The Story of Jazz in Turkey

Jazz first hit Turkey in the 1920’s, coming not from the U.S. but from Europe, when Leon Avigdor, a musician trained in classical violin, was impressed by the jazz he heard in Paris and took up the alto saxophone as soon as he returned home. Together with a drummer, a banjo-playing business man and a White Russian pianist by the name of Kolya Yaklovlev, he formed Istanbul’s first jazz group, the ‘Ronalds’ quartet.
In 1938, Gido Kornfilt, who had studied conducting in Germany, put together a ten-piece band with drummer Şadan Çaylıgil. A trombone player from the same band, Arto Haçaturyan and his brother Dikran formed a group called the ‘Swing Amateurs’. Making music in the style of Benny Goodman up to 1944, they popularized jazz with the young people of the period. Around the same time, a young filmmaker and clarinetist by the name of Hulki Saner succeeded in putting together the first Turkish ‘big band’.  Known for his interpretations in the style of Artie Shaw, Saner and his Band specialized more in tango and rhumba music.  Another leading clarinetist was Mehmet Akter. But the most interesting of the groups that played at the Kadıköy People’s House was the Necdet Alpün band, which featured three harmonica players as soloists.

The Breakthrough Years
Jazz in Turkey began to show signs of progress in the 1950’s. Starting in 1949, the programs put together by Erdem Buri, the recordings played by writer, musician and jazz critic Cüneyt Sermet and the jazz history programs he presented during his stint as Director of Western Music at Ankara Radio in the early 1960’s, the broadcasts by İsmet Sıral’s band, in which Sermet’s efforts again played a major role, the fledgling efforts of another of Sermet’s jazz converts, Arif Mardin (his compositions and arrangements for the Sermet-Lusigian band and İsmet Sıral’s group), pianist Nejat Cendeli’s radio broadcasts with the Sevinç-Sevim Tevs sisters, and Ayten Alpman and Rüçhan Çamay’s broadcasts on Istanbul Radio accompanied by the İlhan Gençer group were just some of the projects and activities that brought jazz to the fore in those years.
Harmonica virtuoso Hasan Kocamaz opened Istanbul’s first jazz club, the ‘306’, at Bebek, and the first jazz magazine was brought out by Duygu Sağıroğlu in 1960. A group made up of pianist Atilla Garai, bass player Selçuk Sum and horn player Melih Gürsel, and led by drummer Erol Pekcan, made history with a concert they gave in the basement of the Turkish-American Association in Ankara on February 1, 1958. Another of Turkey’s jazz greats from the 1940’s was multi-instrumentalist Süheyl Denizci, who directed the TRT Light Music and Jazz Orchestra from its founding in 1983 until he retired in 1997.
In that year the baton passed to Berklee graduate Neşet Ruacan.  Around the same time, Muvaffak Falat (known as Maffy in Europe), a trumpet player from Denizci’s generation, earned fame in Sweden. This artist, who had played with Kurt Edelhagen and the Clarke-Boland Big Band in the 1960’s, later formed his own group. He continues to play today in Turkey and in Sweden.
A new generation of jazz musicians, many of them with classical training, began to grow up in Turkey in the 1970’s. While they were gaining experience in the 1980’s as the middle generation, an even younger crop of musicians emerged in their wake in the jazz departments of schools like Berklee and Juilliard and of Turkey’s Bilkent and Bilgi Universities.

The Jazz Festival
One of the key factors in the popularization of jazz in Turkey was the concerts and informative jazz programs and concert broadcasts by the TRT (Turkish Radio and Television), first on the provincial stations and later on Radio 3. Meanwhile, the concerts and festivals organized since the 1970’s by private organizations and foundations have ensured that world class jazz musicians come to Turkey and meet up with their Turkish counterparts.
Held this year for the 17th time, the ‘International Istanbul Jazz Festival’ is the culmination of a growing interest that began with the first jazz concert (Woody Herman) in the 1974 ‘Istanbul Music Festival’ and continued with an increasing number of jazz concerts every year, eventually evolving into an independent jazz festival. Starting out under the direction of Görgün Taner, the festival continued under Pelin Opçin’s chairmanship in 2005.
Being the recipient of this year’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ was a wonderful surprise for me. I can think of no greater honor than to be remembered alongside the heroes of jazz in Turkey like Ahmet Ertegün, Arif Mardin, Süheyl Denizci, Tuna Ötenel, Ayten Alpman, Rüçhan Çamay, Selçuk Sun, Maffy Falay, Cüneyt Sermet and İlhan Kemal Mimaroğlu, all masters I intend to salute when I accept the award at Esma Sultan on opening night, July 1st.
The 17th festival, which, in addition to the jazz masters, addresses an even wider listening audience by including the jazz sub-genres and related styles, intends to offer a similarly consistent program, spreading jazz over the entire metropolis in intriguing concert venues that reflect the city’s special character and doubling listening pleasure in concerts played in venues that complement the jazz experience.

Living Legend
All the events in the festival are worth following, But I have a few recommendations of my own for jazz buffs. First of all, the evening of Thursday, July 15th, is very important. Don’t miss Tony Bennett, who is appearing in Istanbul for the first time in memory of Şakir Eczacıbaşı. This 15-time Grammy winner is a living legend and the chance to hear his powerful vocal instrument in person is worth everything.

A Rain Of Improvisations
Two names spring immediately to mind at the mention of modern Italian jazz: pianist Stefano Bollani and trompet player Enrico Rava, artists I have heard previously in different settings and formats. I’m eager to hear the concert they are going to give in the magical atmosphere of Aya İrini on 9 July. There is no doubt that these musicians, who combine Italian sensibility with modern jazz are going to leave our souls awash in a rain of improvisations.