Alf was born in Vila Isabel, Rio de Janeiro, and began playing piano at age 9. His father died when he was 3 and he was raised by his mother who worked as a maid to raise him. He attended Colégio Pedro II, receiving support from his mother's employers. He played in nightclubs in the Copacabana neighborhood of Rio, where he was noticed by later bossa nova pioneers. His first single was "Falsetto" and was released in 1952, with a debut album following in 1961.
Over his career, he recorded nine albums and appeared on nearly fifty others. He died in 2010, aged 80, from prostate cancer.
Johnny Alf, a ‘Father of Bossa Nova,’ Dies at 80
Though he was not widely known outside Brazil and enjoyed mass popularity only intermittently in his homeland, Mr. Alf, born Alfredo José da Silva, is highly regarded among Brazilian musicians and musicologists. The writer Ruy Castro, the author of several authoritative books on Brazilian popular music, has called him “the true father of the bossa nova.”
Mr. Alf was a contemporary of Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and others who would make the bossa nova a worldwide phenomenon, but he began his career earlier and spent the mid-1950s playing on what was known as Bottle Alley, a street in Copacabana full of bars and nightclubs. His younger admirers would sneak into those clubs to listen to him play and study his technique and improvisational style.
“From him I learned all of the modern harmonies that Brazilian music began to use in the bossa nova, samba-jazz and instrumental songs,” the pianist and arranger João Donato said Friday. The guitarist and composer Carlos Lyra added: “He opened the doors for us with his way of playing piano, with its jazz influence. When my generation arrived, he had already planted the seeds.”
Alfredo José da Silva was born in the Vila Isabel neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, a hotbed of samba, on May 19, 1929. His father was a corporal in the Brazilian Army, his mother a housekeeper. He began studying the piano at age 9, focusing on the classical repertory. But his love of American movies pushed him toward jazz and away from the classics, a shift on which he later reflected in an amusing composition called “Seu Chopin, Desculpe” (“Pardon Me, Chopin”).
Mr. Alf started playing professionally at 14, when he was given his Americanized stage name. He helped found a Frank Sinatra fan club in Rio and also admired George Gershwin and Cole Porter. But his biggest influence, as both pianist and singer, was probably Nat King Cole, whose smooth vocal delivery, gentle touch and sophisticated chords meshed with Mr. Alf’s quiet, even timid, personality.
“I always played in my own style,” Mr. Alf said in an interview last year with the Brazilian daily Folha de São Paulo. “I had the idea of joining Brazilian music with jazz. I try to bring everything together to achieve an agreeable result.”
At its best, Mr. Alf’s music had a light and airy feeling that expressed the optimism and joie de vivre that Brazilians think of as among their defining national traits. It was reflected not just in the title of his best-known song, “Eu e a Brisa” (“Me and the Breeze”) but also in hits like “Ilusão à Toa” (“Carefree Illusion”) and “Céu e Mar” (“Sky and Sea”), as well as “O Tempo e o Vento” (“Time and the Wind”) and “Rapaz de Bem” (“Well-Intentioned Guy”), a two-sided success released as a 78 r.p.m. single in 1955 and now widely regarded as the first glimmering of bossa nova on record.
But Mr. Alf eventually tired of the glitz of Rio and moved to São Paulo in the mid-1960s to take a job teaching in a conservatory. After that, while continuing to perform regularly, he recorded only sporadically. In 1990 he recorded “Olhos Negros” (“Black Eyes”), a widely praised CD dominated by duets with a second generation of admirers, including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque and Gal Costa.
According to Brazilian press reports, Mr. Alf left no immediate survivors.
“At least I’m not completely forgotten,” he said last year. “My music was always considered difficult. The record labels sensed the value of my music, but it never had the commercial appeal that they would have liked.”