As far as I can remember, I have listened to Selim Selçuk for the first time in 1987 at Bodrum Mavi. Erkan Oğur and Ali Perret were the other two members of the trio. I used to live abroad back then and came back to Turkey during the summer months and I met him again in the summer of 1989 as the owner of Naima Jazz Club. Nama, located in a building owned by the family in Arnavutköy, has a very special place in Istanbul’s jazz history with the beauty of its venue, the quality of the bands it hosted and its scope. This successful venue closed it doors in 1992 due to Selim Selçuk’s decision to move abroad. It would be reopened in 2008 in Kuruçeşme by Selçuk, who had returned from overseas for good, only to close down again for good on the night of its first anniversary due to a disagreement about rent with the owner of the space. I spoke with Selçuk in 2010 as a part of my research on jazz venues in Istanbul, and learnt about the sad story of Naima, which closed down before it could celebrate its first anniversary.
I didn’t hear much about him for a while, of course, I could be in fault about this. After coming across ‘Bir Tatlı Huzur Almaya Geldik’ radio program on NTV Radio and then later ‘Babamın Şarkıları’ on TRT Music TV channel, I realized that Selim Selçuk was at a crossroads in his life and there has been an important change in his life. Because I had not thought of or realized that Selim Selçuk, the jazz drummer I have listened to and knew of before, might have a musical connection with prominent musician and composer Münir Nurettin Selçuk (he is one of the most important names in Turkish traditional music, and “the last” representative of Ottoman music tradition for many ethnomusicologists). Selim Selçuk, as Münir Nurettin’s son, should have been one of the main people to speak to about the question of why our jazz musicians do not appropriately draw from our traditional music, a question that has been bothering me for years. I thought it would be the best to ask him about the relationship between jazz and traditional music and thankfully he did not turn me down, I got the opportunity to converse with him twice. I should emphasize that the paragraphs below are notes drawn from these interviews.
We didn’t only speak about the questions that have been bothering me, of course, I wanted to ask and learn about what is going on in his life as far as jazz is concerned. Selçuk talked about two album projects. The first one already has a title: Miles Kucles. Yes, this pseudonym makes a rather nice reference to World Saxophone Quartet’s Miles Davis tribute album Selim Sevad (which also has Miles Davis’s piece Selim, the inspiration for the title of the album).
Selim Selçuk said that this album will consist of his own compositions and there would be six pieces from different periods and with different styles. And as far as I understood, we will soon be able to listen to this album, at least on digital platforms. It might also be released as an LP in the future depending on the digital sales. Its content: It could be seen as a selection of pieces from 1985-1989 and some from the later periods (for example 1992-1996), a compilation that lies out the important steps in Selçuk’s life as he matured as a musician.
The second album project hasn’t been recorded yet but it has its demos, compositions and arrangements ready. The second album has more of an “acid-jazz” taste with “funky” pieces and requires a band with 8-10 members. From what I understand, Selçuk has a lot of compositions collected and he wants them to be performed and heard at this point in his life. Now let’s focus on the other issue at hand: Selim Selçuk’s introduction to music, his growing up in the household of an undoubtedly masterful musician, the influence of his famous musician brother, Timur Selçuk, 10 years his senior, on his own music, him playing in his brother’s band and ultimately of him gaining recognition as a jazz musician. Selim Selçuk was born in 1956. His father Münir Nurettin was 57 years old when Selim was born. He was at the top of his famous career, but also in the beginning of the era when the school of music he created had started to crumble, he might even have been aware of this. I don’t want to give his name, but he used to be very displeased when he heard a young singer, who was quickly gaining popularity in those years, on the radio and told the others to turn this constantly “baa-ing” singer.
We should take a breather here and emphasize a couple of points about his father’s musicianship. Münir Nurettin isn’t only the “last” classical representative of the Ottoman music tradition, but also possibly the first in modernizing that genre as well. He has an effective punch in his sound through the singing technique he had learnt in the West (he went to Paris in 1928 before he was 30 years old and lived there for two years). Not only is he a very educated soloist taught by incredible teachers, but also he has created a new era with his fantastic compositions, creating popular pieces liked by everyone, and modernizing Istanbul’s “elite” taste in music—he is the founding father of an urban style which redefined this taste. He brought traditional music, which was fundamentally a “chamber” music to “halls” (high-quality cinema halls which also doubled in function as concert halls back in the day), used female back singers, didn’t refuse to use microphones and loudspeakers and thus created a whole new sound, woke outfits like tuxedos, chitchatted with the audience with his smooth Istanbul-Turkish and tried to make sincere conversation as a music person. Shortly put, Münir Nurettin is a leading artist who combined a modernist performance with traditional Ottoman music and integrated this to the new entertainment rituals of the city. However, his understanding of entertainment is fundamentally conservative; even though he winks at what was popular, and even if he performed his music in cinema halls, he never “lowers” his class to a casino musician. Even though he is a modernist, he does not belong to the dominant understanding of entertainment in the new city (dancing, drinking, common). And perhaps, this attitude becomes the reason of his “loss” that is to come in the following years.
