The Lounge Pianist Who Invented Samba Funk

On a balmy Tuesday evening, an unassuming man with gray hair in a black suit strolled into the River Café in Brooklyn and sat at a Steinway grand. Partly hidden by the fronds of a tall palm, he began to play the usual standards.

A few patrons bobbed their heads, but no one seemed to realize that the man behind the piano was none other than Dom Salvador, one of the most influential, if underappreciated, figures in the history of Brazilian music.

There was a time when listeners flocked to see Salvador perform live. In the 1950s, the child prodigy played past his bedtime at local dance clubs; by the 1960s, the young man had helped to create and was performing samba-jazz on the most renowned stages of Rio de Janeiro; and in the early ’70s, he had become a major player in samba-soul, a Brazilian twist on American funk and soul.

But he walked away from it all. In 1973, he moved to New York with the intention of making it as a jazz musician, earning a coveted position as Harry Belafonte’s music director not long after he arrived.

He walked away from that too. In 1977, he took a steady gig playing the piano five nights a week at a new fine dining establishment on the East River, in a then-desolate area near the Brooklyn Bridge. He has been there ever since.

For the past 41 years, to be exact. It is probably the longest residency in New York history, though there are no official statistics to draw from. (One contender Salvador certainly has beat: Bobby Short, the cabaret singer who held court at the Café Carlyle for six-month stretches. He lasted there only 36 years.)

It is a lifestyle that suits Salvador, a practical man of few words who appreciates the job security. Yet if you are at all familiar with his past, it is difficult to imagine how — or why — Salvador ended up in relative obscurity.

“If he were as famous as he really deserves to be, people would be mobbing that place,” said the D.J. Greg Caz, an expert on Brazilian music.

Though Salvador has no regrets, at 80 years old, he is also keenly aware that time is running out to make his mark in the New York jazz world — not as a solo pianist, but with a band of his own. Within the past year or so, he has intimated to those he is close to that he is, finally, ready for a change.

There are plenty of musicians who burst onto the scene, fade away and are then rediscovered decades later — the jazz singer Jimmy Scott comes to mind, as does Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, featured in the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” Salvador’s story is curious because he never really disappeared. For the past four decades he has, quite literally, been hiding in plain sight.

In 1938, Salvador da Silva was born to a musical family, in the small Brazilian city of Rio Claro. The youngest of 11 children, he practiced fingering techniques on sheets of paper that his instructor had drawn out for him because his family didn’t own a piano.

At first, Salvador studied classical music exclusively, but he was getting a different education from the radio, which was playing the sounds of Pixinguinha, regarded as Brazil’s Louis Armstrong, along with American swing from Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman.

Salvador aspired to become a jazz musician, playing in local dance bands, but he did it surreptitiously, using an alias so his instructor, a stern Brazilian woman of German descent, would not find out. But by the time he was 14, he was playing piano in a well-known dance band, Excelsior. The secret was out.

Salvador was by far the youngest musician in the group. Weekend shows began at 10 and ended at 4 in the morning, but Salvador played only until midnight. Sometimes he would get a heads up from the doorman when a local inspector stopped by the club. “They let me know,” he said, “and then I had to hide or go to the bathroom or whatever.”

In 1961, as bossa nova, the diaphanous mix of samba and West Coast jazz, was taking off internationally, Salvador left home for São Paulo.

It was there that he met a young jazz singer, Maria Ignes Vieira, at a nightclub. Salvador watched Maria sing “There’s a Small Hotel,” by Rodgers and Hart. He was smitten. “It was very rare to see, at that time, someone singing in English,” Salvador remembered. “Good sound. The pronunciation was very correct. I liked her voice. I said, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”

Soon thereafter, Salvador moved to Rio, and Maria followed within a few months. He quickly became a fixture in clubs around Beco das Garrafas, the alley where bossa nova was born and where musicians went to prove themselves. It was there that he met the drummer Edison Machado and the bassist Sérgio Barrozo, and they formed the Rio 65 Trio, recording two albums in samba-jazz, which melded the improvisational energy of bebop with Brazilian rhythms.

