LOCAL JAZZ HEROES
Okay Temiz was born in Istanbul in 1939. It was his mother who introduced music to ‘master’ percussionist and composer Okay Temiz, who is one of the most important representatives of jazz in Turkey. She was also his first teacher. He has lived alone in a forest in Norway for years, and composed most of his pieces there. According to Temiz, a jazz musician should be alone with with nature and nurture himself with it.
“It is great to take a musical instrument from the hands of a musician. It hold memories, and the musician has played and worked with that instrument for years. There are very valuable drums. We show these to all the kids who visit here. There are those made from turtle skeletons, snake skin, iguana skin, different kinds of bamboos, from different kinds of seashells. These are very special. The children won’t be able to see things like these elsewhere again. This is actually a living museum. Because we play these instruments. There are no instruments decoratively hanging on the walls. They all work, sound great and are ready to be performed with; they are all handpicked. Children notice these instruments at an early age. They experience high quality music forms and styles. Unfortunately, music genres that are broadcasted are really bad. The cheap music that we listen to, I am not naming names, is poison. There should be alternatives to get rid of those genres.”
Okay Temiz explained these to me at Ritim Atölyesi in Galata when we met for the interview you are about to read. I saw many instruments here for the first time in my life. They each have their stories and purposes; Temiz made some of them himself, and brought some back from far away corners of the world. The reason for this is to find every sound, to hear and to play them all. This way, I learnt how interested Okay Temiz is in musical instruments. This place really is like a museum, or a temple of instruments.
Now, let’s take a look at Okay Temiz’s journey in music…
“I Learnt Much By Working In The Fields”
What kind of a household did you grow in? Could you tell us how music entered your life?
I was born in Istanbul. My mother was the daughter of a military officer. My dad was a pilot, a test pilot. My mother’s father made my mom take music lessons as a child. Oud lessons, Turkish Music lessons, ‘cümbüş’ (a Turkish stringed instrument) lessons. Let’s call it Turkish Classical Music. I don’t want to call it ‘Art music’. My mother graduated from Muğla Musiki Muallemiye, which was a conservatory. She played the oud when she was pregnant with me, and I heard those sounds before I was born. My 40 years-old interest in the technology of musical instruments I make comes from my father, because he was interested in mechanics. We grew up in Çatalca. We had a big farm. We had 450 sheep, cows, many horses, goats, ducks, geese, and chicken. I wouldn’t get off the seat of the tractor. I grew up working in the fields, farming. That is why I know the farming fields very well. My application of Turkish Music in jazz comes from these fields. From knowing the folklore… I think this is because of the radio channels I used to listen to. Balkan channels had stronger signal in Çatalca, compared to the Turkish channels. You would listen to Sofia, Athens from Çatalca. Macedonian stations, stations in Belgrade, Yugoslavian stations… I fed from these. The radio channels in Turkey were nice, too. They would play good music. They would play folklore, Turkish Classical Music and Western Classical Music. There wasn’t a pop craze back then. Therefore, we nurtured ourselves with such music. These were the main foundations of my interest in music. That’s how my childhood went.
How did you decide to be a musician?
My mother said “You should enter the conservatory, you have talent.” I entered, but they gave me the wrong instrument. I was interested in rhythm. I would keep the beat while my mother played the oud. Of course this didn’t mean that I would become a drummer in the symphony orchestra. I wanted to play the trumpet, but that didn’t happen. They didn’t find it suitable for me, because my teeth weren’t aligned properly. It had nothing to do with that! Then I asked to play the double bass, and they told me I was too short. I wanted the trombone, the other strings. They found reasons not to give me those as well. I was angry! Then they lead me to the percussive instruments. Of course, I was angry when they gave me those. But I worked really hard, and because of that I was finished with all the methods in a year. I started to give extra performances during the weekends, and that’s how we started to enter the scene. Of course, I would keep this on the down low, because it was forbidden. I was finally caught and they suspended me. This actually worked out well. I jumped right into the music scene.
How was your love for jazz born when you were so involved with Turkish Music?
I always listened to the American musicians. We would listen to the best and buy their records as a child and student. There was American military officers around when we used to live in Ankara, we would ask them and they would bring jazz LPs from their jazz clubs. Those records were influential. There was a jazz program on the BBC Radio. We would listen to that on the short wave. That was very beneficial. I think it was beneficial for all the musicians. It was a small frequency, it would switch over even with the smallest turn of the knob. We would be so happy when we actually found the frequency. We found it, let’s not let it slip! There were no headphones back then, we would put our ears next to the radio and listen to the orchestras like that. This was the first spark, and a very important one.
“We Would Play Jazz So That The Customers Would Leave At Local Venues”
You said that you were suspended and went into the music scene. What would you play back then? I assume it wasn’t jazz?
I played dance music when I first started to play commercially. But there was a multicultural understanding of dance music back then. They were great. Spanish, Cuban, Portugese melodies, Spanish and French songs, Mediterranean melodies; they were all great. I played all of those. They were quality music. We learnt a lot of things. I played these for 19 years. After those 19 years, I told myself that I would go abroad. I wanted to play jazz. We played jazz in Turkey as well, but secretly, before the customers arrived at the local venues. The waiters would make us switch to dance music as soon as the first customer walked in. We would start playing Italian songs as soon as they entered the venue. And then we would play jazz at midnight so that the customers would leave, as if to say it’s time to leave. They wouldn’t like it because they wouldn’t understand it, and would leave. This went on for years. I have had enough of secretly playing jazz. I decided to go to France. That didn’t work out. I went to Denmark in 1967. There was a small gig. Then we went to Sweden from there. I met jazz musicians in Sweden and that’s how my life as a jazz musician started. I met many famous jazz musicians. I met Don Cherry. They saw my technique and how hard I worked. They saw how great my form was. However, I had to learn about jazz, how to play softer, know more about modern things. I played many different genres while getting my feet wet…
You lived in Sweden for 23 years. What did you do there and why did you decide to come back?
