Jazz music was born in the United States primarily by the African American community at the very beginning of the 20th century. In the heart of this harmonically sophisticated genre of music is improvisation. While a series of brilliant musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, led the development of jazz, this genre reached Europe and on to other regions across the world in time.
Nina Simone once said, “Jazz is not just music, it is a way of life, it is a way of being, a way of thinking.” Jazz gave power to the African American society for its struggle against discrimination and racism back in the day. One of Turkey’s unforgettable encounters with jazz is with the story of Turkish brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegün, who waged a battle against racism in the U.S. by supporting the African American jazz performers of the time. The brothers, who are the sons of the then-ambassador to Washington, Münir Ertegün, fell in love with jazz music and met jazz legends, including Armstrong and Ellington.
Organizing music night at the Turkish Embassy in Washington and inviting African American jazz performers, the brothers went on to revolutionize the American musical universe by establishing Atlantic Records in 1947. Their company played a role in the growth of famous singers and bands, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
The first jazz club was opened in Istanbul in Turkey in the late 1960s. After being preferred as the venue's music in those times, jazz music became one of the most popular genres in the country within 10 years. In 1978, pianist and saxophonist Tuna Ötenel, along with drummer Erol Pekcan and bass guitarist Kudret Öztoprak, released Turkey's first jazz LP "Caz Semai." Also, the first international jazz festival in Turkey was held in Istanbul during the 1980s. Many musicians devoted themselves to the evolution of jazz in the Turkish scene.
On the eve of International Jazz Day, which UNESCO declared in 2011 "to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe," let’s take a look at some of these talented musicians, both to commemorate them and appreciate their contributions to the Turkish jazz world.
Tevs was Turkey’s first female jazz singer. When she was studying at the Ankara State Conservatory, Tevs started to make a program by singing popular songs of the day on Ankara Radio with her sister Sevim. She could sing in English, French and Italian and her fame reached Istanbul soon after her very first radio program, which offered her a chance to perform on Istanbul's radios at the same time. In 1948, she went to the U.S. and won the New York Jazz Festival, where she performed “For You,” a composition by Turkish-American music producer Arif Mardin.
Her programs on Turkish Radio and Television's (TRT) Istanbul Radio with Turkish jazz pianist and singer Ilham Gencer in 1949 attracted great attention from the public. Tevs regularly performed abroad, and these concerts were so appreciated that renowned French singer Edith Piaf once congratulated her when they met at a nightclub in Egypt. Tevs was also the first Turkish singer to appear on the British TV channel BBC and Germany-Berlin Television. After Tevs, other female jazz performers like Ayten Alpman and Rüçhan Çamay followed suit in jazz music.
The beautiful voice of Alpman was noticed by Gencer during her school years. She started to perform professionally together with the Ilham Gencer Ensemble in 1949. The first song she sang on the radio was "You Are Always In My Heart.” Mardin was the person who suggested she focus on jazz songs. She was greatly appreciated for her technique, being similar to Judie Christie and her misty alto voice.
She met jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Ellington and Quincy Jones in Sweden, where she went to study music in 1963. When she returned to Turkey, Alpman started to perform Turkish songs. In 1972, Alpman released her song "Memleketim" ("My Country"), which became immensely popular during the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation.
Çamay was impressed by the extraordinary interpretations of the Tevs sisters and Fitzgerald on Ankara Radio while studying piano and singing at the Ankara Conservatory. She turned to jazz with the encouragement of famous pianist Erdoğan Çaplı and started to sing jazz on Ankara Radio when she was only 17. Following this, she performed jazz shows on TRT Istanbul Radio with the Şerif Yüzbaşıoğlu orchestra. In 1952, she went to New York at the call of American art agent William Morris and worked in a club named Mezonette. After returning to Turkey, she, like Alpman, continued to sing in Turkish.
