Leny Andrade, ‘first lady of Brazilian jazz,’ dies at 80
By Alex Williams
Leny Andrade, a Brazilian singer who earned an international following with her soulful fusion of samba, bossa nova and American jazz and whom Tony Bennett once called the Ella Fitzgerald of Brazil, died July 24 in Rio de Janeiro. She was 80.
Her death, in a hospital, from pneumonia, was confirmed in a statement by a Rio retirement home for artists where she was living. She had also been treated for Lewy body dementia.
Often referred to as “the first lady of Brazilian jazz,” Andrade (pronounced ahn-DRAH-jay) rose from the clubs of Rio, where she performed as a teenager, to forge a six-decade career, recording more than 35 albums as a pioneer of what she came to call bossa-jazz.
In 2007, Andrade won a Latin Grammy Award for “Ao Vivo,” a live album with celebrated Brazilian pianist César Camargo Mariano.
“Leny is one of the greatest improvisers in the world,” Bennett, who died last month, once said. “I love the way she sings. She is an original.”
Singing largely in Portuguese, Andrade brought a richness and emotional depth to icily cool bossa nova tracks, pulse-quickening sambas and soulful ballads, which she infused with a world-weary sultriness.
In a review of her American debut in 1983 at the Blue Note jazz club in New York, John S. Wilson of The New York Times praised the emotive power she brought to “Cantador,” a ballad in the intense Edith Piaf tradition. “Miss Andrade sings it in a darker, softer voice than Piaf’s,” he wrote, “with a dramatic effect that comes through even to a listener who doesn’t understand Portuguese.”
Andrade’s career took off in the United States in 1993 after she moved to New York, where she became a popular draw, performing at Birdland and other clubs, sometimes with Bennett and Liza Minnelli in the audience. The following year, she played at Lincoln Center as well as the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
Her voice, a deep, woody contralto with a seen-it-all air, carried a hint of a rasp from her long love affair with cigarettes. The overall effect could be mesmerizing.
“To describe Andrade as both the Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald of bossa nova only goes so far in evoking a performer whose voice seems to contain the body and soul of Brazil,” Stephen Holden wrote when reviewing a 2008 New York club performance in the Times.
“You may think you know ‘The Girl From Ipanema,’” he continued, but “you haven’t really absorbed it until you’ve heard Ms. Andrade sing it in Portuguese; disgorge might be a better word than sing, since, like everything else she performs, it seems to well up from the center of the earth.”
For Andrade, singing brought sustenance. “My soul is everything I can offer the public,” she said in a 2013 interview with the Brazilian music site Esquina Musical. “When I open my mouth, any pain goes away. I sing without fear. My friends and enemies embrace me.”
“When I sing,” she added, “I embark on a magic carpet out of here. I travel to Mars.”
Leny de Andrade Lima was born in Rio on Jan. 26, 1943. Her father, Luiz de Oliveira Lima, and mother, Ruth Couto de Andrade, divorced when Leny was young. She grew up in Méier, a neighborhood in the city’s North Zone, a hotbed of samba.
At the urging of her mother, Andrade studied classical piano and singing starting at age 6. She earned a scholarship to the Brazilian Conservatory of Music. Beethoven and Brahms, however, were not her destiny.
She became entranced with bossa nova (“new wave” in Portuguese), which fused traditional Brazilian rhythms with American jazz, as it emerged from the beaches of Brazil in the late 1950s. She was also influenced by the samba stylings of popular Brazilian singer Dolores Durán.
“I showed my piano diploma to my mother,” she said in a 2013 interview on Brazilian television, and told her, “‘Forget about opera, classical music. I will sing popular music — because of Dolores Durán.’”
Her professional career began at 15, performing at dances with bandleader Perminio Goncalves, chaperoned by her stepfather, Gustavo Paulo da Silva, since she was still a minor.
She later sang with the Sérgio Mendes Trio, a jazz combo, before Mendes took his detour to international pop stardom with his band Brasil 66. “He said he hated samba; he didn’t play it,” Andrade told Esquina Musical. “And I said the same about jazz. But we ended up giving in and mixing the two.”
She came to embrace jazz and its improvisational wordless singing style known as scat. (In his 1983 Times review, Wilson praised her scatting “agility that approaches Ella Fitzgerald.”)
In 1961, Andrade released her first album, “A Sensação,” for RCA, moodily drawing from the samba of an earlier era. She hit her stride two years later, fusing bossa nova with traditional jazz on “A Arte Maior de Leny Andrade,” on Polydor.
She was married briefly when she was younger and never had children. Information about survivors was not immediately available.
As a jazz singer, Andrade never enjoyed roaring commercial success, but that fact did not disturb her. “I don’t make music for the masses,” she told Esquina Musical. “They don’t have the ability to understand my work. Bad stuff is not in my repertoire.”