Airto Moreira: Bucking Tradition Every Step Of The Way

In everything that has been written about the development of jazz fusion, many of the accolades have gone to the extraordinary talents that passed through the Miles Davis groups of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The legendary trumpeter began to experiment with elements of funk, rock and Latin music with players who were primarily experienced in jazz. At that time, the Latin influence in American jazz came mainly from Afro-Cuban artists and soft Brazilian sounds. Davis was looking for something wilder in the Latin sound when he discovered Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, who had come to America to persuade his future wife, Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim, to return with him to Brazil. Instead, the lovebirds ended up in New York, and together helped reshape American jazz.

Moreira began playing drum set by accident at age 14, when he and his family attended a local dance hall concert. The youngster frequently sat in on percussion when he went to shows, but one night the bandleader asked Moreira if he could play drum set, because the regular drummer was late. Moreira replied that he had never played, but had watched the drummer for quite some time and would give it a try. “I played the three main rhythms that they played at carnival time in Brazil,” he says. “I ended up playing the whole night because the drummer never showed up and that’s how I learned to play drum set. From that point on I played drum set and percussion and also sang.”

At age 16 he moved to São Paulo and began his career as a musician. It was there that he started to incorporate percussion into his drum set while working with the experimental Latin jazz ensemble Quarteto Novo. “We had several multi-instrumentalists in Quarteto Novo, so we all had to switch to different instruments depending on what type of music we were playing,” he says. “When the music got heavier and louder I would switch from percussion to drum set. At one point, vocalist Geraldo Vandre suggested that I try to play both percussion and drum set together because we needed certain sounds from both. So I began to think of percussion and drum set as one. It wasn’t really my idea, it happened more out of necessity. I would play a pair of shakers with my hands and then coordinate the basic rhythm with my feet. It was more a matter of creating independence with my hands and feet while I was singing rather than learning technique as a player.”

Moreira began listening to jazz music, starting with big band sounds. But it wasn’t until he heard the music of John Coltrane that he felt an affinity with the style. “When I first heard Coltrane’s music I didn’t understand it,” Moreira recalls. “But the more I listened, the more I understood and the more I liked it.”

At that time, Moreira had just met Purim and fell in love with her. “I remember going to her apartment in São Paulo and I was really trying to get her to like me,” he explains. “Flora played me a Miles Davis record with Gil Evans arrangements. It was so beautiful. That was the first time that jazz music really moved me deeply and I began to cry. Being a young Brazilian man, it was not considered the macho thing to cry. I said to Flora, ’I’m sorry but I don’t know why I’m crying. This music is taking over my emotions and it is so beautiful.’”

Bitten by the jazz bug, Moreira became one of the jazz drummers in São Paulo, and played at the only jazz club in town. “I never really tried to copy any of the jazz drummers of that time,” says Moreira. “I just listened to the music and tried to get the feel of what the drums were doing.”

Eventually Purim moved to Los Angeles to pursue her singing career with South African artist Miriam Makeba. It wasn’t long before Moreira followed Purim to America. After two or three months in Los Angeles they both made their way to New York. “I had a hard time finding work in New York because I couldn’t speak English yet,” he says. “I actually learned how to speak English by watching Sesame Street on television. I used to take a bus up to Harlem and check out the nightclubs and meet musicians. There were very few Brazilians in New York at that time and Brazilian music was not very popular. I tried to get into the Latin scene but I didn’t fit in because I didn’t know the Latin rhythms very well. In Brazilian music you just fit in and play without having very specific beats that you have to play. At that time, Brazilian music was more like a jam session. In uptown New York there were a few Latin clubs that I tried to get into and play, but there was no way they were going to let me play. I couldn’t even shake a shaker with them because they had specific beats that called for specific parts.”

Moreira struggled in New York to fit in and eventually got a gig playing for food at a restaurant called Lost & Found, where Purim and other jazz musicians played. To cut down on the volume, the club owners didn’t allow drum sets in the club, so Moreira played percussion with most of the artists. He soon met some real jazz players, including Cedar Walton and Billy Cobham. Moreira remembers, “Cobham was working at a club down the street with Lionel Hampton, and we hung out a little. He asked me to show him some Brazilian grooves and when I finally heard him play I thought, ’Wow, this guy’s a monster.’”

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