There were several well-known piano trios in Rio at the time, but Salvador, who was listening to Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, said he found their approaches too slick and “organized” for his taste. His goal was to turn samba, skittering and off-kilter, into a propulsive force — a reaction, in one regard, to the way bossa nova had softened it.

If Salvador had stopped there, he would have been remembered as an important jazz innovator in Brazil. But he was moving fast, onstage and behind the scenes. Working as a studio musician in Rio, he had a contract with the Odeon label but freelanced for CBS and other companies. By his own count, Salvador played on more than 1,000 records (though he is mostly uncredited), working with composers like Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote “The Girl From Ipanema.”

At the time, Rio was under a repressive military dictatorship beginning with a 1964 coup, but there was also a strong countercultural response. In 1969, Salvador’s producer at CBS brought back a pile of funk and soul LPs from a trip to the United States: Kool & the Gang, Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown. The idea was for Salvador to do something similar, but he bristled at the notion. “I liked what I heard there, but I told him, For me to copy, I’m not going to copy,” Salvador said. “I did it my way.”

The result, a marked shift away from jazz, ended up becoming a seminal recording of Brazilian soul, in which Salvador put American funk through a samba prism. The album cover featured a photograph of Salvador, gazing sternly at the camera in a leather jacket, his arm outstretched on a table before him and his fist clenched in a subtle gesture of defiance. He called the album “Dom Salvador” (“Dom” means “Sir”). The nickname stuck.

Next, Salvador started a samba-soul band, Dom Salvador e Abolição, or Abolition. He and his bandmates sported Afros and wore bell-bottoms and bright, long-collared shirts well before the Brazilian soul movement, known as Black Rio, took off in the late ’70s.

“He’s a pioneer in not just the music but a new understanding of blackness in Brazil” and using it “as a form of cultural power,” said Bryan McCann, a historian at Georgetown University who has written extensively about Brazilian music.

Salvador is reluctant to dwell on this period of his life — even as the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, echoes the former dictatorship — and he seems uncomfortable taking credit for any sort of consciousness-raising in Brazil. “For me, it’s music,” he said.

The samba-soul days were a particularly disappointing time for Salvador creatively, he said. An exacting bandleader, Salvador was also about a decade older than most of his bandmates in Abolition. He did not do drugs or drink alcohol.

“I put too much energy into that band,” Salvador said with a sigh, from his current home in the suburban Long Island town of Port Washington, as he reminisced at his dining room table under a framed photograph of his idol, Thelonious Monk. “I was very frustrated.”

He had also become a family man. Salvador and Maria had gotten married in 1965. Their first child, Marcelo, was born the next year, and Simone, in 1970.

In the late 1960s, the government began cracking down on students, artists and activists. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, the founders of Brazil’s Tropicália movement, were both arrested and later exiled. It wasn’t clear if the regime would take action against Salvador.

“The police were definitely monitoring and keeping files on black musicians and these parties they were having, where they were playing James Brown and other things,” said Marc Hertzman, a historian at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the author of “Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil.” But the military’s biggest fear, Mr. Hertzman added, seemed to be Marxist agitation.

Salvador had grown frustrated with the music industry and with his band. All of it bubbled up into a life-defining decision when, almost on a whim, he quit the group. “I started to get gray hair,” he said. Some members of the band would go on, later in the decade, to form Banda Black Rio, the revered funk outfit considered the Brazilian Earth, Wind & Fire.

But by the mid ’70s, Salvador had left the scene entirely. He was in New York, pursuing a jazz career.

“When I came to this country,” Salvador said, “I had to start all over again.” In Rio, he had owned two apartments. In New York, Salvador lived, at first, with a roommate in Queens, struggling to learn English. A recording contract with CBS fell through, he said, “and the clubs didn’t pay enough.” Maria came six months later, and the children, who stayed in Brazil with Maria’s cousins, a year and a half after that.

Then one day, Harry Belafonte called and asked him to come on as an arranger. Salvador played on Belafonte’s hit album “Turn the World Around” and toured Europe in 1977, performing for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in England.

