Notes on Panel Discussion: “What Is Jazz?”


Caner Beklim (Moderator): TRT Istanbul Radio Programmer

Murat Beser: Milliyet Music Writer

Tuncel Gulsoy:  Jazz Magazine Writer

Seda Binbasgil: Jazz Magazine Writer

Selen Gulun: Musician

This panel discussion organised by Akbank Art Centre on 11th October 2008, searched for the definition of jazz and what is included in this definition.

Gulsoy, being the first speaker, started his words by suggesting two books about jazz: “The Jazz Book from Ragtime to Fusion and Beyond” (Caz Kitabi) by Joachim E. Berendt and “Cazin Icinden” by Cuneyt Sermet. Jazz is a lifestyle, he stated, emphasising freedom.  Following the elitism problem in jazz brought forward in the previous panel discussion, he underlined the difference between the terms “intellectual” and “elite”; expressing that jazz is an intellectual music  genre, but must not be elitist, privileging upper classes.

Tunçel Gülsoy

Tunçel Gülsoy

Gulun shared Gulsoy’s opinion on jazz and freedom relationship. She defined jazz as the audio version of what has been lived and felt. Gulun also took attention that many music styles can be collected under the umbrella of jazz. As jazz is understandable even by the children from Afyon, as was told in the previous panel discussion, it is easy to share with other people, being a tool for dialogue.

Binbasgil preferred a more academic style than the other speakers. She mentioned two distinctive characteristics of jazz: improvisation and swing. But she also added that jazz can also exist without these components. For instance, neither all the improvised music pieces are jazz; nor all jazz pieces include improvisation or a component of surprise. Swing also follows the same rule: swing songs are defined as jazz, but jazz can also exist without swing: the free jazz movement of 1960s is a good example to clarify this. Another point Binbasgil underlined is that jazz is USA’s folk music, not ours. This is an obstacle for Turkish people to embrace jazz. The culture and history of the said societies are different. Additionally, jazz was a product of counter-culture once upon a time: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, being one of the most powerful songs in the music history; which protests lynch and massacre of black people in Southern USA; illustrates the then protest spirit of jazz. Not accepted by major record labels, an indie one released this song. Another example that Binbasgil gave was Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite”: this song from 1960s is ornamented by Abbey Lincoln’s screams to take attention to slavery, racism and Black Consciousness Movement.  “Song for Che” by Charlie Haden is another example, being from the 1970s. But then jazz has been commercialised, by the white musicians who inherited this music from its black creators. Binbasgil also pointed out that jazz is made visible by these white musicians.

Beser entered the discussion from a different angle: where jazz stands politically and socially. He mentioned the famous theory of Marxism, “the base determines the superstructure.” Beser stated that this is also valid for jazz, seen as a product of American bourgeois, while being the music of African proletariat. This class reductionist approach indicates the backward evolution that today’s jazz struggles with: the elites see themselves as “privileged” since they enjoy. This is a sign of disconnection with the society and is rather reactionist: Beser thinks that the rising reaction also spreaded to jazz. Jazz today is tried to become stereotyped and a genre to listen solely in jazz clubs. Opposing this elitist circle, Beser put forth the idea of a jazz club where students could afford to be its audience. He suggested two books like Gulsoy: “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music” (Dogaclama) by Derek Bailey and “Story of Jazz: Bop and Beyond” (Tarih Boyunca Caz) by Franck Bergerot. He also recommended the biography of Miles Davis. Beser also emphasised the necessity to define jazz again and again in every different phase since jazz changes according to the political field.

Murat Beşer

Murat Beşer

Tuncag, this time being part of the audience, also contributed to the discussion, to answer why jazz cannot be fully embraced in Turkey: firstly, the polyphonic harmonic structure of jazz is different from the Turkish monophonic structure. Besides, Turkish people want to hear a human voice; they get bored during the long solos. Another reason is the education level of people.

Hülya Tunçağ

Notes on Panel Discussion “Listening To and Playing Jazz Music Today”

Hulya Tuncag (Moderator): Jazz Programmer22.10.2008

Orhan Kahyaoglu: Journalist

Ayse Tutuncu: Musician

Hakan Atala: Archivist and Lale Record Store Owner

Kerim Selcuk: AK Music Distribution

Although jazz has been born as music of the streets, being created by poor people; the perception of jazz today has been evolved into an elitist one, especially in Turkey. Hence this panel discussion organised by Akbank Art Centre on 9th October 2008, went into this opposition, which is the source of endless discussions.

Kahyaoglu firstly started to talk, touching on Adorno’s jazz criticism; “Über Jazz” (On Jazz), published in 1936. Then jazz meant swing, being the popular music of the 1930s. Kahyaoglu also noted that jazz has been sophisticated after the bebop period (1940s). He underlined that the status of jazz as music of the streets takes its roots from the Mediterranean culture, leaning on “openness to coincidences” and this can also be seen in Istanbul.

Tuncag in her turn explained one of her memories to enlighten the discussion: when she went to Afyonkarahisar Jazz Festival, she was asked to explain jazz to school children in a village’s primary school. The children were very poor, but also ready to listen to her. While she was thinking how to illustrate jazz to them, she drew a Louisiana map on the black board, and explained them how jazz was created by the poor workers in the cotton fields. Then she drew an Afyon map and tried to connect the both regions and their people, comparing the similar climates and working conditions of the slaves. Then she played work songs of that time. Tuncag took attention to the fact that jazz, being perceived as the field of interest of the elites, can be embraced even by poor village children, if they are given the opportunity to hear it.

Hülya Tunçağ

Hülya Tunçağ

Tutuncu also shared a memory of her about Alanya Jazz Festival: she played in the Kizilkule Square, in an open-air concert. The audience and the atmosphere were naturally very different from the ones that she is used to: children who ride their bikes, middle-aged and even old village women were in the Square to listen to her. Her conclusion was similar to Tuncag’s anti-elitist one: she is sure that jazz can be brought even to Anatolia. So the opposite approach (defending that the Anatolians would not understand jazz, because it is so complicated) is totally wrong. Moreover, she questioned the concept of “understanding jazz”. She emphasised that even one does not “understand” jazz, it can make one feel or remember something: a sense or a memory… Besides, she underlined that this is also valid for all the arts: one does not have to understand an artwork, but he can definitely enjoy it.

Ayşe Tütüncü

Ayşe Tütüncü

The panel was enriched with the questions and comments from the audience: these indicated technology-arts relationship: illegal downloading, pirate albums and sales levels of jazz albums.

Selcuk and Atala indicated that sales of jazz albums are very low, but it is not a situation peculiar to Turkey. They stated that their job is difficult because it is not profitable, but they do it because they love it.