Arif Mardin

Composer, 12-time Grammy winner and one of the 20th century’s leading music producers, Arif Mardin’s life and dreams were always filled with music.

“ I’m going, Dad.” At last the young man had said it, those words that had gone through his head so many times but that he had never been able to utter. Words that would change his life. “Where are you going, son?” asked his father. His voice steady, his reply only confirmed his resolve: “I’m gonna be a big band arranger, Dad.” What he was leaving behind was being boss of Turkish Petroleum. The place he was going was America, which to him meant music. Later, in an interview, he would confess that his father had looked at him as if he had said he was going to outer space. This man, who was to conquer not outer space but the world with his music, was Arif Mardin. A musical genius who last month bid farewell to the world he had conquered, with unwritten music still in his head and talents still waiting to be discovered.
The Mardinizade’s were an established Turkish family. His grandfather was Necmettin Kocataş, the last Ottoman Justice Minister. His father Muhiddin Arif Mardin, one of the founders of Turkish Petroleum. He was born in 1932, his parents’ first and only son after two daughters. His older sister, who died of tuberculosis as a young girl, was the first to sit at the family piano, followed by Arif Mardin. It was his grandfather who first spotted the boy’s musical talent, making him sing the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ when he was only five years old, and later trying to draw the attention of the other members of the family to ‘this child’s voice’. According to his older sister Betül Mardin, he didn’t actually have a voice, but he did have a great ear for music. Muhiddin Bey took his son to his close friend, Turkish composer Cemal Reşit Rey, who declared, “Listen up. This kid has got something!”

Arif Mardin showed the first signs of that ‘something’ by buying a Duke Ellington record at the age of ten. He was listening to the records of his sister and her friend Cüneyt Sermet, but his attention was on the background sound, the sounds produced by the instruments rather than the music as a whole. He graduated from high school at 17 and enrolled in the College of Economics and Trade. As he moved forward towards the future his father had cut out for him, he never gave up his music. He formed an orchestra with Cüneyt Sermet and trombone player Arto Haçaturyan. This small, 15- or 16-man orchestra played jazz compositions and arrangements made for them by Mardin. After graduating from college, he took a masters in business administration at the London School of Economics and returned to Istanbul. It must have been in that year that Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie came to the city to perform. Mardin sent them one of his compositions, which they played in their concert. Jones happened to mention that a scholarship had been set up in his name at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and that they were looking for a recipient. Mardin submitted three compositions, among them a piece called ‘Blues’ that he had written imagining a big band in the background. Jones liked the compositions and sent recordings of them to the admissions committee with a note: “by my scholarship student”. Just when his father thought his dream had come true, the conversation related at the beginning of this article took place, and Mardin, who had been accepted to Berklee as a scholarship student, announced he was leaving. He set out with his wife Latife, whom he had married the year before.

He was afraid of not succeeding, of being forced to return to Turkey. They settled into a small room where they had to share the bathroom with the other students. Finishing the four-year course in a year and a half, Mardin began giving music lessons in New York. But he was still far from realizing his dream. Accepting a job offer from Nasuhi Ertegün, who heard his pieces at a jazz festival, he was hired to be in charge of the archives at Atlantic Records. He quickly mastered the recording techniques and produced his first single, a piece called ‘Good Lovin’ by The Young Rascals. No sooner did it hit the market than it made top of the lists. The second musician with whom he worked was Aretha Franklin. Soon Mardin too began to discover new talents and produce records for them. With Bette Midler, he turned from jazz to pop, which was more in keeping with the mood of the times as jazz was beginning to wane on the American, and the world, scene. Midler was followed by David Bowie, Scritti Politti, Chaka Khan, Average White Band, Roberta Flack, Phil Collins and Michael Crawford. When jazz recovered its popularity in the 90’s, it was again Arif Mardin who made Norah Jones famous, as well as smoothing the path for Diana Reeves and Raul Midon.
He was noted for working more with women, which he explained in an interview: “Working with women is easier,” he said. “Above all else, respect is an important part of it. Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, for example, became very successful with their great talents, and consequently when I work with them I respect them a lot and it is reciprocated.” Midler described Mardin as “the last gentleman on the planet”. Although he was more heavily involved in pop music, his interest and taste always
lay in jazz, and naturally his friends were jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

During the decades he spent in the U.S., he never cut his ties with Turkey but always maintained close relations with his family. One of his daughters became a photographer. His son Yusuf Muhiddin (Joe) chose to follow in his father’s footsteps, and Mardin, who worked for a while with EMI after leaving Atlantic Records, formed a company with him.

Mardin also took a close interest in the music being made in Turkey and was as instrumental as the Ertegün brothers in turning Tarkan into a world famous singer. In later years he lost faith in the piano, which he had learned as a child and at which he had excelled. “There are two kinds of pianists”, he would say. “One performs and one works with notes and writes compositions. I do a little composing, choose some pieces, and could maybe play a little at a cocktail party.” Nor was he especially eager to collect his compositions together and make an album. He brought out ‘Glass Onion’ in 1969, an album of jazz arrangements that he made based on pop and soul pieces. Mardin, who, besides jazz and pop, was also interested in classical music and undertook projects with big orchestras, earned over forty gold and platinum albums and received twelve of the fifteen Grammies for which he was nominated. His last award came from Turkey when the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism honored him with a ‘Lifetime Art and Culture Award’ in a ceremony held in New York City in May. Before his illness, Mardin wanted to bring together his classical compositions, a piece for strings and his opera. He was also putting together an album, ‘Collection’. In other words, his head was still chock full of musical dreams as he set out on his final journey. He is going to be sorely missed...