João Donato (1934-2023)

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By AFRANIO CATANI*

The musician who united jazz with Latin music

Sang by Donato in his latest album: “A Cabeça in the Air/and Feet on the Ground”

A very great pain, the death of João Donato. I have almost all of his albums, most on CDs and it's rare the day that I don't listen to his music.

A Folha de S. Paul of July 18, 2023 featured excellent articles by Gustavo Zeitel, Leonardo Lichote, Lucas Brêda, Renato Contente and Lucas Nobile that map the more than 70 years of João Donato's career, while The State of S. Paul, more restrained, dedicated a correct obituary to him – I did not have the opportunity to read other newspapers about it.

The set of articles talks about the beginning of the artist's professional career, the Rio de Janeiro friendships in his youth, his approach to bossa nova, the low reception of his music in Brazil at the end of the 1950s, forcing him to travel to the United States, where was impressed by Caribbean music, leading him to operate the fusion of mambo with bossa nova. He performed with his friend João Gilberto, played with Chet Baker, Johnny Martínez, Mongo Santamaría, Eddie Palmieri, among others.

Lucas Brêda wrote that at the beginning of his stay in the United States, João Donato “found himself in limbo – he was too jazzy to play Brazilian music, but too Brazilian to play jazz,” In his ups and downs, comings and goings between the US and Brazil, played, sang, composed, in addition to the names mentioned in the previous paragraph, with Eumir Deodato, Marcos Valle, Sérgio Mendes, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Rosinha de Valença, Luiz Melodia, Jards Macalé, Paulo Moura, Marcelo D2, Chucho Valdés, Tuti Moreno, Céu, Robertinho Silva, Joyce Moreno, Tulipa Ruiz, Jorge Helder, Lilian Carmona, Luiz Alves, Luiz Melodia…

João Donato experienced many frustrations. Even after recording Common place, in 1975, containing “Emoriô”, “Bananeira”, “Lugar Comum”, “Deixei Recado”, “Naturamente”, songs that later became true classics, the album did not obtain the commercial return that the label expected. He ended up not recording for 10 years, then opting for US and other small, almost independent, Brazilian record companies. His career ended up kicking into high gear and, between 1996 and 2022, he released 25 albums.

A statement by João Donato, recovered by Leonardo Lichote (“João Donato, at 88, was still a boy in soul and mind”, Folha de S. Paul, 18.07.2023), I think it helps to understand the personality of the musician, who said in the statement given to the Museu da Imagem e do Som, in 2009, that “for me, a watch has no numbers. It is a circle that revolves around itself, like the Earth, like the Sun”; that is, the numbers have a very relative meaning for him.

At the end of 1972 or beginning of 1973, in a moment of uncertainty as to the direction to follow, João Donato heard from the singer and composer Agostinho dos Santos (1932-1973) some advice that would become invaluable: he needed a lyricist, someone who would put lyrics in their songs. He, Agostinho, would travel, go on a tour and, on his return, would like to form partnerships with João Donato from Acre. Unfortunately, Agostinho died in the Varig flight 820 accident on July 12, 1973, in Orly, aged 41. The musician followed the advice, and his lyricists, in general, were first rate: Paulo César Pinheiro, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Lysias Ênio, his younger brother, just to name a few.

Even today, 50 years later, the mention of Agostinho dos Santos moves me. On July 11, 1973, together with my girlfriend, I went to Congonhas Airport to say goodbye to a great friend of hers, our colleague at Getúlio Vargas, married to a French computer engineer who was working in Brazil; she was the mother of a little boy and they were going to France for a twenty-day vacation. At the entrance to the departure lounge, Agostinho, smiling, was giving an interview. It was the last time we saw them.

Lucas Nobile (“Like Sócrates and Maradona in soccer, the columnist hovered above styles and genres”, Folha de S. Paul, 18.07.2023), happily wrote that João Donato “was not a virtuoso pianist, but he recorded with the most respected instrumentalists in the country. His piano saved on notes, but it had balance like few others”.

In 2022, João Donato launched Serotonin, their final album. In one of the tracks, “Orbita”, she may have sung the synthesis of what she expected from life:

the head in the air
And feet on the ground
On land, sea and air
Immensity

I like yes better
than not
With the peace of Oxalá
In the heart

*Afranio Catania is a retired senior professor at the Faculty of Education at USP. He is currently a visiting professor at the Faculty of Education at UERJ, Duque de Caxias campus..


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