Sergio Mendes On Jazz, Luck And 'The Magic Of The Encounter' The Brazilian musician and composer says his life has been a succession of serendipitous moments. One of them led to the song that transformed his career — his first hit, "Mas Que Nada."
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Sergio Mendes On Jazz, Luck And 'The Magic Of The Encounter'

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Sergio Mendes On Jazz, Luck And 'The Magic Of The Encounter'

Sergio Mendes On Jazz, Luck And 'The Magic Of The Encounter'

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Brazilian composer and bandleader Sergio Mendes has a new album of collaborations out this week. It's called "Magic."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T SAY GOODBYE")

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) I see the wonder in your eyes. Let the rhythm hypnotize. Let it say your mind away.

RATH: That's a song with John Legend called "Don't Say Goodbye." Sergio Mendes stopped by our studios here at NPR West to talk about his early career as part of our series "My Big Break."

SERGIO MENDES: I call it the magic of encounter - the magic of encountering people that helped me, that support me. My life has been very much a succession of those moments. And I feel very good and very humble about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)

MENDES: I was born in a city called Niteroi, which is across the bay from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My childhood was on the beach like a lot of other kids, playing soccer. And I started learning classical music - Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart. And I had a wonderful teacher.

And so that - my beginning with the music and piano and classical music. At about 12 years old...

(SOUNDBITE OF LP CRACKLING)

MENDES: ...For the first time I heard a jazz record.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

MENDES: A friend of mine had the Dave Brubeck record. And I remember there was a song - "Take Five."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE FIVE")

MENDES: For me that was like, I would say, one of the incredible moments of my life. Because when I heard that, I had no idea about jazz or anything. So the whole world of jazz for me was like - wow, what is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE FIVE")

MENDES: The freedom of improvisation - I'm very curious and I love to try new things. So the idea that you could improvise and you have under it fantastic harmonies, chords. I mean, for me that was magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE FIVE")

MENDES: Now I'm already like 17, 18 and playing in nightclubs in Rio de Janeiro. Those are the days of the bossa Nova now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSA NOVA)

MENDES: So in 1962 - November - they had a bossa nova concert at Carnegie Hall. I brought my band. We played at Carnegie Hall. It was Joao Gilberto, Jobim, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie - a lot of my idols. And for me at 19 or 20 years old, to come to America was like wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSA NOVA)

MENDES: So after Carnegie Hall, I went back to Brazil then finally decided to come to America again in 1964 - came to Los Angeles. I had a friend of mine. His name was Tom Hormel and Geordie Hormel. And they loved Brazilian music. And he said Sergio can use our place to rehearse - whatever you want to do. People from record companies, they used to come to Hormel's studio to hear us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAZZ MUSIC)

MENDES: So we'd play three, four, five songs. And a lot of record companies came in. No answer, nothing, you know, just oh, thank you. You guys sound great. Bye. So we kept rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSA NOVA)

MENDES: So one day walk in a couple of guys. And they were Jerry Moss and Herb Alpert - A&M. And they introduced themselves. And they heard a couple of songs. And they said to me - said I really like your sound. I'd like to sign you with our record company. And I said wow, really? You know, great. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

MENDES: We did the first record, you know, "Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66." The song "Mas Que Nada" went to the top of the charts. It was the first time that the song in Portuguese was a hit in America and all over the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

MENDES: Then I brought my first car - a Pontiac LeMans. Remember that - 1966, gray.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

MENDES: That's the song that gave me my first big break. And I still love playing it. I never got tired of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

RATH: The new album from Sergio Mendes is called "Magic." And we want to hear about your big break even if you haven't played Carnegie Hall. Send us an email at mybigbreak@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAS QUE NADA")

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