Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prolific Brazilian composer and pianist João Donato dies at 88

Brazilian composer and pianist João Donato accepts the best Latin jazz album award at the 11th Annual Latin Grammy Awards, on Nov. 11, 2010, in Las Vegas.
Julie Jacobson
Brazilian composer and pianist João Donato accepts the best Latin jazz album award at the 11th Annual Latin Grammy Awards, on Nov. 11, 2010, in Las Vegas.

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian composer and pianist João Donato, who helped lay the groundwork for bossa nova but throughout his career defied confinement to any single genre, died Monday. He was 88.

His death was announced on his verified Instagram account. Local media reported that he had been hospitalized and intubated with pneumonia.

Donato was prolific and inventive, collaborating with top artists at home and abroad, including Chet Baker, João Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, Tito Puente, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and countless others.

"Today we lost one of our greatest and most creative composers," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva wrote on Twitter. "João Donato saw music in everything. He innovated, he passed through samba, bossa nova, jazz, forro and in the mixture of rhythm built something unique. He kept creating and innovating until the end."

Donato was born in the Amazonian state of Acre on Brazil's western border, far from the cultural hubs of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. He showed prodigious musical ability as a boy upon receiving an accordion as a Christmas gift and soon after his family moved to Rio began playing professionally.

He floated between two rival jazz fan clubs, playing at both, making contacts and leaving an impression. He began recording with ensembles and his own compositions.

Among his best-known songs were "A ra" (The Frog), "Bananeira" (Banana Tree) and "Minha Saudade" (My Longing).

At times he showed reluctance to put lyrics to his music. Several weeks ago on his Instagram account, he recalled telling Gilberto Gil that a melody of his could have no lyrics. "And you, generously and kindly, said, 'It does, it does, it does/everything does/it always does ...' "

On Monday, Gil recorded a video of himself with a guitar, sharing another instance of Donato coming to him with a catchy melody that he had created, but in need of lyrics.

Donato's syncopation influenced the guitar beat developed by João Gilberto that blossomed into the bossa nova movement. By that time, Donato had set off to play in the U.S., first in Lake Tahoe and then Los Angeles. He spent 13 years living there, sometimes returning to Brazil to record bossa nova tracks as the style became a global craze.

But in the U.S. he also recorded the album "A Bad Donato," which fused jazz, funk and soul. Informed by the sounds he heard from James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, it was indicative of the eclecticism throughout his career.

Music critic Irineu Franco Perpetuo said Donato's music often features "hot" rhythms inviting one to dance, rather than bossa nova's subdued and melancholy sway.

"He was larger than life, flamboyant, extroverted, so he can't be put in the bossa nova box. He had a temperament that went beyond the restrained vibe of bossa nova," Perpetuo said in a telephone interview. "He brought that exuberant rhythm. He is important in bossa nova, but he went beyond."

Eventually, Donato returned to Rio, and continued collaborating and recording for decades.

"A sensitive and unique man, creator of his own style with a piano that was different than everything I had seen before. Sweet, precise and profound," singer Marisa Monte, who partnered with Donato more recently, wrote on Twitter.

People passing in front of his bayside home in Rio's Urca neighborhood, beneath Sugarloaf mountain, could eavesdrop on him playing inside. He released an album last year, and was still playing shows earlier this year.

"I'm not bossa nova, I'm not samba, I'm not jazz, I'm not rumba, I'm not forro. In truth, I'm all of that at the same time," Donato told the Rio newspaper O Globo in a 2014 interview.

Donato's wake will be held at Rio's municipal theater.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit