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Jazz Theory: Bossa Nova

Jazz Theory Contents
Bossa Nova

Bossa Nova songs at JazzStandards.com include:

Rank Title
216 Wave
276 The Shadow of Your Smile
382 Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)
400 Watch What Happens
479 The Girl From Ipanema
533 One-Note Samba
552 How Insensitive
557 Blue Bossa
683 Once I Loved
685 Meditation


708 A Felicidade
713 Desafinado
879 Triste


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Bossa Nova

By Peter Spitzer - Jazz Author, Musician, and Instructor

Latin American styles have played a part in jazz since its earliest days. The habanera rhythm is occasionally present in ragtime piano pieces; “St. Louis Blues” (1914) includes a tango section, reflecting the popularity of that dance in the 1910s. “The Peanut Vendor (El Manisero)” (1928), “Green Eyes (Aquellos Ojos Verdes)” (1929), and “Besame Mucho” (1941) achieved hit status in their time. Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine (1935),” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin (1936)” were originally set to Latin rhythms. Stan Kenton’s band used Latin rhythms in the early 1940s; Charlie Parker recorded Latin tunes; and Dizzy Gillespie was a pioneer in the development of “Latin jazz” (this term is generally used to refer to Afro-Cuban jazz).

The popularity of Latin music in the U.S. has generally been linked to the popularity of dance steps (tango, rhumba, conga, samba, mambo, cha-cha-cha). Until the late 1950s, the Latin styles influencing American popular music were predominantly Cuban (two exceptions were tango in the 1910s and samba in the early 1940s).

Bossa nova originated in mid-1950s Brazil, a fusion of the melody and rhythm of samba and samba-cancao with the harmonic vocabulary of American standards and the feel of “cool” jazz. Beginning in the early 1960s, bossa nova became an important influence on both jazz and American popular music. Bossa nova did not evolve or achieve popularity as a dance, but rather as a musical form.

Bossa is largely defined by the compositions of Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, and by the vocal and guitar styles developed by Joao Gilberto. The most prominent lyricist in the genre was Vinicius de Moraes, although original Portuguese lyrics were lost on American audiences, who only heard translations of varying quality.

Jobim was the most accomplished composer of bossa nova, and the most prolific; he left a legacy of over 300 songs. His hits included “Desafinado,” “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues),” “A Felicidade,” “One Note Samba,” “Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” “Meditation,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” “How Insensitive,” “Once I Loved,” “Dindi,” “Triste,” “Wave,” “Waters of March,” “Agua de Beber,” and others. Other songwriters wrote in this style - for example, Roberto Menescal (“My Little Boat”) and Luiz Bonfa (“Black Orpheus,” “Samba de Orfeu,” “Gentle Rain”) - but it is fair to say that when we talk about bossa nova compositions, we are talking mostly about Jobim. His composing style was influenced not only by American and Brazilian genres, but also by his classical training (particularly Chopin and Debussy). Beyond these influences, Jobim had a profound gift for melody.

Bossa nova received worldwide recognition with the release of the film “Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro)” in 1959, featuring a soundtrack with songs by Jobim and Luiz Bonfa.


The harmony of bossa nova derives to a great extent from American standards; all of the “harmonic cliches” listed in the article “Jazz Standards: Harmony and Form” are applicable here. Jobim was certainly familiar with the work of Gershwin, Kern, and Porter. American music was popular in Brazil in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and as a young pianist, Jobim had spent many long nights playing jazz standards in Rio de Janeiro nightclubs. He employed this harmonic vocabulary with sophistication, building on the achievements of his predecessors.

Some harmonic features of Jobim’s work:

  • He used diminished chords more freely than American jazz composers of the same period (e.g., “Once I Loved” or “How Insensitive”).
  • He was as fluent in using melodic and harmonic blues devices as any American “Golden Age” songwriter (“Agua de Beber”).
  • Jobim used various substitutions for the V7 chord. For example, in “Girl From Ipanema,” note the bII7 tritone-substitute chords in the A section. In “Dindi,” note the bVIImaj7 and Vm7 chords substituting for V in the verse and in the A section, and the bVIm6 chords substituting for V in the bridge.
  • He occasionally wrote in a modal style (“Favela”).

Harmonically, bossa nova was an extension and further development of the “Great American Songbook” approach, at a time when the general public in the U.S. was beginning to lose sight of the musical world of Gershwin, Kern, and Porter. This may be one reason that bossa was so well-received by jazz musicians.


  • Melodies in major-key tunes often emphasize the major seventh and major ninth scale degrees over tonic maj7 or maj9 chords.
  • Melodic rhythms sometimes make use of the patterns of samba instruments.
  • Joao Gilberto’s vocal performing style is an integral part of bossa nova. His phrasing is subtle, but rhythmically complex. Gilberto’s vocal delivery is soft and understated, and has been compared to that of Chet Baker (perhaps an early influence). Gilberto’s repertoire also includes older sambas and boleros; in his interpretations they become bossa nova.


  • Gilberto developed the definitive bossa guitar comping style, reducing the rhythmic patterns of samba to the essence of its tamborim patterns (the tamborim is a small hand drum used in samba ensembles, not to be confused with the American “tambourine”). As with his vocal approach, his guitar style is understated and “cool.”
  • Bossa nova bass patterns suggest the surdo (low drum) part in a samba group.
  • Drum set parts are also understated. Constant eighth notes on the high hat or ride cymbal suggest the pandeiro or the shaker part in a samba ensemble; the cross-stick on the snare plays a simple clave pattern or tamborim pattern. In a purist approach, a bossa nova drummer would play in a more reserved fashion than a typical American jazz drummer.
  • The samba influence may be more or less pronounced, depending on the performer and the song.

Influence On American Pop and Jazz

Bossa nova tunes or albums were recorded by many major jazz performers in the early 1960s, including Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderley, Coleman Hawkins, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald, and others. Getz’s recordings of “Desafinado” (with Charlie Byrd, 1962) and “The Girl From Ipanema” (with Astrud Gilberto, 1963) became pop hits, rising to #15 and #5 on Billboard Magazine’s charts.

Bossa nova rhythm found its way into American-composed top 40 as well (e.g., “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “Goin’ Out of My Head”). The bossa drum pattern can even be heard in the Doors’ “Break On Through (To the Other Side).”

A number of classic jazz standards composed by non-Brazilian musicians employ a bossa nova beat - e.g., “Blue Bossa,” “Recordame (No Me Esqueca),” “Ceora,” “Pensativa,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Song for My Father,” “Watch What Happens,” “Forest Flower.” Bossa nova today remains one of the prevalent rhythms in American jazz and popular music.

A few of Jobim’s tunes have chord progressions that may have been borrowed in part from American jazz standards. Some of these songs are discussed in these articles (at the author’s website):

Available at Amazon...

Peter Spitzer
Mel Bay Jazz Theory Handbook Book/CD Set
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
Perfect Paperback

(Jazz Theory Handbook is a great jazz theory resource for beginners and established musicians. Click the graphic to see our review.)

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