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Obituaries

Baden Powell; Brazilian Innovator of Bossa Nova

September 28, 2000|JON THURBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Baden Powell, a composer and guitarist who built his career as an innovator of the bossa nova sound in Brazil, died Tuesday in Rio de Janeiro. He was 63.

Powell died of pneumonia and multiple organ failure, his publicist Alexander Raine announced. Powell had been hospitalized since late August with pneumonia. He developed a general infection during his hospitalization and relied on a respirator to breathe.

Named after Robert Thompson Baden Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement, Roberto Baden Powell made his reputation as an innovator of bossa nova, the musical form that marries Brazilian sambas and jazz in a light flowing line. However, he never attained the popularity in the United States or in Brazil that he found in Europe, where he lived for nearly three decades, primarily in France and Germany.

"He had few peers as a virtuosic guitarist," said Don Heckman, The Times' jazz critic, "but his compositions, though successful on many levels, failed to have the far-reaching impact of Antonio Carlos Jobim's work."

Powell was born into a musical family in the suburbs of Rio. His father was a violinist and his grandfather was an orchestra leader. At the age of 7, Powell began studying with the influential Brazilian musician Jaime "Meira" Florence. At the age of 10, he began touring Brazil playing guitar. The same year he appeared on Brazil's first television program, playing jazz pieces on an electric guitar, which he seldom used again.

In 1961, he met Vinicius de Moraes, one of Brazil's foremost poets, who became his lyricist and song-writing partner. Powell moved to Europe two years later and, as one of the few guitarists who had mastered the bossa nova style, was in demand, touring extensively.

"In Brazil the audience for my work is affectionate, but it is a very select group," Powell once said. "In Europe, the same people who attend a rock concert will listen to composer Artur Rubinstein, jazz, everything. There is just so much culture!"

In his years in Europe, Powell recorded with jazz flutist Herbie Mann and one of his compositions, "Samba da Bencao," written with Moraes, was featured in the 1966 film "A Man and a Woman."

"Baden Powell's career also eluded categorization," Heckman added. "His visibility was diminished by his own versatility. He was as comfortable in a duo setting with Stephane Grappelli . . . as he was performing a solo Bach invention, a Thelonious Monk tune, a Brazilian classic by Pixinguinha or his own substantial catalog of material. . . ."

His career may also have suffered from the fact that most of his recordings were made for dozens of companies in numerous countries, which may have diluted his visibility.

"That shows how subjugated we are to American music," popular singer Leila Pinheiro, who often performs Powell's works, told Brazilian television on learning of Powell's death. "Baden Powell was a genius of the guitar and Brazilian music. . . . He symbolized an era."

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