Jazz in the Global Imagination

A symposium

Copyright © 2007 Seda Binbasgil

What is the place of jazz in the societies the journalists come from?

Turkey is a country with many diverse cultures & traditions. Istanbul particularly has always been open to all forms of music including jazz.

In the late 1930s Istanbul was one of the cities that the Jewish as well as the African-American jazz musicians fled to, trying to escape the racial oppression of the Nazi Germany. While it was the Christian and the Jewish communities who were the first to appreciate this music within the Turkish population, soon the interest in jazz was big enough to produce its first local musicians. Since then jazz in Turkey has come a long way in terms of both quality & quantity:

Festivals: When we look at today’s scene we see internationally-renowned two major jazz festivals (International Istanbul Jazz Festival since 1973, Akbank International Jazz Festival since 1991), and many others, though comparatively smaller in scale, in cities like Izmir, Ankara, Afyon and others. These festivals made great contributions to the Turkish jazz scene introducing jazz legends, masters as well as the young and upcoming musicians from all over the world. I will not even attempt to start naming the great musicians who performed in Turkey, instead I prefer to state briefly that almost everybody who is who in jazz performed here and more than a few times so. Meeting and playing with these great musicians opened up new horizons for the local musicians & increased the interest in jazz.

Clubs: The major clubs are located in Istanbul, the cultural capital of Turkey. Babylon, Nardis & Istanbul Jazz Center are the most prominent ones, the latter two being the strongholds for jazz in this city. Whereas the Jazz Center hosts international names throughout the year, Nardis has a special edge and keen interest in developing the local scene by giving the young musicians a chance to showcase their talents.

Media: There are quite a few radio shows covering jazz. However, Istanbul’s Acik Radio , an alternative station in radio programming known for its special coverage and sensitivity in cultural and social issues is the one who specializes in jazz music with a wide array of programs and documentaries.

As for the print media, Jazz Dergisi , a specialized quarterly is widely available in bookstores and newsstands for more than a decade now.

Education: One strong indication that there is a growing interest in jazz in Turkey today is the fact that there is a very big demand for its education. There are workshops, seminars, panels all around the major cities in the country. While some universities like Bogazici University offers Jazz Appreciation courses, Istanbul’s Bilgi University is the one that stands out in the crowd by starting the first major Jazz Education Program in the country with an all-star faculty coming from the Turkish jazz scene, also including international jazz greats like Butch Morris, Mingus alumnus Ricky Ford and the like.

Musicians: 1950s witnessed the first visits of the great American jazz masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck & Louis Armstrong to Istanbul, made possible by the US State Department goodwill tours. While in Turkey, Dizzy Gillespie met and played with the Turkish players among whom the talented trumpet player Muvaffak (Maffy) Falay particularly attracted his attention. Falay would then move to Sweden to start a major career especially with his fusion group Sevda, leaving a strong imprint on the Swedish jazz scene. Sweden has also been home to another Turkish jazz musician, percussionist Okay Temiz who has achieved a world-wide reputation since his move there around the 1960 s. He has made important collaborations with the Swedish jazz pianist Bobo Stenson while playing for his own Oriental Wind band and with the Karnataka College of Percussion of India.

On the homefront, Arif Mardin, just an enthusiastic young musician and composer with a great affection for the big band music then, was feeding his compositions to the famous Ismet Siral Orchestra. The leader Ismet Siral who played clarinet and saxophone would then join the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock in the late 1970s and be a part of the avantgarde atmosphere created there with the great musicians of jazz and the world music by performing, giving seminars, workshops and sharing his expertise about the Turkish music with the curious mind around him.

Aydin Esen, a graduate of the Julliard, New England Conservatory and Berklee is a well-established pianist and widely-respected composer and probably the best known Turkish jazz musician outside of Turkey today. His more recent works cross boundaries and deal more with the new music of our time .

Of course the Ertegun Brothers, founders of the Atlantic Records, should not be left out in a discussion like this. Together with Arif Mardin, their legendary producer for almost forty years, the Ertegun Brothers made valuable contributions to America’s black music and jazz.

One can conclude that there is a pretty lively scene and an ever growing interest in jazz in Turkey today. However, it may be ironic that jazz, once the music of America’s lower social classes has transformed into a prestigious kind of music, music of the elite in Turkey so to speak; sky-rocketing ticket prices for many gigs mostly to be blamed for.

There are very productive Turkish musicians like the pianist Kerem Gorsev, guitarist Onder Focan who record frequently and draw a pretty good public interest. Several other musicians are also worth a mention here with their contributions to the jazz scene like Tuna Otenel (saxophone and piano), Ayse Tutuncu (piano), the late Nukhet Ruacan and Sibel Kose (vocal).

How does jazz engage local, social & cultural issues and how do issues of ethnicity, gender, race, class & social formation enter into their work?