One of Turkey's first pianist-singers, Gencer made important contributions to the spread of jazz music in Turkey. Gencer said in a radio interview that he started music for the first time in 1931, when he was five years old, with lessons from his mother and playing the console piano in his home. The artist did not have any other academic musical education. After graduating from high school, he performed on the piano with the first local jazz band that featured Badi Kemal on trumpet, Mehmet Akter on clarinet and Türkan Pasiner on vocals. Gencer also appeared on many radio shows. Collaborating and performing with many prominent musicians, Gencer remains a living legend of Turkish jazz and still delivers mesmerizing performances.
Focan is one of the most prominent jazz guitarists in Turkey. He founded Nardis Jazz Club with his wife Zuhal Focan in 2002 and the venue is still one of the top stops of Istanbul nightlife. The name "Nardis" refers to a composition by Miles Davis.
Focan, who started his musical life by playing mandolin at the age of eight, continues today as a guitarist, composer, arranger and songwriter in collaboration with world-famous musicians on the international platform. The self-taught artist has released 13 albums under his own name since 1994.
Erkoç is one of the most well-known jazz vocalists in Turkey. However, he is such a versatile artist that he started playing violin at the age of three and trombone, piano and contrabass during his education years at the Istanbul Municipal Conservatory. After spending 11 years in Norway, he returned to Turkey in 1986 and in the same year won the 1st Golden Pigeon Song Contest with his song "Yol Verin A Dostlar," whose lyrics, music, arrangement and interpretation belong to him. Combining pop music and jazz in the four albums he released throughout the 90s, Erkoç is one of the most-appreciated vocalists in Turkey today.
Tezer, who has gained wide recognition with many popular songs, found music during her secondary school years. Having achieved a high level of success at various competitions back when she was young, she was accepted into the Istanbul Technical University (ITU) Turkish Music State Conservatory.
She started her professional music career with a single guitar in the background on stage and collaborated with exclusive bands. After her duet with composer and singer Bülent Ortaçgil in 1998, her reputation spread to a much wider audience. With her deep vocals, Tezer is considered one of the most impressive jazz singers of the Turkish music scene today.
Prominent jazz pianist Kerem Görsev is the first name that comes to mind in terms of Turkish jazz. His passion for jazz started in the conservatory years and the artist had the opportunity to play with talented Turkish and foreign musicians in various clubs and concerts in his professional music career afterward.
Görsev has recorded 18 albums since 1995 and introduced different formats of acoustic jazz and orchestra arrangements in his compositions. The pianist continues to perform, especially with his trio comprising of Volkan Hürsever on contrabass and Ferit Odman on drum
Odman started playing drums at the age of 12 and received his jazz education in Sweden, where he went in 1999. Developing his technique at Istanbul Bilgi University and improvisation workshops in New York, Odman played in many jazz bands – first in Sweden, then in Istanbul and finally in New York – and shared the same stage with master figures. He was invited to a number of international festivals as a bandleader, including the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Istanbul Jazz Festival, the Pristina Jazz Festival in Kosovo, the International Ankara Jazz Festival and the Rabobank Amersfoort Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.
Lebanon-born Barbur received her university education at Bilkent University in Turkey’s capital Ankara. Although she is of Arab-Christian descent, many classify Babur as a Turkish musician. After graduating from university, Barbur moved to Istanbul to start her professional career and performed in the same venue for four years in the city.
When she finally met Ortaçgil, she had no intention of releasing an album of her own. But with the support and help of Ortaçgil, she prepared her album and has been a mainstay on the Turkish jazz scene with her perfect voice since then.
Elif Çağlar is one of Turkey's successful young jazz performers. After studying jazz composition at Istanbul Bilgi University, she continued her master's degree in jazz performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music affiliated to Queens College in New York. Çağlar returned to Istanbul in 2006. Her widely acclaimed debut "MUSIC" is the first jazz vocal album in Turkey with all original songs in English and the first that is written and arranged by a female jazz vocalist.
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