The history of jazz in Iran

Creating a confluence

Jazz made its way into Iran, along with a host of other foreign influences, during the 1960s. In the decade that followed, the music's exposure on Iranian radio helped it achieve a measure of popularity – until the Islamic Revolution came along, a social caesura that brought a long-term ban on secular music. By Bernd G. Schmitz

Take a break for a coffee in Tehran's Museum of Modern Art today and you are quite likely to find yourself relaxing to the strains of Duke Ellington or Ella Fitzgerald. Both were popular favourites with the trendy aficionados of Iran's intellectual jazz scene back in the late 60s when jazz rhythms provided the musical pulse of the well-to-do summer resorts at Mazandaran on the Caspian Sea, such as the famous Motel Qoo hotel in Salman Shahr.

The word jazz – or "jaaz" as Iranians tend to pronounce it – was however initially subject to some misunderstanding. "Because the drum kit was seen as the main instrument in what for most Iranians was a novel style of music, there was a tendency initially to refer to any music that featured it as jazz," says Tehran music producer Ramin Sadighi. "One of the biggest Iranian pop stars of that time, Vigen, for example was dubbed the 'Sultan of Jazz', simply because his band featured a drummer."

Oil and the early jazz clubs

According to Sadighi, the story of jazz in Iran begins in the early 1960s: "The country's oil industry was booming at the time, especially in Khuzestan province in the south-west. Most of the oil extraction back then was done by British and American companies and the employees had their own clubs – in Ahwaz, Khorramshahr and Abadan, for example – where jazz music was played."

In an article published in the book "Jazz World/World Jazz" in 2017, the London-based musicologist and teacher Laudan Nooshin describes jazz as a minority interest in Iran in comparison to pop music, but also points out that Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made use of its growing popularity to further his aim of turning Iran into a secular state along Western capitalist lines.

During that period, of course, guest performances by international music stars were very much welcomed. But guest musicians were evidently just as appreciative of the inspirational potential that travelling to Iran offered. One of them, the American drummer Max Roach, used the opportunity to work with traditional Iranian percussionists and in 1969 performed at the renowned Shiraz Festival of Arts.

Duke Ellington in Isfahan

In 1963, Duke Ellington also appeared on stage in Abadan and Isfahan as part of a tour of Asia sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Three years later, his album 'Far East Suite' was released, with tracks such as 'Isfahan', reflecting the experiences and impressions gathered during the concert tour.

But what did such visits do for the development of Iran's own jazz scene? Were there, in fact, any Iranian jazz musicians at that time? "Yes," says Ramin Sadighi, "but they were cover bands, playing things like 'Take Five' by Dave Brubeck, which was very popular then. But things changed in the 1970s when many groups were looking to take a new direction. Some turned to rock and roll; others stayed with jazz, but tended to stick to playing standards and big-band jazz."

Kurosh Ali Khan and Iranian TV

It was Lloyd Miller, a key figure in the story of Iranian jazz, who was chiefly responsible for broadening the musical horizons of many of these artists. Born in Glendale, California, in 1938, the American ethnomusicologist, composer and multi-instrumentalist spent seven years in Iran from 1970 carrying out research.

With his own jazz programme on Iranian national television channel NIRT, he explored the boundaries of traditional Iranian and modern Western music under the pseudonym 'Kurosh Ali Khan' as well as playing the piano, clarinet and various Persian percussion and string instruments. His great passion was improvisation and sessions with fellow musicians, Iranian and non-Iranian, would make the connections between seemingly contrasting music cultures both visible and audible.

Although the jazz played by Iranians is now more diverse and varied, Ramin Sadighi is reluctant to claim that Persian jazz musicians have a unique acoustic signature, especially given the fact that secular music was banned altogether for over a decade in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"It was not until there was a relaxation of the rules in the 1990s that things began to change. With CD imports from abroad being allowed in, it became possible to buy records by the likes of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. To say that a typically Iranian jazz exists today would not be accurate in my opinion. However, there are elements of traditional Persian music and its modal system that find their way into the jazz played here. Occasional traces of Persian music are also detectable in the rhythms," he says.

Between jazz and chanson

Ramin Sadighi describes one of the bands he produces, 'Quartet Diminished', as a progressive jazz band. But even in the music of Iranian groups that don't see themselves primarily as jazz bands, traces of gypsy swing, klezmer and other jazz-related music are unmistakeably there – groups such as the 'Palett Band' from Tehran, for example, who are popular both in Iran and with exiled Iranians.

This type of interchange between Iran's music scene and the exiled Iranian communities in America and Europe also happens with other artists. Jazz and blues singer Rana Farhan, for example, lives in New York, but her lyrics predominantly reference her former homeland and Persian poetry. 'Paaz', an international collective formed in Cologne by singer Maryam Akhondy, bring things full circle: the band plays new arrangements of well-known compositions from the early days of Iranian radio; their influences merging in a mellifluous musical confluence of jazz and chanson.

Unlike their male counterparts, however, neither Farhan nor Akhondy are permitted to perform in Iran – female soloists are still banned there 29 years after the Islamic Revolution.

Bernd G. Schmitz

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated by Ronald Walker

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