"AQUELE ABRAÇO, ZUZA!" (That Embrace, Zuza!)
Tantas Folhas, Nox. 22, 2020
Read (in Portuguese)


Since the death, on October 4, of the man I considered my “pai brasileiro”—the author, broadcaster, and lecturer Zuza Homem de Mello, widely acknowledged as the greatest musical authority in Brazil—I’ve been looking at pictures. One of them, taken by Zuza, shows me alongside his friend Maria Bethânia, whom he had taken me to hear on the second night I ever spent in Rio. That was in 2000. In another photo, Zuza—bald, white-bearded, and smiling—sits at the desk of his country home, Cocanha, in Indaiatuba, São Paulo. On the wall behind him is a picture of Zuza at age twenty-three, sitting at a typewriter and smiling over his shoulder. It was in that house that he spent countless hours playing me Brazilian music and telling me stories about it, punctuated by his deep, low laugh. There are many pictures of him in the pool with his grandchildren; his eyes shine with the same enchantment he had as he watched the greatest singers. In another photo, Ney Matogrosso looks at Zuza in the same way.

I took a lot of pictures on September 18, 2013, when some of the greatest composers, singers, and musicians in Brazil helped celebrate Zuza’s eightieth birthday (two days early). By his side is the longtime love of his life, Ercilia Lobo, whose warmth, intelligence, and class made her the perfect partner for Zuza. In 2019, Ercilia photographed Zuza and me in front of an audience at the Brazilian Consulate in New York; there, at his invitation, I interviewed him about João Gilberto, the subject of his final book.

On my computer are dozens of emails in which he gave me patient lessons in Portuguese, and hundreds where he answers all my questions about Brazilian music. He loved the fact that I, an American writer of books and articles about music, cared passionately about Brazil and its musical riches. Zuza taught me that these songs and voices were the doorways to a nation—its history, mythology, religion, and landscape, from Ipanema to the sertão. Zuza lived to share what he knew. And he did it with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child.

Zuza was important in Brazil. He was both a witness to and a participant in history, and he documented everything. Some Brazilians have described their country to me as a place with no memory. Zuza had seen history perish, some of it a victim of the dictatorship. In the 1960s, he was a sound engineer at TV Record when fires—almost surely set by terrorists—destroyed the station’s thousands of cans of film. Gone was an entire series, O Fino da Bossa, that had made his friend Elis Regina a major star. (Many years later, Zuza released a three-CD set, Elis Regina no Fino da Bossa, drawn from his audio recordings of those shows. Without his foresight, that music would not exist.) In his book A Era dos Festivais, he told the story of the legendary music festivals that Record had broadcast in the late ‘60s. As the engineer, Zuza had witnessed the dangerous birth of protest music in Brazil. In the years to come, he interviewed everyone—not only those of the festival generation but Jobim, Pixinguinha, Elizete, Clementina, Caymmi, Gonzaga, and thousands more. Zuza did not live in the past, however; he was a champion of many younger singers. Through him I heard, for the first time, Mônica Salmaso, Renato Braz, Ayrton Montarroyos, Felipe Catto, and Marcelo Manzano, a pianist-singer in the Dick Farney tradition. When Zuza told me to listen, I listened. He would look in my eyes and announce in his Brazilian-accented English: “This is superb!” The master had spoken.

It was in 1993 that he had welcomed me into his life. For two years, a New York cabaret that I loved, The Ballroom, had been presenting annual Brazilian music festivals, sponsored by Varig. Those spectacular seasons were the start of my love affair with Brazil. I looked at the names—Alcione, Beth Carvalho, Zizi Possi, Leny Andrade, Emílio Santiago, Joyce, Leçi Brandão—and recognized almost none of them. A mutual friend, the American pianist and singer Steve Ross, told me I should meet his friend Zuza, who had booked him in São Paulo. (Zuza adored jazz and classic American pop, and knew more about it than any other Brazilian writer.) In a few weeks, Steve told me, Zuza and Ercilia would be in New York. They met me for lunch. From that day on, I felt Brazil reaching out to me.

