Born March 6, 1942, in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Flora Purim began her career singing bossa nova before moving to New York City in 1967. Her unique singing style earned her the title of Queen of Brazilian jazz. Together with her husband, renowned percussionist Airto Moreira, they created their first major footprint as members of the band and title song of the first album, Return to Forever with Chick Corea, which hit the top of the jazz fusion music charts with the songs 500 Miles High, Light As A Feather and You’re Everything. Between Flora and Airto, they recorded over 55 albums and appeared as guests in over 200 albums. Her latest recording If You Will was released 2020.
Flora Purim was raised in a home with classical musicians. It was her mother who, as a classical pianist, influenced Flora’s musical taste with her record collection of jazz by Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Errol Gardner among others. Flora’s own choice of music from the collection included Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra.
Purim reveals that she didn’t set out to be a singer. In fact, she wanted to study the guitar. Coming from a household of Jewish musicians it was only natural that Flora’s father, a violinist, would insist that she learn classical music. However, her mother who enjoyed playing jazz records while her husband was away, gave young Flora a window to expand her musical interest. Rio De Janeiro, a city filled with music and the African beat of the drum, penetrated deep into the heart of Flora as she says: “difficult to live in an African rich country and not feel the force of the drums, the force [power] of love”. At 12 years old she asked her father to let her swap her piano lessons for guitar. She was not inspired learning piano as she received smacks during her lessons as Flora says in her August 12, 2022 interview.
Her father insisted she study classical music but offered her a deal in that she had to commit to learning one song on the guitar in one week. If she did so, he would let her continue studying guitar and drop the piano lessons. Her father gave her a metal string guitar -not a guitar for beginners- but Flora was determined to learn. Flora learned after that challenging week to play two songs with two chords. Her performance was “not perfect” as she says, but enough for her father to follow through on his promise. She ultimately studied with the best bossa nova guitar teachers of the time – Brazilians Carlos Lira, Oskar Castro Nieves, and Roberto Menescal.
The 50’s and 60’s began a time of creating new music in Brazil. Young composers utilized the guitar and slowed the beat down of the African inspired samba adapting the accents and tempos, discovering, and capturing rich chords for their compositions. Influences of classical music helped shape the music with beautiful melodies that enraptures the listeners heartstrings, passionate lyrics of love, culture, and nature. Flora gathered and mingled with musicians at their homes to learn, search, and compose. They learned “apartment music” as they called the soft sound that could be practiced without disturbing the neighbors, continuing for hours and sometimes for days.
Many of the Brazilian standard songs such as Desafinado (Slightly Out of Tune), which was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Newton Mendonça; Bim-Bom composed by Joao Gilberto; and music composed by Dorival Caymmi, Moacir Santos, Pixinguinha, and Menescal were among the songs that initially drew Flora to join the league of musicians in the new music movement. Bossa Nova grew in popularity, and captured visiting American jazz musicians attention who would bring recorded music back from Brazil to begin recording their versions of the new sound.
Flora, like other women, in Brazil during those early days had a difficult time being accepted in the masculine world of musicians, but with the help of a friend and fellow musician she recorded her first album in Brazil, Flora e, M.P.M. (RCA, 1964). She could now be accepted as a performer where she continued to learn and meet musicians with whom to perform. Her vocal style of dips and growls can be detected in her first recording as the beginning of what later would be recognized as her signature style.
At the age of 22, Flora witnessed the police lining the stage for a Chico Buarque concert. This was the beginning of a military coup that was developing with a ban on political songs among various prohibited liberties. Flora was present to perform her selection of bossa nova and samba beat tunes. Standing off stage she watched as Chico took the stage playing and not singing the lyric of his political songs. Instead, he played his guitar, then the audience that filled the concert hall began to sing. The police who lined the floor in front of the stage ready to stop Chico, were at a loss. This experience along with her determination to pursue her career inspired her desire to travel north. She walked away from the concert with percussionist and future husband Airto Moreira. She had already heard of some musician disappearances and some leaving the country. She didn’t want to start her career while military control was inevitable, so she traveled to New York City alone, leaving her young daughter Niura from a previous marriage, with her mother.
She arrived in NYC with no money but a friend from Brazil offered a space in his apartment. Seeking a chance to perform, this was an opportunity to visit jazz clubs and meet working musicians. It wasn’t long before she convinced Airto Moreira to come to New York City and soon both would be working with the top musicians of that time. Although they struggled, they met jazz pianist Thelonius Monk who opened a door of opportunity to meet musicians and began hiring her and Airto. Among them was Gil Evans with whom she toured. Stan Getz invited her to perform on television singing and playing her guitar (1969). She was on her way to becoming the artist she always envisioned.
Most gigs – as jobs were called – paid cash so one could survive day to day, while trying to land a tour of several gigs, or a recording date, or as a background singer on an artist’s project. As Airto was traveling with Miles Davis after the Bitches Brew album (1970), Flora was hired to sing backup for Miriam Makiba who recognized Flora’s talent and shared her manager’s phone number so Flora could seek her path as a recording artist. It was Airto Moreira her now husband who landed the first record deal by 1971 that included Flora. By 1972, this led to an invitation to form the Return to Forever Band with Chick Correa, Stanley Clarke, and Airto. Flora was the frontwoman using her signature voice with added staccato high notes she learned from listening to Yma Zumac records.