I don t think there is a country in the whole world other than the United States of America where jazz is so interrelated with social & cultural issues of its society in almost every period in its history. That’s simply because jazz was born out of the cultural experience of African Americans. Music was an essential aspect of African American life. It was a way of releasing emotions, a great vehicle for self-expression. No matter whether it was Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit , Abbey Lincoln screaming in one of the movements of Max Roach’s We insist: Freedom Now Suite , Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus, or Charlie Haden’s Song for Ché , they were all great protest songs of their periods. While one was against lynchings in the South, the others were protesting the racial oppression of the American government towards the African-Americans, yet another was even crossing boundaries, reaching further to glorify the socialist revolutionary Ché Guevara!

This tradition in America still continues today. Last year witnessed the beautiful album called Not in our Name again by the great Charlie Haden & his Liberation Orchestra, this time against the involvement of the Bush Administration in Iraq.

Now these were all Americans expressing themselves, their emotions through the music they knew best. I believe the same is true with the other societies; they share their joy, anguish, they protest through the music that is the closest to their hearts, that they grew up with. Therefore, I don t believe that jazz can engage local, social & cultural issues in the rest of the world the way it did and still continues to do in America.

How do musicians & journalists engage the global?

I believe that Turkey because of its unique geographical location and its rich cultural background may have a better chance to engage the global. Let me elaborate on this by trying to put Turkey into perspective among its neighboring countries.

In the West, there are Greece & Bulgaria; in the East, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Iran, Iraq & Syria. In a way, Turkey is the gate to the Middle East, a troubled region. Except for a handful of musicians in Armenia & Azerbaidjan, you will not be able to come across much jazz in this part of the world. Therefore, when American or European jazz musicians go on a tour of Europe, Turkey is usually the last stop in their agenda. For them Turkey is an interesting oasis to discover within a very closed region, however pretty rich and diverse in culture. Lets also not forget the fact that Istanbul was a true meeting point for arts and culture for centuries where musicians of Greek, Jewish, Italian, Armenian and Roman origins came to meet other artists and musicians from the Islamic civilizations nearby.

Now lets look at Turkey with respect to its musical traditions:

Traditional Turkish music is usually somewhat alien to a western ear.

It’s mostly monophonic.The tones are broken down further into very small segments, something you don t come across easily in Western practices.

Also, the traditional instrumentation is usually not the type of instrumentation that you encounter in the West. What’s more, the traditional Turkish music has unique rhythms. Now all this may sound like big hurdles getting in the way of Turkish musicians desiring to engage the global. However, lets not forget the fact that sometimes obstacles may bring along great opportunities and creativity. For example, those unique rhythms of Turkish music fascinate many musicians from other cultures like they once did Dave Brubeck. In Ken Burns documentary Jazz he elaborates on that, explaining how listening to a group of Turkish musicians improvising in 9/8 during a visit to Istanbul in the 1950s — attracted his attention and eventually led him compose his famous Blue Rondo a la Turk .

While musicians like the percussionist Okay Temiz and trumpeter Maffy Falay probably once were Turkey’s only proud examples of local jazz musicians having made it in the global world, recently one can talk about more names in the global scene like the aforementioned pianist Aydin Esen and saxophone player Ilhan Ersahin who spends time both in New York he owns a jazz club called NuBlu there — and in Istanbul, and is an enthusiastic player of various avantgarde projects, among them Butch Morris unique conductions.

Another positive development as a step towards reaching the global is certainly the fast growing number of young, talented local jazz musicians graduting from the world’s leading music colleges, returning to their country not only with solid music education, but also with a unique playing experience with very good jazz musicians from all over the world. The Turkish Berklee graduates like the guitarist Neset Ruacan, pianist Aydin Esen and the drummer Can Kozlu are the pioneers in this respect, paving the way for younger generations of talented players like Cengiz Baysal, Senol Kucukyildirim (drums), Selen Gulun (piano), Oguz Buyukberber (bass clarinet, saxophone), and others.

Most of the times though, it is the great jazz musicians coming from all over the world to participate in Istanbul’s well-respected international festivals and to perform at the city’s world-class jazz clubs who turn the local jazz scene into a global one. Then Istanbul really becomes a magical meeting point where audiences find the chance to hear jazz at its best and local jazz musicians to jam with the greatest. Add to this the great resident jazz faculty of Istanbul’s Bilgi University from all over the world with a keen ear and curious mind about the music of other cultures and you may just have the best of both worlds.

However, while trying to reach the global, Turkey — also a candidate for full membership to European Union since last year — should never lose its local identity which is the most important factor that gives this country its great character and originality. And then maybe one day, hopefully not very far from today, we may talk about a genuine Turkish jazz sound that has also created an international awareness.

Seda Binbasgil

Istanbul, Turkey

Fall 2007

Posted by admin on 31 Jan