Zuza, along with the producer Paulinho Albuquerque and the saxophonist Zé Nogueira, programmed the Free Jazz Festival, which took place every year in Rio and São Paulo. In 2000, Zuza invited me to Brazil for the first time as a guest of Free Jazz. In one week, I saw Brazil through his eyes and ears. After hearing João Donato and others in the festival—and attending Zuza and Ercilia’s welcoming party for the great American bassist Ray Brown, with whom Zuza had studied bass in the late ‘50s—Zuza drove me along the coast to Paraty, then on to Rio. As we passed sea, countryside, and animals, he told me stories and played music. One of his selections was an unreleased recording from 1963 of João Gilberto, Jobim, and Os Cariocas at a club in Caopacabana. “Minha alma canta, vejo Rio de Janeiro” were the words I heard as we drove closer and closer to Rio. I knew almost no Portuguese, but I understood those words, and my eyes filled with tears.

Soon we had checked in to a pousada in the heart of Ipanema. That night we were at Canecão for a tribute to Vinícius de Moraes. Afterward, we headed toward the crowd of people waiting to go backstage. Our name was not on any list. But the guard saw Zuza, who suddenly turned into Moses; the waters parted, and two minutes later I was shaking hands with one of the fathers of the bossa nova, Carlos Lyra. The next night we returned to Canecão to see Maria Bethânia. I found myself back in that dressing room, meeting my favorite living Brazilian singer. When I asked for a picture with her—Zuza translated my request; she spoke no English—she removed the clip that was holding her hair back tightly, and that giant mane tumbled down around her shoulders like a waterfall.

In 2020, I made my seventeenth trip to Brazil. Whenever I went to São Paulo, I spent two or three heavenly days at Cocanha. But as the years passed, I found myself worrying that each visit with Zuza might be my last. He suffered two heart attacks; the second was particularly serious. With Ercilia’s care, he recovered. In fact, he seemed stronger and more energized than ever as he entered his golden finale. Now in his eighties, he was celebrated all over Brazil. He appeared frequently on TV and hosted
Playlist do Zuza, a revival of a radio show he had done in the ‘70s and ‘80s. About three years ago he told me, without tears or self-pity, that he hoped he might have about two more years, so he could finish some final projects.
Ercilia worried that he might not live to see the release of a documentary,Zuza Homem de Jazz, that Cine Group, a company in São Paulo, was producing. The film, which focused on his relationship with jazz, was her idea. I appear in it. On a gray, wet day in 2017, Zuza, myself, and a camera crew had walked around New York, stopping at the addresses of clubs Zuza had known in the ‘50s. We finished at Birdland, where I interviewed him on camera for ninety minutes. It was easy; I had heard the stories, and I knew what to ask. On September 19, 2019, the day before his eighty-sixth birthday, Zuza Homem de Jazz had its New York premiere at the Miller Theater inside Columbia University. Zuza, of course, was there with Ercilia. He received a standing ovation. I never saw him so happy.

Even during the pandemic, he remained a hurricane of activity. He was rushing to complete a new edition of a biography he had written years earlier of his hero and friend, João Gilberto. I emailed Zuza on his eighty-seventh birthday. He answered:

Dearíssimo Jim,
Just a very brief word:
Many thanks. Tomorrow I will write longer. Yes, let’s have a Zoom soon.
My book is finished. Still top-secret
All love, amigo do coração.

That was my last message from Zuza. On October 3, I watched him interview Gilberto Gil on YouTube. I hear he went to bed that night very happy. He did not wake up. That huge heart of his had finally burst.

No number of years could have contained all the projects he had inside him, all the stories he needed to tell. Through his work, he wanted to help the music to live forever. I think he felt that, by placing some of it in my hands, he was giving it a loving home and new life. In the process, he gave me Brazil.