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Born in São José do Rio Preto, where his father was the maestro of a marching band and encouraged his son to train as a tailor, Paulo instead studied in the National Music School and performed with the Brazilian Symphonic Orchestra. He was the first black artist to become first clarinetist in the Municipal Theatre Orchestra. He appeared at Bossa Nova night at Carnegie Hall in 1962 with Sérgio Mendes, the two of them also featuring on Cannonball Adderley's 1962 album, Cannonball's Bossa Nova. He won the Sharp Award for the most popular instrumentalist of the year in 1992.
His CD Paulo Moura e Os Oito Batutas was listed by Barnes & Noble as one of the top 10 recommendations of the year for 1998. From 1997 to 1999, he was on the State Council of Culture in Rio de Janeiro, a Councillor of the Federal Council of Music, and President of the Museum Foundation of Image and Sound. In 2000, Moura became the first Brazilian instrumentalist to win the Latin Grammy. Moura died of lymphoma three days before his 78th birthday. He was married to Halina Grynberg and had two sons, Pedro and Domingos.