obscuring sieve of an affectionate but wordy and somewhat romantic text translated from the Portuguese. As can happen in Hispanic literature, hagiography seems at times to predominate over critical biography. The book has no index. Though this an enthusiastic and readable account, potential remains for an authoritative analytical and critical book about Jobim the composer.
In 1988 Tom and his family moved to Manhattan to live near to Central Park. Tom was to die in a Manhattan hospital in 1994, after two heart attacks.
John Robert Brown