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Attila Zoller: 1927-1998
Attila Zoller

Born: June 13, 1927 in Visegrad, Hungary
Died: January 25, 1998 in Townshend, Vermont

An Ambassador For Jazz

Copyright © 1999 

The Scotsman, 1998

Zoller, Attila Attila Zoller first studied violin and piano as a child in his native Hungary, and then took up trumpet at the age of nine, which he played in his school's symphony orchestra. When he decided to make a career in music, however, he switched to guitar, the instrument on which he made his reputation after moving to America in 1959, and to jazz.

His jazz career was already well-established by the time of his move to America. He gained valuable experience with band-leader Tabanyi Pinoccio in Budapest (1946-8), before fleeing the political situation in his homeland. He played with Vera Auer in Vienna (1948-54), then settled in Frankfurt, Germany for a time, where he worked with pianist Jutta Hipp (1954-5) and saxophonist Hans Koller (1956-9), playing in a bop idiom, and often accompanying visiting American musicians like Bud Shank and Tony Scott, or teaming up with expatriates like Kenny Clarke.

In 1959, Zoller won a scholarship to attend the prestigious but short-lived Lennox School of Jazz (his fellow students that year included Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry), which was run by distinguished musicians like John Lewis, Bill Russo and Gunther Schuller near the Boston Symphony Orchestra's famous summer home at Tanglewood. 

He settled in America, and quickly began to establish a reputation as a sensitive, inventive and accomplished musician. He worked with Chico Hamilton in 1960, then joined the group led by flautist Herbie Mann in 1962, where he remained a fixture until 1965. He co-led a band with pianist Don Friedman, and then formed his own group, while also taking time out to work with Red Norvo (1966) and Benny Goodman (1967).

Zoller was able to adapt to the different stylistic requirements of these associations, moving with equally facility from Goodman's swing style to bop and modal jazz, and he expanded his stylistic horizons even further in a co-operative trio with saxophonist Lee Konitz (who became a regular musical partner) and trombonist Albert Manglesdorff in 1968.

In a further demonstration of his versatility, he accompanied the bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto on tour in 1970, and made tours of Japan with fellow guitarists Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell, and later formed a duo with yet another guitarist, the undervalued Jimmy Raney (1979-80).

He worked with major artists like bassist Oscar Pettiford (sometimes playing bass to Pettiford's cello), pianists Paul Bley and Herbie Hancock, and saxophonists Stan Getz and Sonny Rollins, and toured Europe regularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as well as recording a number of albums, including a solo guitar disc in 1979.

In addition to his accomplishments as a player, Zoller will also be remembered for founding the Vermont Jazz Centre in 1972, which became an important resource in his adopted state. The centre began with summer guitar workshops, but expanded in the early 1980s, when it was housed in an old Vermont summer house, the focal point of which was a long, many-sided room which Zoller built himself, dubbed The Hexagon. Tutors included Zoller, Lee Konitz, and bass player George Mraz, while the guitarist would also serve up generous helpings of his own Hungarian goulash to the students.

Eventually, though, he was forced to sell the house, and the Centre became peripatetic for a time, before finding a permanent home in Brattleboro, Vermont. Zoller was diagnosed as suffering from cancer of the colon at the beginning of 1997, and devoted much of his remaining time to working on plans for the new Centre.

Ironically, a gala concert celebrating the new premises took place on the weekend immediately before the guitarist's death. Despite his illness, he had been performing until the final weeks of his life, but he was unable to leave the hospital where he was being treated to play in the concert. Jazz singer Sheila Jordan dedicated the event to him in his absence.

Zoller said that the diagnosis of his illness had served to help him relax in his playing, adding that "I was always nervous when I played. Now nothing bothers me, and I'm free to improvise. I'm on the trip, the great adventure. When I'm playing, I'm flying."

Zoller also designed electronic instruments, and although he never became a major jazz name, his talents were widely acknowledged within the jazz community. In 1995, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the New England Foundation for the Arts, and the American Guitar Museum in New Hyde Park, New York, honoured him with a celebration party in April last year, naming the day Attila Zoller Day. Among the commendations was a message of congratulations from the president of Hungary.

"The president applauded me for carrying our music and culture into the world," Zoller said on that occasion. "He said I was one of many Hungarians who left, but never forgot their home. Jazz is now an important art form, a way of communication. I've become a jazz ambassador. I devoted my life to that art form. I would like the spirit
to stay going."

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With 1 reader comment, posted January 25, 2006