Born Roberto Baden Powell de Aquino (named after Boy Scout founder Lord Robert Baden Powell), August 6, 1937, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Education: Studied with famed musician Jaime "Meira" Florense, 1944-1949. Addresses: Record company-Iris Records, Box 422, Port Washington, NY, 11050, Phone: (516) 944-7905.

For almost half a century, the Brazilian born guitar player Baden Powell has been one of the key musicians among his country's jazz scene. However, Powell's work demonstrates a mastery of many classical guitar styles, from the South American tradition of flamenco to interpretations of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Nevertheless, on the whole Powell built his reputation as an innovator of bossa nova or the marriage of Brazilian sambas and jazz, often aided by the poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes. Although his popularity in the United States has never truly expanded beyond jazz and guitar aficionados, Powell's name has been virtually a household word in Europe from the early 1960s, when he relocated to that continent for several decades.

Born to the a small shantytown, called a favela in Portuguese, Powell grew up amongst a musical family. His father Lino de Aquino was a fairly successful violinist, and his grandfather had been an important orchestra leader. Seeing that the young Powell had an attraction to musical instruments- he had been caught stealing his aunt's violin-Lino decided to sent his son to study with the nationally famous composer and guitarist Jaime Florense. Florense, under the stage name of Meira, had made a name for himself in the 1940s as an accompanist for many Brazilian radio stars and immersed Powell in a vigorous diet of trade secrets of the classical musician. All the while, the budding musician was seduced by the sounds of jazz musicians such as saxophone player Charlie Parker and pianist Thelonius Monk.

By the mid-1940s, Powell had become something of a minor child star in Brazil, largely through the help of Florense. "When I was nine, my father entered me in a radio amateur hour contest-without telling me," Powell remembered to Guitar Review writer Brian Hodel in 1990. "I had been playing only two years, but I played well." Powell won the contest, and the publicity gave Florense a lever with which to boost his protg into other engagements. In 1947, Powell appeared in the first ever Brazilian television program, performing jazz pieces on an electric guitar. After this point, Powell would carry out his work almost exclusively through acoustic instrumentation.

Although Powell began playing professionally at the age of fifteen, it was not until the late 1950s that he began to take himself seriously as a composer, after his song "Samba Triste" became a popular hit for the singer Lucio Alves in 1956. However, it was not until his experience with the congealing school of bossa nova found in the Bar Plaza district of Rio de Janeiro that helped Powell develop his own flavor of songwriting. While the exact origin of bossa nova is debated, it gained international fame in the 1960s through the work of artists such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Joao and Astrud Giberto, Chico Buarque de Hollande, and Powell himself.

Became Hero among European Jazz Buffs

In the early 1960s, Powell began his partnership with Vinicius de Moraes, who was already Brazil's foremost poet. With the delicate, sometimes nostalgic mode of Powell's music accompanied by the understated lyrics of Moraes, the duo became instrumental in defining what bossa nova meant to the world. Although his reputation in his own country had peaked upon his teaming with Moraes, Powell was celebrated even more in Europe, where the cool jazz flavor of bossa nova raged in many clubs. "In Brazil the audience [for my music] is affectionate, but it is a very select group," Powell told Hodel. "In Europe, the same people who attend a rock concert will listen to [composer] Artur Rubenstein, jazz, everything. There is just so much culture!" As a result, in 1963 Powell moved to Europe, which remained his base of operations for three decades.

In Europe, Powell made a number of important bossa nova recordings, beginning with a duet recorded with flutist Herbie Mann. In the meantime, bossa nova had become synonymous with a chic, cosmopolitan lifestyle, and infiltrated the rock-dominated charts in both Europe and the United States as pop groups like Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 fused bossa nova with contemporary pop. Powell and Moraes' own composition "Samba da Bencao" ("My Heart Loves The Samba"), featured in French director Claude Lelouch's 1966 film A Man and a Woman, accompanied images of a young, attractive couple galloping on horseback through Brazilian grasslands and helped create an almost mythical image of Brazil for a generation of foreigners.

