‘This has brought me power to be myself’: Brazil’s Black jazz artists

Black musicians have often been sidelined in Brazil, but by diving deep into their complex heritage, the likes of Jonathan Ferr and Amaro Freitas are making themselves heard

Jonathan Ferr thinks back to his youth. “Jazz was giving me freedom, while rap was showing me my place as a Black man in a racist society,” remembers the pianist, part of Brazil’s vibrant contemporary jazz scene. “Those were two Black musics that have brought me power to be myself.”

Like their US forebears, who used jazz to advocate for – and simply experience – freedom in their racist country, Black Brazilian jazz artists such as Ferr are using music to stake a claim for their heritage in a culture that often sidelines it. Despite Brazil’s contributions to jazz – from bossa nova standards to fusion avant-gardists – its Black artists have struggled to succeed (particularly when playing bluntly Afrocentric themes) and many of the most successful proponents have been white or light-skinned. Black talents dismissed by their own country include Dom Salvador, Tania Maria and Johnny Alf. Maria and Salvador left Brazil to make a living as musicians in the US and Europe, while Alf, a bossa nova pioneer, had to sell his belongings to afford treatment for a cancer that eventually killed him. “Brazilian music is Black music,” says jazz pianist Amaro Freitas. “And what happened to these artists was racism.”

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