Flora gave birth to her second child Diana, a singer now in her own right, just after the first recording with Return to Forever. Now with a baby in her arms she recorded on the second album Light as a Feather. Both albums offered songs that became standards of the fusion period of jazz. She earned the Down Beat jazz singers poll award four years consecutively. She was also personally invited by Carlos Santana to add her voice to his recording Welcome (1973) and Borboletta (1974). She continued to lend her voice to several recordings as the guest artist.
Just as Flora was setting her footprint with Return to Forever, and her own album release Butterfly Dreams (1973), and with her young baby, she was arrested on a drug charge and served a sentence in San Francisco from 1974 to 1976. She was released early and returned to perform as 500 Miles High was playing on the jazz radio stations as well as Stories to Tell (1974), which she recorded while awaiting her sentence. With the help of her record label, she orchestrated the first jazz collaboration of great musicians before completing her incarceration. The collaboration included George Duke, Cannonball Adderley, Miroslav Vitous, a founding member of Weather Report, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler (once a member of Weather Report), as well as Brazilians trombonist Raul de Souza, and Airto who performed within the walls of Federal Correctional Institution – Terminal Island in Los Angeles for an unforgettable concert. It may have earned her an early release from her sentence as a valuable contributor to the mental well-being of cell mates and workers at the terminal.
Flora returned to the stage performing and recording with her husband and their child at her side, but still with legal issues and facing deportation. She was allowed to stay under a non-priority program. They went on to form their own band and worked together for the rest of Flora’s career performing at
Throughout the 90’s and into the mid 2000’s she continued to tour and record with the formation of Fourth World. The band included musicians Gary Meek, Jose Neto, Jovino Santo-Neto and Airto. Flora and Airto’s music, by now, were being sampled with remixes of music as Samba De Flora remixed as Samba Magic by Basement Jaxx and others. In 2006, Flora recorded Nos Dois (The Two of Us) the music of Milton Nacsimento. As ill health slowed Flora down, her daughter Diana Booker began to fill in with singing and traveling duties alongside with her father Airto, and husband Krishna Booker. Flora and Airto returned to permanently live in Brazil to avoid living in a country that they felt was in turmoil after President Obama left office, and later the 2019 COVID-19 lockdown.
At the insistence of family and friends, Flora recorded what may be her swansong in 2020 entitled If You Will. It captures the fiery flavor of percussion with voice along with her daughter Diana to support the music of beautiful melodies and driving choruses that will bring you to your feet, warm your heart and sway you in motion. In 2022, Flora and Airto, ages 80 and 81 respectively, returned to the stage with what she called their final performance with a tour of concerts through Brazil and into retirement in Brazil with their remarkable collection of recorded music, and memorable stories of an exceptional career in music.
Among Ms. Purim and Mr. Moreira’s awards are the Order of Rio Branco, Brazil’s highest award for their significant contribution to the promotion of Brazil’s international relations (2002). She was also a 4-time winner of the Down Beat Best Female Jazz Performer, she earned 2 Grammy nominations for Best Female Jazz Performance, and 2 Grammy’s for Dizzy Gillespie and the United Nation Orchestra – Live at the Royal Festival Hall, (Best Jazz Album – 1990), and Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum (Best World Music Album, 1991).
You Tube: https://youtu.be/R7pfKH_hlzI (8/12/2022).
Note from Adela: I lived and learned much about Brazilian music and the NYC music scene beginning in 1974. Consequently, I had the honor of singing backup voice in Carnegie Hall in the 80’s with Ms. Purim.
- Flora e M.P.M (RCA, 1964)
- Butterfly Dreams (Milestone, 1973)
- Stories to Tell (Milestone, 1974)
- 500 Miles High (Milestone, 1976)
- Open Your Eyes You Can Fly (1976)
- Encounters (Milestone, 1977)
- Nothing Will Be As It Was…Tomorrow (Warner Bros., 1977
- Everyday, Everynight (Warner Bros, 1978)
- That’s What She Said (Milestone, 1978)
- Carry On (Warner Bros., 1979)
- Dafos with Mickey Hart, Airto Moreira (Reference, 1983)
- Humble People with Airto Moreira (Concord Jazz, 1985)
- Three-Way Mirror with Airto Moreira (Reference, 1985)
- The Magicians with Moreira (Crossover, 1986)
- The Colours of Life with Airto Moreira (In+Out, 1988)
- The Midnight Sun (Venture, 1988)
- The Sun Is Out with Airto Moreira (Crossover, 1989)
- Queen of the Night (Sound Wave, 1992)
- The Flight (B&W Music, 1994)
- Speed of Light (B&W Music, 1995)
- Flora Purim Sings Milton Nascimento (Narada, 2000)
- Perpetual Emotion (Narada, 2000)
- Speak No Evil (Narada, 2002)
- Flora’s Song (Narada, 2005)
- Nos Dois – Flora Purim Sings Milton Nascimento (2006)
- Live in Berkeley with Airto Moreira (Airflow, 2012)
- If You Will (2022)