As part of the 29th Istanbul Jazz Festival, Istanbul's parks have been refreshed with the sweet rhythms of jazz on hot summer days.
Amid the hustle and bustle of the city, and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Istanbulities had a chance to take a break with the free-of-charge jazz park concerts. I had the opportunity to attend one of the "Jazz in the Parks" concerts and experience first-hand the warm atmosphere of New Orleans in Istanbul thanks to the jazz band Tuba Skinny.
With the evening wind blowing as the sun set, I was treated to a facade of Lake Küçükçekmece that I have not seen before accompanied by the smooth sound of jazz. I also had a chance to interview the band's clarinet player Craig Flory and auto resonator guitar and tenor banjo player Max Bien Kahn.
Before delving into the significance of Tuba Skinny's visit to Turkey, it is important to touch upon the texture of New Orleans, which is considered the cultural center of Louisiana, located in the Deep South of the United States.
The Deep South has always been a distinctive part of the U.S. With its long and complex history, serving as a home to different cultures and a rustic spirit, the Deep South stands out from other regions with its certain characteristics. Thus, the effects of these regional elements helped shape the stereotype that the Deep South is a mythical land.
Louisiana is one of the Deep South states, its capital is Baton Rouge and the most populous city is New Orleans. Louisiana's pre-statehood past was dynamic as it was governed under various flags, and New Orleans owes its current cultural richness to the presence of many different cultures over the years, including African slaves and Caribbean immigrants.
Some may know the city from Anne Rice’s novel "Interview with the Vampire," which revolves around the life of vampire Louis Pointe du Lac who travels around New Orleans' gloomy, gothic graveyards. Even though there are many legends about the city, one thing is true: It is the place where jazz music was born and it has played a huge part in New Orleans culture.
"It's a special, special place. Special place in the United States and the world. I mean, when you look at the south texture, it's different, like Louisiana stands out. Definitely," said Craig Flory, highlighting the importance of New Orleans in terms of its colorful culture.
"There's Cajun music outside of the city and that is also traditional music that is very much alive now and has been for generations. There's a long tradition of folk music in Louisiana that is stayed alive, which is rare in our country," Flory added.
It should be noted that none of the band members are from New Orleans. Yet, their unique way of reflecting the New Orleans culture and jazz is noteworthy.
One of the legends of jazz, Louis Armstrong, also known by the nicknames "Satchmo," "Pops" and, later, "Ambassador Satch," was also a native New Orleans all-star virtuoso. His style was mainly based on improvising and interpreting popular songs to meet New Orleans jazz standards. Yet, his improvisations went beyond mere remakes, they were detailed, innovative and bold in contrast to the cheerful melodies that other musicians attempted.
Throughout his career, he had the opportunity to play with many important names of his time. Among these names are musicians who shaped jazz music such as Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
Yet, the famous jazz trumpeter and singer behind hits such as "What a Wonderful World,” “Hello, Dolly,” ”Star Dust” and "La Vie En Rose” has been mostly criticized by the African American community as he was considered a sellout or an echo of "Uncle Tom."
When I ask the members of Tuba Skinny how they would define their artistic creations, they replied: "A mix of a lot of, I mean, jazz is a mix of a lot of styles, but it's like, we kind of play sort of the lineup. The instrumentation is similar to early jazz bands. More like the early New Orleans jazz, like early Louis Armstrong."
"Some of our songs are from the '20s, but like blues, blues singers. And we interpret them with our lineup. We also play rhythm and blues, some R&B but with our tuba, banjo and horn. So, you know, like old rock and roll," they added.
They also blend ragtime – a syncopated musical style that had an explosive effect in New Orleans, especially between 1890 and 1920. It was not just played by pianists, it was also picked up by orchestras. Orchestras blended “ragtime” music with the army march and turned it into a new trend. The combination of these two different styles with musical instruments such as the trumpet, saxophone and piano attracted the attention of listeners.
British writer Neil Gaiman is among the band's fans.
"Our connection with him was actually mostly through his wife Amanda Palmer, who's a musician. They have a big house in upstate New York, in Woodstock and host many artists at their homes. We also stayed there," they said.
Although some of the members have been to Istanbul before, they are visiting for the first time as a group. Noting that he especially loves the Turkish cuisine, Flory said that the people are also very kind and warm.
We get "different feelings in each different neighborhood," he added.
When they start to play their music in the Küçükçekmece Amphitheater, an ever-increasing crowd started to sway. Also at the end of the performance, Küçükçekmece Municipality Culture and Social Affairs Director Güney Özkılınç presented the group with a bouquet of flowers after their lively show.
The band got its name after a passerby sarcastically pointed at sousaphone player Todd Burdick, shouting: "Hey, look, it's Tuba Skinny!" The comment was a reference to "Tuba Fats," also known as Anthony Lacen, who was New Orleans' most famous tuba player and fought for the rights of street musicians. The band then decided to christen their group name "Tuba Skinny."
The band does not have an official Youtube page so the videos of their performances are mostly posted by fans. Their "tuba" might be skinny, but it is undoubtedly powerful.