When hearing the word jazz, one would understandably think of New Orleans and the African-American community there that created jazz as a more complex deviation of blues. The new music genre was a huge success and quickly made its way into people’s houses all across the world.
Jazz reached Azerbaijan in the 1920’s and it quickly became listeners’ favourite. The history of jazz in Azerbaijan is tumultuous, having gone through a period of prohibition under Stalin’s regime. But nothing could hinder Azerbaijanis’ love of jazz, who, along the way, started incorporating some traditional folk elements into the music discourse, turning to the subgenre of ethno-jazz.
Emil Afrasiyab, award winning pianist, composer and jazz improviser, and master of accordion Anvar Sadigov, together with his band Qaytağı, came to Brussels on 1 March to give music lovers a taste of Azerbaijani ethno-jazz with a show called “Impression”.
“We picked a special programme for Brussels. I’ve been in Brussels a few times before and I get a very warm energy from its people, that’s why we picked a particular composition for you tonight”, Afrasiyab told the audience. The carefully curated setlist included one of Afrasiyab’s own compositions, called “Letter to Father”, which he dedicated, on the one hand, to all the men who passed away, including soldiers, and, at the same time, to “all mothers, who we would like to see having tears only of happiness”.
Jazz in Azerbaijan
Jazz became a huge success in Azerbaijan in the 1920’s, with pianist Tofig Guliyev and conductor Niyazi creating the first Azerbaijani jazz orchestra in the 1930’s. However, after the Second World War, the genre was forbidden in the Soviet Union, so musicians were forced underground.
In the time of prohibition, in his apartment in the old city of Baku, pianist and composer Vagif Mustafazadeh started incorporating mugham elements into jazz, creating a subgenre. Mustafazadeh is considered the founder of “Azerbaijani jazz”, or jazz-mugham, and although at the time he couldn’t freely play his music to the world, his legacy remained and evolved into what is nowadays called ethno-jazz.
“Just like jazz, mugham is multifaceted, inexhaustible, based on improvisation and possessing different forms. In Baku, a new and already local sub-genre of jazz organically and subtly merged into one, wisely and philosophically revealing to us the intricacies of jazz improvisation in mugham stops”, Rain Sultanov wrote about the emergence of ethno-jazz.
When the prohibition ended, jazz re-surfaced and flourished in Azerbaijan. The Baku International Jazz festival has been held annually since 2005 to celebrate jazz music and encourage and support young, upcoming musicians.
Louis Armstrong once said “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know”. It seems clear that, in Azerbaijan, people don’t listen to jazz, they feel jazz, never asking what it is.