As one of the few guitarists in Europe who had mastered the bossa nova style, Powell was in high demand during the 1960s, and extensively toured Europe throughout that decade. Nevertheless, Powell confined himself neither to the bossa nova genre nor to the European scene. In addition to recording a number of jazz and classical guitar pieces, he shuttled back to Brazil to compete in a number of competitions, including the very first Festival of Brazilian Popular Music in 1965, where his "Valsa do Amor Que Nao Vem" placed second. Still, it was his intense take on the often laid-back bossa nova that demonstrated Powell's greatest inspiration, such as on Afro- Samba, an album actually recorded in a flooded studio in Rio. "The water was nearly up to our knees and we were getting shocked by the microphones, so we went to a nearby bar and borrowed wooden beer crates to stand on," Powell remembered to Hodel. "The great thing about the bossa nova days was great love - more love than professionalism. That doesn't exist anymore."

Distinguished Classical Guitarist

Throughout the 1970s, Powell continued to cut diversely styled albums in Europe, highlighted by the efforts Solitude on Guitarin 1971, La grande reunion in 1974(recorded with vocalist Stephane Grappelli), and Brazilian Rhythm in 1977. While never abandoning the bossa nova, Powell made sure to offer listeners the full scope of traditional Brazilian music. As Gramophone said of Brazilian Rhythms, Powell's recorded efforts were "a delightful array of his own works and those of some fellow countrymen, demonstrating the beauty of the guitar in its pristine, unamplified state." Powell's devotion to his instrument was so great that in 1979, he needed surgery to repair parts of his rib cage that had worn away from tightly cradling his guitar. Although Powell sometimes needed to spend days lying on his back to recuperate, he chose to keep playing.

Powell began to take further steps away from the jazzier side of bossa nova in favor of an even more refined classical execution. Likewise, his live performances of the period contained less of the spontaneous musical license associated with jazz gigs. "I improvise," Powell explained to Hodel, "but I lost that jazz style improvisation because I lost the habit. I improvise well, but it's not totally jazzistic. It is in accord with the kind of music I am performing." Although Powell's new material did not place him on the vanguard of stylistic experimentation, he was respected nevertheless by jazz and classical critics alike. "With his clean, consummate technique and, more importantly, abiding musicality, Powell animates these songs with a kind of emotive power that crosses the line between classical and folk sensibilities," Josef Woodward wrote in Down Beat. "The intent here is not to overwhelm with virtuosity, but to find a path between twilight-like melancholy and controlled passion."

In addition to creating new albums, Powell re-released some of his back catalogue during the 1990s, making the full legacy of his work available to newer listeners. As Powell's popularity in the United States had never been level with what it was in Latin America and Europe, he also expressed interest in relocating to New York City, where Powell performed several special engagements in the early 1990s. With many young Americans delving into diverse styles of world music as an alternative to the monopoly of mainstream rock, it would not be unlikely if Powell's guitar mastery were to be embraced by yet another generation.

Powell died of multiple organ failure following complications from pneumonia on September 26, 2000, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was 63.

by Sean Frentner

Baden Powell's Career

Toured Brazil playing guitar at Florense's suggestion, 1947; had first success with Lucio Alves's recording of song "Samba Triste," 1956; met lyricist and partner Vinicius de Moraes, 1961; moved to Europe to record with artists such as Herbie Mann, 1963; toured Europe as a band leader, beginning in 1966; recorded in New York City with American saxophonist Stan Getz, 1967; performed at the Berlin Guitar Festival, 1967; recorded bossa nova styled album La Grande Reunion with Stephane Grappelli, 1974; recorded acclaimed album Seresta Brasiliera, 1994; released retrospective record The Guitar Artistry of Baden Powell, 1998.

Baden Powell's Awards

second place in first Festival of Brazilian Popular Music for song "Valsa do Amor Que Nao Vem), written with Moraes, 1965; fourth place in Festival of Brazilian Popular Music for song "Cidade Vazia," written with Lula Freire, 1966; won French Golden Disc Award for album Le Monde Musical de Baden Powell, 1967; won Biennial Samba Competition with "Lapinha," written with P.C. Pinheiro, 1968.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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