I could almost pass as a Swede. I returned to Turkey, because I got married. My son Tom was born. We decided that Tom should grow up and get an education in Turkey. I also felt it was enough, because I was in Sweden for such a long time. I am the first to bring Turkish jazz to Sweden, along with Ahmet ‘Mafy” Muvaffak Falay. I played the drums and Muvaffak Falay played the trumpet. He had moved to Sweden in 1962. I went there in 1967. They told him that a drummer from Turkey had arrived. We founded an orchestra with Muvaffak, called “Sevda” (meaning ‘Love’). We were the first band to play Turkish pieces. We continued with this for 6-7 years. Then I founded my own band with Swedish musicians. We played oriental music. People loved it and we received a lot of help. I didn’t only play jazz, I did many different things in Sweden. The idea to apply Turkish Music to jazz came from the American musician Don Cherry. With his suggestion, we played Turkish pieces, sufi music, Turkish dance music. We were influenced heavily by the folklore. I went to Sweden to play jazz, but instead I went back to Turkish music, to the mother’s womb. Because this was in demand. Because people were bored of the same old pieces. They were searching for something different. Of course, not everyone. Don Cherry lead this. It was such a big coincidence; we were both in Sweden and we decided to play Turkish pieces. I went to my mother right away and took her notes. I brought back all the tapes I could find to Stockholm. They were very impressed and we started to adapt these for jazz. We were playing Turkish Music in a completely different way. We would remain faithful to the original melodies. I brought many musicians to Sweden to play the best we could.
“I Played Turkish Music Without Corrupting It For Years”
Who came over, did everything go according to plan?
Tuna Ötenel came over, he is a jazz pianist. He also plays the saxophone. Then, violinist Salih Baysal came. He would play in restaurants and cafes in Bodrum. He was later on chosen to be the fourth best violinist in the world. We played in Germany after Sweden. We made records. We weren’t surprised when we saw Salih Baysal being mentioned in a jazz magazine as the fourth best violinist in the world, we knew this would happen. There were those who went on the stage to hug him. Our violinist. People were looking for something, and we were looking for something entirely different. We would play folkloric dance music, they would listen with a completely different mindset. We would play in concert halls. There were two zurna (a type of wind instrument) players who came over; Binali Salman and Ziyaettin Aytekin. Who else… Hacı Tekbilek came, he is a relative of Ömer Ahmet Tekbilek. Faruk Tekbilek, the reed and flute player, his brother came. I brought over many musicians to be able to remain faithful to the originality of Turkish Music. Of course, jazz involves improvisations. I played Turkish Music without corrupting it for years and it received a lot of attention. We received a lot of help from Sweden due to this reason. To support jazz and folklore. If I had played pop, rock or punk, I wouldn’t have received this support. But they were supportive of this type of jazz. Not all jazz is the same. There are many subtypes of jazz. If you played rock-jazz, you wouldn’t be able to receive support from the Swedish Government’s Ministry of Culture. They wouldn’t support pop-jazz. You have to make very special compositions to be eligible. You have to stand out from the rest. Musicians, singers here still tell me :You created us. We are here for you too!” That’s it!
Nature is very important to you. What kind of an environment did you live in Sweden?
I lived alone in a forest for 12 years. The Swedish Government gave me an antique house, you wouldn’t be able to put a nail in one of its walls. It was a beautiful house that was like a museum. I lived there and fed off of that. I would be snowed in on occasion and had to shovel 2 meters of snow to be able to get on the road. Snow machines wouldn’t even be able to come over sometimes. We would shovel the snow manually. My childhood passed in a manner that I already told about—farming on a tractor in Çatalca. I went to Sweden to play jazz, but ended up living in a peaceful environment with short summers, hard winters, but with the cleanest air within the silent and snowy forest. I composed many pices. I have more than 100 compositions. I wrote all of those there. I cannot compose here, it is very hard.
“Jazz Is The Highest Quality Music In The World”
Are all jazz musicians like you?
I don’t think so. Turkish jazz musician is married, has a car, maybe has a summer house. He has a big family, lives together with his mother and father. He didn’t severe his bond with his family members. We have some traditions that do not change. We cannot let those lifestyles go. Jazz music is such a thing that, one needs alone time with himself. With nature. One has to feel the nature. Loneliness is good to some extent, but if one has a supportive spouse, that is great. Children, big families… Those aren’t things that a jazz musician wants. One has to have inner peace. One has to be surrounded by nature. Somewhere chaotic like Istanbul doesn’t work out. It is hard for a jazz musician to live in a place like this.
The jazz audience in Turkey is small, why is this?
They wrote compositions that are easy to listen to for the majority. They didn’t change themselves. People are like this. There are such things in other countries as well, but we lead the way as Turkish people. It should be liked, sold like hamburgers, there should be a constant flow of money. Music is made with the major concern of earning money fast. One shouldn’t make jazz music with the aim of earning money, this is the same in Sweden as well. First, you should be creative. You should play for yourself, that’s the point. You should play jazz for yourself, not for somebody else. Only then you return to your roots, and express your culture. Only then can you overcome your ego. Ego comes into play once you start playing for somebody else. You work to be liked. Jazz is an austere and stark genre. It is a genre that speaks of humanity, and brings inner peace. It is played through knowledge and with care. It is played by inserting yourself in harmonies, without playing attention to other things around you while not being disconnected. It is the highest quality music in the world. One has to give it special treatment both while talking about it and while playing it. Also while listening as well. It is such a special kind of music.