The 1959 Marcel Camus directed film Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro in Portuguese) is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a special screening on Saturday night (Feb 14th) at the Culver Plaza Theaters as part of the ongoing Pan African Film Festival which Amoeba has been promoting. If you can, you should attend this screening. I have already seen the film about a dozen times, but never on the big screen where it is meant to be seen. What I love most about Black Orpheus, even on the small screen, is the music, which is a seemingly never ending percussion based track that plays throughout the entire film as everyone moves to its rhythm. It is like one long dance.
Beautifully shot, it is a love story based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice only set in (then contemporary) late 1950's Rio de Janeiro during the Carnaval festivities. If it were not for this film the whole Bossa nova (which is Portuguese for "new trend") movement would not have taken off.
The film influenced many people in the US upon its release and in subsequent years. One of these was longtime jazz musician and Bay Area jazz radio DJ Dick Conte who, as a jazz piano player/keyboardist, has long fronted his own trio and as a radio DJ has been on such Bay Area stations as legendary jazz station KJAZ where he started his radio DJ career in 1962 and worked on-and-off until 1983, KMPX, KSFO, KKCY, KKSF (where he worked for over 20 years until last month and where he hosted the Sunday night jazz show that included the popular feature "A Taste Of Brazil"), and KCSM 91.1FM where he hosts the Saturday afternoon jazz program from 2-6PM.
I caught up with Dick Conte earlier by phone to ask him his first impressions and his memories of Black Orpheus when it first came out in the States.
AMOEBLOG: So when and where exactly did you first see Black Orpheus?
DICK CONTE: I've seen it so many times over the years. But I first saw it in '59 when it came out in New York, New York City. It was playing at a large size theater but it was more of an art house theater. It was right there at Central Park West and near 59th Street, I think. It was a brand new film at the time.
AMOEBLOG: You would have been 21 years of age and stll studying music. What kind of an impression did it make on you as a budding young jazz artist?
DICK CONTE: I was absolutely blown away by it the very first time I saw it. Before then I was very unaware of Brazilian music. And I think most of the world was at that point. That was the breakthrough for the rest of the world to see what was going on there. And then of course in the wake of that there was all the rest of the great composers, particularly Antonio Carlos Jobim (the film's composer) and João Gilberto and then the whole bossa nova movement in the early sixties was a lot of those (same) people. But the film had a lot to do with turning people on to Brazilian music. And I didn't realize that it was so African derived. There was a great African influence there because the slaves had come there so it was a mixture of African music and then the Brazilian style of composing that evolved under those people I mentioned, Jobim and Gilberto.
AMOEBLOG: And afterwards what kind of an impact did it have on you as music fan and as musician, and a little later as radio DJ?
DICK CONTE: Well, it turned me onto Brazilian music and I started to listen to it quite a lot from that point on. At that point it was not really popular, not until a few years later with Jazz Samba by Charlie Byrd & Stan Getz (Verve 1962) and the Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto album (1963's Getz/Gilberto on Verve featuring the smash hit "Girl From Ipanema" with Astrud Gilberto on vocals) -- by then it really started to take off in this country. And I think all jazz players were influenced by that music very much so.
AMOEBLOG: So Black Orpheus was really instrumental in bossa nova's popularity in the US?
DICK CONTE: Oh yeah, definitely I think that was the thing that really introduced the music from Brazil to this country in a big way. That was a major innovation actually.
AMOEBLOG: I know you would not be a radio DJ until 1962 but as a listener do you remember if the music off the soundtrack to Black Orpheus got played much on the radio around the time of its release?
DICK CONTE: Not really. I think I might have heard a little bit on New York radio but it really wasn't til around '61 when that bossa nova movement got going that some of those tunes were in Black Orpheus started to get play. And that was the beginning of that and people like Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz went down to Brazil and got turned onto some of those tunes and those musicians who were writing that music and then it started getting played and it became huge. Of course "Girl From Ipanena" was the big hit but there were quite a few other tunes that became real staples of radio at that time in the early sixties.
AMOEBLOG:: What is your favorite piece of music on the soundtrack?
DICK CONTE: Hmmm. Probably the "Morning of the Carnaval" or "Manhã de Carnaval" (written by Luiz Bonfá), which is the one that has become pretty much a standard.
AMOEBLOG: How do you think that Black Orpheus, the movie and the soundtrack, stand the test of time, now a full 50 years later?
DICK CONTE: It's stood the test of time very well, I would say. And it is interesting that Kind Of Blue (Columbia), the Miles Davis album is also celebrating 50 years and is also from that same year, 1959. That was a very influential record. So from the very same year we have Black Orpheus and that kind of Brazilian flavor has really shifted into a lot of jazz forms including Miles, I mean he did takeoffs on Brazilian themes as well. So I think it (Black Orpheus) really affected jazz music in a strong way and many musicians were influenced by it.
For more information on Dick Conte visit his webiste. To tune into his show in the Bay Area turn on 91.1FM, KCSM on Saturdays 2-6PM or listen to KCSM online.
To find out more about the Saturday night Culver City screening of Black Orpheus and the Pan African Film Festival, which runs through Monday, February 16th, click paff.org.