Airto's Unforgettable Visit

By Barbara Melendez



TAMPA, Fla. (March 29, 2010) – Brazilian jazz great Airto Moreira shared two days with University of South Florida students and the public for a series of unforgettable encounters.


A concert in the College of The Arts Theatre II topped things off Thursday night. The drummer/percussionist’s gentle and gracious stage presence belied the explosive energy that propelled his masterful handling of the drums and an assortment of fascinating objects that make up his collection of instruments. Two standing ovations later, he greeted guests in the lobby, posed for pictures with fans and autographed CDs. Early on and to this day, fans are on a first-name basis, with the one-and-only Airto.


“For USF to have such a legendary performer, artist and historic figure on campus is outstanding. For our students to be exposed to the teachings, history and performances of Airto Moreira is a rare and important educational opportunity which they will remember for a lifetime,” said Jack Wilkins, professor of jazz.


Earlier in the day Airto, delivered a lecture Reflections on a Musical Past. The picture that emerged was one of a gifted child who went on to live his dream, one he still derives joy from, “travelling and playing music.”


From the beginning, Airto banged on anything that made a noise and always looked for pieces of all kind of things to make into instruments. He remembers fondly his first manufactured instrument, a treasured plastic tambourine he slept with under his pillow. From his teen years onward travelling throughout Brazil, he was “always playing, so many kinds of music with different kinds of bands, types of bands, even playing classical music for dancing,” he said describing the bolero and cha cha versions of what he would later learn were classical pieces. He never learned to read or write music but as he pointed out, he is a composer nonetheless – with a well-respected body of work.


He was a well-seasoned experienced musician by the time he reached the United States in his early twenties and fairly quickly worked his way up to playing with some of the greatest names in jazz – Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Cedar Walton, to name a few. But it’s Miles Davis everyone wanted to hear about.   Airto obliged.


His time spent with the legendary trumpet-player propelled Airto to international fame, but it was a bumpy ride for two exciting years. Their first meeting in Los Angeles signaled how things would end, in a way.  An enthusiastic fan, Airto snuck backstage to tell Miles how excited he was and of his wish to play with him – using the few English words he knew.  Miles had him thrown out of the club. 


Airto arrived in the states with no English, but found his way to fellow musicians and made himself known everywhere from “down on the corner to the concert halls.” Soon he was living at bassist Walter Booker’s with a house full of itinerant musicians, including trumpeter Lee Morgan. Sometime later when Airto was invited to play at Miles’ house on the recommendation of keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the jazz star had a few unprintable words to say about Airto’s playing, but he was invited back and ultimately joined Miles’ band.


“I spread all my instruments around me on the floor and would pick one up, then put it down and pick up another,” Airto said. “I would wait for a little space…, always waiting for a change in the music, looking for a hole in the music where I could jump in.” And it wasn’t easy because as he described it, the music Miles and his band were making was “extremely complex and extremely fast – like pure energy.


“I didn’t understand anything.  It was like a modern painting. But I was playing. Apparently it was good because everybody liked it,” he said.


Airto wasn’t paid when he sat in with Miles on several occasions in the beginning and couldn’t afford to let his friends back home know about his triumph, but fortunately, Downbeat Magazine and the media let the world know about Airto’s brilliant handling of his array of original percussion instruments. In fact, Airto inspired the creation of the percussion category in Downbeat’s jazz poll, a category Airto won over 20 times. A stellar career was launched.


The two musicians’ parting of the ways arrived without as much drama as their first meeting. Their relationship deteriorated, but without an argument, they played what Airto knew would be their last gig.  “We just both knew it was the last time,” Airto said, and they never spoke again. By then Airto was well on his way, “And I’m still here,” as he points out. He went on to make celebrated albums as part of the world-renowned bands Weather Report and Return to Forever and recorded many albums with his wife, the well-known singer Flora Purim. 


Airto jokingly remarks, “You can call me a noisemaker,” but what amazing noises they are. He can evoke a samba school band at Carnival or an entire session with a roomful of musicians with just his voice, his hands and his facial expressions. Students who attended two workshops, one on drumming and the other on percussion, saw him in action up close.


He uses tambourines as well as rattles whose origins range from Africa to Japan. Or he can take a castoff refrigerator hose wound up and held together with electrical tape, creating a kind of whistle, or employ a mitten-like glove covered with dried seed casings to create a rattle. Always showing tremendous imagination, he can turn anything into a musical instrument, even squeeze toys, a couple of rocks, and a pair of shells that he rubbed and hit together. Practically anything can serve as an outlet for his creative energy. And he had a lot to say about energy.


He learned from his father and grandfather that “we are spirits, but we have bodies. We need a body to do things. In reality, sprit never dies, just changes bodies – each of us individual intelligences. We have this power God gave to us to use for music. When we play we are plugged in. We experience music together.”


Already winning music awards by the age of six, Airto was so talented, a group of people he knew of as “gypsies” offered to buy him from his father, but he declined. Yet, Airto said after leaving home he has felt like a gypsy ever since, travelling the world over to perform. The airplanes and hotels he once enjoyed, have lost their appeal. Now the joy is just in playing and teaching – fortunately for his fans in the Tampa Bay area, one of his stops was at USF.



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.