“It changed a lot, financially,” Salvador said. “I could take care of my family better.” Still, he was protective of his musical ideas — he had, after all, been a leader back in Brazil — and there were some creative disputes between him and Belafonte, though nothing too serious. Most of all, Salvador said, he felt guilty leaving his family behind again, and he found touring to be draining.

In 1977, he quit his job with Belafonte for a gig playing piano at a new restaurant in Brooklyn.

“I was very fortunate to have him for a short period, but a very productive one,” said Belafonte, who attended Salvador’s 50th wedding anniversary three years ago. “I think he kind of overqualified for what I wanted him to do, but that was to my advantage, because it was really rather tasty what he brought to the table. I think he’s an excellent pianist in the world of pop culture and jazz. He’s a trophy.”

Salvador didn’t imagine that the River Café gig would last as long it has, and there is some speculation as to why his career hasn’t taken off in the United States. Some say it’s because he never had a good manager or publicist, while others wonder if he was just too reclusive.

“He doesn’t have any airs,” said the saxophonist Dick Oatts, who has played with Salvador on and off since the 1980s. “In a way, he’s just his own worst enemy.”

It would be easy to view Salvador’s career as a series of missed opportunities, but with the steady money he made at the River Café, he was able to put his two children through college, he reasons, and he leads a relatively comfortable life.

“His ego sometimes gets in the way of things,” said Marcelo da Silva, Salvador’s son, who is now 52 and a psychologist. “My dad was always about music, let me just tell you that.” Marcelo said that his relationship with his father has always been a bit strained, but credits Salvador for always taking care of the family. “He was a provider,” he said.

And yet the gig at the River Café gig doesn’t seem so much a fallback for Salvador as liberating, a chance to improve on his craft night after night. The work has kept his chops in shape, he said, and he appreciates the challenge of taking on new tunes requested by patrons. (Salvador has around 4,000 songs in his repertoire, he said, and the list is always expanding.)

He has performed for a number of celebrities, like Paul Newman, Joe Namath and Elizabeth Taylor. Those he remembers most vividly have been musicians: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, John Denver. He once persuaded the bop pianist Tommy Flanagan to sit down at his bench and play “Autumn in New York.” Billy Joel, observing Salvador one evening, told him that he had “a hell of a left hand,” Salvador recalled.

Recently, though, things have been tough for Salvador, who turned 80 in mid-September. While he is in relatively good health, Maria, who is 82, suffers from dementia. Salvador is her main caretaker, which is difficult to manage, he said, given his demanding schedule.

About six days a week, he catches an afternoon train to Penn Station, takes a subway to Brooklyn, puts in his time at the River Café, and usually goes back the same way he came, sometimes getting home around 2 a.m.

At the restaurant not long ago, Salvador was working his way through “I Know Why (and so Do You),” popularized in 1941 by Glenn Miller. He paused for a moment and looked up from the keyboard. “I learned that song in Rio Claro,” he said, as ferries idled on the river and the Manhattan skyline shimmered in the distance.

Lately, Salvador, who became an American citizen in 2000, has told friends and acquaintances that he wants to focus on his first love — jazz — again. He would like to perform at the Village Vanguard, he said. His on-again, off-again group, the Dom Salvador Sextet, released one album, “The Art of Samba Jazz,” in 2010, and occasionally performs at venues like Joe’s Pub and the Django.

There have been a few bigger triumphs, too. In 2015, Salvador performed at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Rio 65 Trio. A live recording of the show was released in Brazil in August and the album is scheduled to come out next year in the United States.

The drummer Duduka da Fonseca, who played at the Carnegie Hall show, released a tribute album to the pianist, and a documentary about Salvador’s life is currently in the works.

As for those who want to see him live, there is always the River Café, where Salvador is still playing to a full house, usually every night except Saturday.

Near the end of a recent set, as patrons filtered out of the restaurant, one appreciative man stopped to thank Salvador for his playing, remarking that the first time he had heard him at the River Café was in 1982. But Salvador, his head down midsong, wasn’t listening.

His mind, as always, was on the music.

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