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Leny Andrade, known as the first lady of Brazilian jazz, dies at 80

Leny Andrade performs at Birdland in New York in 2008. Andrade died on July 24, 2023 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Hiroyuki Ito
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Leny Andrade performs at Birdland in New York in 2008. Andrade died on July 24, 2023 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Leny Andrade, known as the first lady of Brazilian jazz, has died in Rio de Janeiro. Andrade was a percussive, samba-driven improviser, an interpreter as worldly-wise as Édith Piaf and a consummate nightclub artist. With a thick, husky voice seasoned by cigarette smoke and late hours, Andrade sang torridly of love; she could also swing as hard as any American jazz singer. Her career spanned 65 years, during which she made fans of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Dizzy Gillespie and many more illustrious contemporaries.

Andrade died of Lewy body dementia on July 24. The news was shared with NPR by Eliana Peranzzetta, who, with her husband, the arranger and pianist Gilson Peranzzetta, had cared for Andrade for several years. She was 80.

"As a singer Leny was an exceptional musician," says the revered Brazilian pianist, arranger and composer César Camargo Mariano, with whom Andrade collaborated on two albums. Paquito D'Rivera, the Grammy-winning reed player, saluted her on his 1990 composition "For Leny." She inspired Vitor Martins, one of Brazil's foremost lyricists, to write the song "Cantor da Noite (Nightclub Singer)" with his renowned partner, the composer Ivan Lins. With Andrade in mind, Martins described a voice like a laser beam, "getting closer, closer ... entering my contented heart as if I were going to be happy forever."

Born in Rio on Jan. 25, 1943, Leny de Andrade Lima studied classical piano for a decade at her mother's behest. She was good enough to win a scholarship to the Brazilian Conservatory of Music. But in 1958, a new sound, bossa nova, enchanted the teenager; she told her aghast mother that she was quitting classical music to go into pop.

Her ambitions were sealed when she heard the wordless, instrumentalized jazz vocalizing known as scat. The singer was Dolores Duran, a young Brazilian star and an early songwriting partner of Antônio Carlos Jobim. Guided by her half-brother Dudu, a sax and flute player, the still-underage Leny began singing in clubs. One of them, Beco das Garrafas (Bottles Bar), located in Copacabana, was famous as a cradle of the bossa nova.

Andrade's first album, made in 1961, found her singing slow, romantic samba of a bygone era. But on her second LP, A Arte Maior de Leny Andrade, made with the trio of a top bossa drummer, Milton Banana, she found her voice. "Leny was never a bossa nova singer," notes composer Carlos Lyra, one of the music's creators; she sang bossa not with its trademark featherweight lilt but with the forceful swing of her American idols — Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae.

In 1965, Andrade and a popular baritone crooner, Pery Ribeiro, formed Gemini V, a bossa group. It took them to Mexico, where Andrade wound up living for almost seven years. She fell in love with the heated sensuality of boleros, which became a staple of her repertoire. And when Fitzgerald and Vaughan came to Mexico, she got to know them both.

After years of mid-level success in Latin America, she made her long-dreamed-of U.S. debut at New York's Blue Note in 1983. But only in 1992, when she played her first of several engagements at the Ballroom, a Manhattan cabaret, did her stateside career take off. Fueled by raves in The New York Times and elsewhere that heralded her as a hidden gem of Brazilian jazz, Andrade packed the club. One backstage photo shows her with Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Peter Allen.

Her songs were almost all in Portuguese, but her sometimes salacious humor, voiced in slow, deliberate English, made her audiences roar and her musicians blush. Introducing her 31-year-old keyboard player João Carlos Coutinho, Andrade moaned: "This black hair ... the hands ... the legs ... this mouth!" She let out an orgasmic squeal.

In love with New York, she kept an apartment there for years as she toured the country; Andrade even sang at the Hollywood Bowl. She released CDs at an overwhelming rate; the best of them include tributes to two samba legends, Cartola and Nelson Cavaquinho, and an homage to Ivan Lins & Vitor Martins.

The voice heard on those albums is literally smoky; her cigarette habit, begun at the age of 21, had seemingly made her voice even richer. Lins tells the story of a duet they recorded in 2002. "She arrived in the studio and took out her cigarettes. Somebody said, you can't smoke in the studio." Andrade tried to sing, and out came a strangled croak. "She went outside and smoked two cigarettes. She returned — and she sang like a bird. If she didn't smoke she couldn't sing."

Ultimately she quit, but in May 2016, as she was walking onstage for the concluding show of a run at Birdland in New York, Andrade tripped and fell. She sang in excruciating pain. Other falls followed. Nearly two years later, at the Sheraton da Bahia in the Brazilian city of Salvador, she played one of her last engagements. Performing seated, she gave a long, amusing account of her mishaps, explaining, "Eu quebrei a minha bunda." ("I broke my ass.")

In 2018, her friends Gilson and Eliana Peranzzetta arranged to move Andrade from her apartment in Rio to an artists' retirement village.

In 2023, Gilson produced and played on a final Andrade recording, Jobim and Dolores Duran's "Por Causa de Você." The singer lived out her days in her tiny cottage with a full-time aide. True to the plea she voiced at the end of her shows — "Be happy, please ... be happy" — Andrade told Sérgio Luz of O Globo: "I am at peace here. I still sing, but the story must one day end, yes?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Gavin