“Smooth” is a pejorative word in jazz. It’s what we call the numbing muzak in our elevator purgatories. It’s what we call Kenny G and John Tesh, who have inexplicably made careers by making music no one likes. It’s the stereotype, the simulacrum, the straw man for people who hate jazz, or don’t know jazz, or once heard a song with too much horn when they had a headache and thought will someone please turn that shit down.
But what else is there to call Getz/Gilberto, the landmark 1964 album by an unlikely team of collaborators, but the birth of smooth? Stan Getz’s tenor sax melodies are so slurred and reedy that he wills us into a Don Draper lounge fantasy. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s piano chords are legato, coy. The sparse drumming by Milton Banana (what a name!) is wispy, incidental, barely there. Joao Gilberto weaves the whole thing together, as his inimitable guitar comping supplies our only semblance of a bass line and propels each tune’s distinct Latin rhythm. His vocals, and that of his wife Astrud—an intuitive and airy singer—unify each musician’s efforts and solidify the album’s sexiness, even though their heavy Brazilian accents render certain lyrics unintelligible.
Getz/Gilberto might be the only record on earth where there isn’t a single song, not one track, that you can crank. Someone would tell you it didn’t sound right. Someone would tell you to turn that shit down.
We played no jazz during the first two years that I was a member of my high school jazz band. Having switched school districts just weeks before I started ninth grade, I flocked instinctively to the small cadre of misfits who used the ensemble structure as an excuse to noodle and jam. Whenever a school concert loomed, we’d get our collective act together and pick the least offensive charts out of the school’s sheet music cabinet so we could play two or three tunes—mostly pop-rock songs from the seventies—for our parents. I don’t remember much of my first year apart from wishing that the guitarist would hurry up and graduate so I could take his place and make the switch from trumpet, an instrument on which I came to project my frustration with my own musical limitations. My most vivid memory from my second year is the session where I had to explain over and over again that I would never get the Shaft riff to sound right because I didn’t own, and couldn’t afford, a wah pedal.
It wasn’t until my junior year that the school hired a young Marine trumpeter to serve as a part-time jazz instructor. His presence, coupled with my switch to bass, gave me my first real taste of jazz from someone who had a working knowledge of, and passion for, the genre. Most of us heard Miles Davis and John Coltrane for the first time. Our drummers experimented with brushes, while our horn players explored how to manipulate their sound with mutes and plungers. Vindicated, our urge to rock roared out when we traded eights on “Watermelon Man,” which was our reward for muscling through Brubeck’s “Take Five” in its quirky 5/4 time signature. After years of music education in the public school system, this crash course in jazz was finally teaching me the power of subtlety, the nuance of tone, and the importance of responsiveness. Our jazz man only lasted one year (Was the pay too low? Did that party where he let us watch Stripes get too rambunctious?), but my conversion was complete. While the Jansports genuflecting before narrow lockers wore patches for Cake and Garbage and Third Eye Blind, I spent my senior year consecrating a new catechism. Wes Montgomery. Herbie Hancock. Sonny Rollins. Stan Getz.
When did the sixties begin? 1959 sank and 1960 dawned, sure, but for those of us who didn’t live through those years, it’s hard to reconcile the tumultuous political upheavals and hippie clichés that eventually emerged with the bobbed hairdos, bikini beach blasts, and bubblegum doo-wop that bled over from the previous decade, oblivious to our fiction of time. I suspect that the Kennedy assassination in 1963 was the chief catalyst for the various social and aesthetic transformations now thoroughly engrained in our national iconography and myths.
On March 18th and 19th, eight months before that grim day in Dealey Plaza, Getz, Gilberto, and Jobim sat in a cramped New York City studio and made a jazz masterpiece in 48 hours. The lone black-and-white photo gracing the album’s inner sleeve captures the scene: three clean-shaven men in early-middle age with dark cropped hair and collared shirts. Getz is the only one without a tie. They look like accountants at tax season who, working late one evening, took an impromptu break to relieve their mounting stress.
In the original liner notes, Getz wrote that “unpretentiousness, spontaneity and the poetry of honest emotion belong back in jazz.” Read in context, it’s clear that he’s grinding against the impulse for harder bop and stargazing improvisation. The critic Gene Lees remarked with prophetic authority in these same liner notes that the record captured “a strangely appropriate blend” and that “anything so valid had to survive.” Even though it arrived during a smallish bossa nova fad, the purposefully sensual ambiance of Getz/Gilberto rejected the larger trajectory of the moment in which it was made, and its very rebelliousness make it a sixties record. And yet, its reinvigoration of the simpler melodies and relaxed tempos that marked cool jazz nearly a decade earlier make it nostalgic for post-war normalcy. Like all great art, Getz/Gilberto defies easy categorization and remains a kingdom unto itself. Like all great art, I marvel that it exists.
One Saturday morning I refused the groggy pleas for cartoons. My young sons—then two and four—sensed in the pre-dawn haze that I was hardly vertical, and that anything I said was likely to come out as a growl. My wife, obliterated and finally sound asleep, had been ripped awake a half-dozen times throughout the night, cajoling our little tussler to quit whimpering and please, give it up and rest. So we three boys exchanged nothing but a few telegraphic whispers. I turned the blinds for light that wasn’t there. I lit some candles. Lucky Charms. Orange juice. My mug made dull clinks as the coffee spoon swirled cream and sugar into steam. Standing by my clunky, gargantuan turntable—the one my father bought from his father, a Sears salesman, before I was born—there was only one record I wanted. I wanted it low, barely audible, an atmosphere. I wanted its warm hiss to bring us back.