The other school of music, let’s call them the other modernists, lead by Müzeyyen Senar, would gentrify the casinos (distinguish them from folk music venues, bars, pavilions) and transform them into concert halls for a genre (“Türk Sanat Müziği” meaning Classical Turkish Music) that has nothing to do with the traditional other than a figurative feeling. The young star Zeki Müren especially would become the leading names in this transformation, build a bridge between music and cinema and expand this enjoyment through Anatolia. We shouldn’t forget that Münir Nurettin also starred in a couple of movies, but his was an elite and limited effort. Zeki Müren’s aesthetics go hand-in-hand with Yeşilçam movies of those years. Therefore we can say this: Even though Münir Nurettin is the first “modernizer” of Ottoman traditional music, the real “modernizers” (in a sociological sense, transformer) are casino singers and their search isn’t limited to the center of the city or the surroundings of it, in contrast to Münir Nurettin (he wishes to shape the understanding of entertainment in the city center), they wished to be listened by everyone, everywhere in the city. And so they were. Modernization of traditional music at the stage can be called the total collapse of elitism.
Selim Selçuk would experience all the advantages (the youngest, the most spoiled) of being the last child of Münir Nurettin in a world like this, growing up in the family house at the end of the 1950s, and also the disadvantages (expected to obey). This child, clearly beloved by his father, with an obvious talent for music, would listen to Western musics (classical and popular) in his house due to his mother being a theater artist. His brother (Timur Selçuk), who is 10 years older than him and has influenced him during the first years of his career, was already famous. Little Selim would play in his brother’s band in the upcoming years and his brother’s compositions and style is more similar to popular French music in those years. We learn from what Selim Selçuk explains that despite this, he took lessons from master musician Kâni Karaca with his father’s request in the same time period to learn Ottoman music and received piano lessons from Jirayr Aslanyan. Such a young person would be more inclined towards the West in such a world and living in such a cultural climate. Selçuk followed that path, but would he forget what he learnt from Kâni Karaca? We now understand that he did not.
His career started in his brother’s orchestra, playing popular Western music as an adolescent, and this ultimately lead him to learn about jazz. His affinity to jazz starts with his joining İstanbul Gelişim Orkestrası in 1970. He has a serious professional career despite his young age. He cannot not sustain his academic life, which started at Galatasaray, his grades start to drop, he fails his classes and changes schools; Şişli High School. He talks about a period that makes me feel tried only by reading about it. For example, İsmet Sıral on one hand and Selmi Andak on the other. 1975 Eurovision Contest, the band that performs Semiha Yankı’s song. A trip to New York with İnci Çayırlı during the same time period, a tour in Moscow with Modern Folk Üçlüsü in 1976.
This typical routine of trying to survive within the framework of being a jazz musician in Turkey isn’t surprising; but it is rather thought-provoking. This life and career is almost like a proof of the impossibility of surviving merely through performing jazz, something that is possibly only for a few musicians. In his own words, Selçuk still sees himself as a jazz musician and drummer. Another turn in the road shapes up when he closes Naima down to move to New York for a second time. He doesn’t only perform as a musician there, but also studies jazz at Mannes College. The school’s curriculum is dominated by the classical period of jazz, learning and performing its examples due to the education philosophy of the school. This period caused him to drift away from jazz (as it was taught and emphasized at the school) and leads him to play in rock bands for 2-3 years. He would understand that this period was a developmental one. Because, he would happily realize that he can utilize his improved physical condition as he gained from playing rock (being a rock drummer requires much more physical effort compared to being a jazz drummer) and the change in his playing style (more assertive) when he starts to play jazz once more.
He also realizes another fact in the conceptual level. He talks about a feeling which is easily understood by any musician raised in Turkey who visits New York. Being a musician in New York standards (he also means himself) is not easy at all, and it requires so much effort and practice. You will understand this fact if your ego isn’t off the roof and if you aren’t inclined to fool yourself. Selim Selçuk talks humbly about this and also cannot help but add that he went there to improve his own musicianship and perception of jazz.
I want to keep the rest short, and talk about these current years. Selim Selçuk starts to live through his father’s music, breathe though them when he returns to Turkey for good in the 2000s. This isn’t actually a coincidence, because this was triggered by something. He decides to work on programs that reminds him of his father after this trigger. So how was he triggered?
One day, while listening to a street interview during a TV program, he hears this question: Who is Münir Nurettin Selçuk? And he is upset by the answers he hears. People on the street have forgotten about Münir Nurettin! Of course, some of his popular songs are known and sang during special occasions, but there is no longer a connection between these pieces and Münir Nurettin. What is worse, the contributions and importance of Münir Nurettin’s performance and compositions in our music history have been completely forgotten.
I tried to explain to him, as much as I can, that this is not about forgetting, but more so about a sociological transformation, that it is impossible for a serious musician to forget about Münir Nurettin, that this forgetfulness of the people on the street directly correlates with the dynamics of popular culture, that this had already started to happen during the casino era. I am not sure if I was able to convince him or not, but I think this transformation in Selim Selçuk’s career (the transformation from a mainstream jazz drummer to a percussionist in an orchestra which performs his father’s music) is far more interesting. Ultimately I asked him this near the end of our conversation: I asked him if his compositions have influences from traditional music when he said he had been composing a lot lately. He told me that of course, there was. So, did he have such compositions before? Not really. So why now? Now he is mature enough to do such a thing. Some things take time to become a possibility.
The dialogues didn’t happen verbatim as I relayed to you above, but the his replies shaped up on a similar plane, though with different words. Selim Selçuk isn’t only in the pursuit of his father’s but also his own music. He is a traveller who has made some serious contemplations on this, searching for his father, himself, his own culture, one who is never satisfied with what he finds and continues travelling. This is ultimately a tough and lonely road and ultimately it is the road itself that matters. Godspeed.
Selim Selçuk’s “Miles Kuçles” album will soon be released under the label Pb Müzik. The band on the album includes Meriç Demirkol (as), Ali Perret (p), Matt Hall (b).