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João Donato, inventive musician who crossed musical boundaries, dies at the age of 88

João Donato, a musician who was at the very heart of the birth of the bossa nova movement, passed away in his native Brazil in the city of Rio De Janeiro this past Monday July 17th. As reported in the Brasilian media, the cause of death was pneumonia, he was 88.

Although most well known as a pianist, composer, and arranger, Donato also led another life as a trombonist. Documented on recordings with NYC Latin music legends like pianist, NEA Jazz Master Eddie Palmieri, legendary congeuro Mongo Santamaria, and master timbalero, composer, arranger, bandleader Tito Puente, it has become the stuff of legend

The late great Brasilian trombonist, Jose’ Rodriguez stated to this author, “I had been living in the Dominican Republic and I finally moved to New York City in the early 60s. That’s where I met João. We thought that because bossa nova was so big worldwide, that was the music we would be playing. Bossa nova WAS big. But this was New York and Cuban dance music (salsa) was bigger and we quickly found work in that scene as trombonists. That’s how I got the gig later with Eddie Palmieri, through João.”

TEMA LA PEFECTA - Eddie Palmieri and his Conjunto La Perfecta c. 1962
João Donato, Barry rogers - trombones

Tema La Perfecta - EDDIE PALMIERI

VAYA PUENTE - Tito Puente and his Orchestra c. 1961
João Donato - trombone

Vaya Puente - TITO PUENTE


João Donato de Oliveira Neto was born on August 17, 1934 in the northern city of Rio Branco (White River) capitol of the Brasilian State of Acre in the Amazon. Its geographic location would inform his musical ethos.

“A lot of people wonder why João had an affinity for Cuban, Latin music. It’s because where he grew up was near Peru and Bolivia. He heard the music from there like cumbia on the radio and what was emanating from Cuban radio as well. It became part of him.” - Claudio Roditi - Brasilian jazz trumpeter

Born into a musical family, his father played the mandolin and his mother played piano, by the age of eight he was playing accordion. A family move to Rio De Janeiro at 11 proved fortuitous. By the age of 15 he was already sitting in with older musicians at local clubs as a pianist.

 João Donato on accordion, courtesy Superfly Records
Superfly Records
João Donato on accordion

By 1956 he had become the pianist, while also contributing arrangements, for the Sao Paulo based groups, Os Copacabanas, and the Orquestra de Luís Cesar. In the same year he appears on his first record date, Chá Dançante, which was produced by Antonio Carlos Jobim. A return to Rio facilitated his meeting the person who would become his musical doppelgänger, the acknowledged father of bossa nova, João Gilberto.

Both had an affinity for subtle, gorgeous melodies, and most of all - lush jazz harmony. Inspired by trombonist Frank Rosolino, the featured soloist in Stan Kenton’s big band, by 1958 Donato had added the trombone to his arsenal. Jazz inspired in his playing and with little prospects in Brasil to expand on that vision, he accepted a gig that would change his life.


In 1959 Donato accepted the the piano chair in vocalist, dancer, entertainer Carmen Miranda’s Banda da Lua. Booked for a six month engagement in Lake Tahoe, Donato’s stay in the band was cut short by his jazz oriented piano playing which didn’t sit well with Miranda. Out of work with no prospects, he traveled to Los Angeles where he met several of the city’s Latin musicians who encouraged him to get more into the roots of the music. A chance encounter with congeuro Mongo Santamaria would prove fortuitous.

“I remember João well…. I was playing with Cal Tjader and he sat in with us on piano and trombone at a club we were playing at. We started talking afterward and I told him I was moving back to New York City and was forming my own band. I told him to look me up. Once he got into the band he brought in his own songs. One of them, 'Sabor,' has become a standard." - Mongo Santamaria

Mongo Santamaria - Sabor


Working with Mongo from 1959 through 1962, and later with Palmieri and Puente, Donato would become embedded in the city's hallowed Latin music scene. He would also expand his horizons by recording and performing with vibist Cal Tjader who would record his iconic composition, "Amazonas," not once, but twice on two different albums.

AMAZONES (listed on the album as Amazon) from the album SOLAR HEAT c.1968
- João Donato - organ, Cal Tjader - vibes


Los Angeles based vibist Dave Pike would record an entire album of João compositions entitled "Bossa Nova Carnival." It further solidified Donato’s talents as a composer and visibility within the mainstream jazz world.

A return to Brasil that year would reunite him with Gilberto on a tour that proved to be successful but the band was never recorded live. But two albums that were recorded, Muito a Vontade and A Bossa Muita Moderna, document what at the time could be called a super group featuring Donato on piano, Tião Neto on bass, and Milton Banana on drums.

Further work with Budd Shank, Claus Ogerman, Astrud Gilberto, Tjader, Sergio Mendes, Deodato, Gilberto Gil and the formation of his own piano trio would continue the Donato legend.

Noted vibist, harmonica player, composer, bandleader Hendrik Meurkins stated online the best assessment of Maestro’s Donato’s importance to Brasil’s musical history:

“While Jobim was the Cole Porter of Brazil, Donato was their Horace Silver, gifted with the genius of writing songs that are simple, perfect to play over, innovative at the time, and impossible to get out of your ear. On top of that he added a new groove to Brazilian music, the Donato half Latin jazz/ half Brazilian montuno. RIP Maestro, you did well.”

Tune in to Bobby Sanabria's tribute to João Donato on the Latin Jazz Cruise Saturday, July 22 from 4 to 6 pm EST.

Bobby Sanabria is an eight time Grammy-nominee as a leader, drummer, percussionist, composer, arranger, conductor, documentary film producer, educator, activist, and bandleader. A native son of the South Bronx born to Puerto Rican parents, he has performed and recorded with such legends as Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaría, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico O’Farrill, Ray Barretto, Cándido, Henry Threadgill, Larry Harlow, and the Godfather of Afro-Cuban jazz, Mario Bauzá.