“I like the fact that jazz is free within certain boundaries, because it has become something that gives me the opportunity to use all that I have learnt and heard. That is why I became so involved in free jazz. I think my soul cannot be confined in formats and limitations.”
Can Kozlu is a Turkish doyen jazz artist. Born in 1954, music entered Kozlu’s life when he started to take piano lessons at the age of 6. However, his teacher noticed after some time that Kozlu wasn’t reading the notes, but that instead he was improvizing. That put an end to the lessons. He played drums with Saint-Joseph High School’s light music orchestra. He studied economy at Paris Sorbonne University and jazz theory at CIM Music School. He has worked with many incredible musicians here. He studied at Berklee College of Music. After completing his music education, he started giving concerts at various places in the world, and he still continues to do so. He has taught many jazz musicians we know very well now. He continues to play and to enable others to play.
One of the records Can Kozlu would take to a deserted island is Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer. He played “Ponta de Areia” during my ‘Bizim Cazcılar’ program at NTV Radio. This piece has a significant meaning for him. Here is the decipher of his announcement: “Because this piece was the reason my daughter got involved with music… I noticed she was humming the melody of this piece when she was only 4 years old. It sounds like a simple melody but has a tough to grasp rhythm. I told her to sing it again. When she hummed the exact same melody I started her with piano lessons the next day. So this piece reminds me of her.”
The other pieces he picked are Herbie Hancock’s famous Maiden Voyage, Burak Bedikyan’s Idee Fixe, Keith Jarrett’s All The Things You Are from his ‘Tribute’ album. You can play one of these to accompany this interview if you wish.
Jazz Isn’t a Privilege, It Is My Right
My mother was an amateur classical pianist. I mean back in the 1960s. We used to live in Ankara back then. She would bring LPs from abroad, and they were really hard to find in those years. Important pianists and piano teachers such as Kamuran Gündemir, İdil Biret, Vahdet Nuri Esmen, Mithat Fenmen would come to our house. There is a certain enthusiasm when one is 3-5 years old. Some peope come over, they listen to music in such a serious way. There was someone called Vahdet Esmen among these people. She had a long life story, I think she was coloratura soprano in Vienna during war. The man she was in love with dies during the war, so she comes back to Turkey. She was everybody’s friend and had a ‘saloon’ like those in Europe during the 19th century. For example, İdil (Biret) was about 14-15 years old back then, we would go to listen to the concert and they would play there. Of course, what they played there was really important. One day Ms. Vahdet told my mother “They look inclined, make this child get piano lessons” to my mother about me. That’s how I started playing at the age of 6. I started going to a normal elementary school. I was taking piano lessons. I had a teacher whom I guessed came from the Russian school of playing. I advanced really fast but it was a little bit traumatic when she hit my hands with a ruler. I got into depression two years later and they made me stop taking these lessons. I didn’t play for 1-2 years. Then I started playing again with a softer, and probably younger (around 20-25 years of age) teacher who gave me more freedom (I guess they told him about my previous problems). I was playing one day, looking at the notes, and he said “You aren’t reading the notes, you are improvizing.” I had discovered jazz without even knowing anything about it. Then the lessons ceased.
We Can’t Say I Took Many Music Lessons Until a Certain Age…
I started playing the drums with the high school orchestra when I was about 13-14. That apparently was jazz. There wasn’t any mention of jazz back then, shortly put, there are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, famous British rock bands. I cannot say I took many music lessons until my 20s. I followed a long path to get to where I am. However, it is very helpful to play at a music band, even if it is rock, at a young age, especially for those who play accompaniment instruments. Boğaziçi University’s dean Abdullah Kuran’s son gifted me the LPs of his father when I was 16-17 years old. I started listening to Lee Alston, John Coltrane etc… I started to listen to them without much intent. I liked them, but that was it. They were hard to access, things that had symbols and syntaxes that I did not recognize. But then something happened that changed all our lives.
Jazz Is Victorious!
There were about 180-190 groups attending to Milliyet Newspaper’s Music Competition for High Schools in the year when we were competing. They selected 10-15 of those. We would tour Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir for the finals. We would play at sports and exhibition halls. We were selected in the top 10, and then we got the first place in both performance and composition branches. We achieved this success (now it sounds funny) by playing jazz and this was a huge motivation for us. Imagine, you are 16-17 years old and the newspaper headlines supportively say “Jazz is Victorious!” This is how we started walking this path. The good aspect of this is—I saw jazz not as a privilege but as a right. I have been playing it since I was 16-17 years old and I have never felt that feeling of being left out as a jazz musician. This is my style and this is what I play. Then I went abroad.
My Heart Took a Different Path…
I wanted to study at Berklee just like all the other musicians back then. However, I lost my father at an early age. I asked my mother and she said “No, son, we don’t have the necessary finances” and that was the end of it. Because I went to a French school, I knew how to speak the language and my diploma was valid in France. So I went there and studied mathematics for 2 years. I was playing in a rock band. Around that time, in 1976-1977, a new jazz school was founded. I started to attend their classes and started to have a dilemma. I was learning about jazz but in the evening I was playing a more progressive genre. I got lost, they were in the process of releasing a record. I told them that my heart took a different path. Then I continued studying and received a scholarship. Then I started teaching. These were great years but some bureaucratic problems came up. I couldn’t get a working permit. They tried really hard for me but it just didn’t happen. One day I met someone from Berklee at the airport during one of my tours. He asked me why I looked upset and I told him why. “I attended a school in France for five years, I have been living here for years, but they don’t want me here.” He arranged a scholarship in three weeks and my visa permit and I went to Boston. I didn’t go back to France for a long time. I think something inside me broke, I understood that years later. We opened for the autumn festival in Paris in 1989. 4 thousand people attended. All my old friends came over, so did my teachers, and I understood that this was my sweet revenge. Then I returned back here.
If You Are The Most Clever Person In The Room, Then You Are In The Wrong Room!
I always tried to create occasions to play and practice with people more advanced than myself. There is a saying “If you are the most clever person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” I learnt both music and playing the drums from other musicians. I don’t find the group in which I am the best musician attractive. The most important musicians in my generation, in my opinion, are Erkan Oğur, Aydın Esen, Arto Tunçboyacıyan. I am talking about this geography. My path crossed theirs and I had the opportunity to work with them. Therefore I didn’t have the chance to sit down and write something myself. I lived together with Aydın for 2-3 years. You don’t sit next to a genius who can write a symphony in ten minutes and think to write two or three lines yourself. You focus on your own work. Though, I am thinking of forming a band, playing and recording these days.
Some Things Could Change In This Country
We founded the Jazz Performance Department in Bilgi University. Ali Perret spent the most effort for this, so did I. I will tell you why it was founded. The dean brought me a suggestion in 1996. It wasn’t something I could do or handle by myself. Ali Perret is a friend of mine, a great musician whom I know from Boston. He is also a professional sailor. He doesn’t want to come, etc. I want to persuade him but I don’t know what to say. Finally I told him “We cannot change some things just the two of us, if we raise some people it will have its specific weigh in. In the future some things could change in this country.” Ali is an idealist. He joined in when he heard this argument. We started in 1997. Private classes, meaning one teacher per student, is a very costly method. In 2003-2004 the management said they no longer can handle this, and we told them “Ok, but don’t close the department. Composition and music technologies can go on and the performance classes can be closed down.” Of course, we received a lot of reaction from the jazz world, because we raised many musicians in those 7-8 years. When I look back, I can say that this was one of the best things I have ever done.
My Soul Cannot Be Bound
I like the fact that jazz is free within certain boundaries. It was certain that I wouldn’t be able to find this in classical music. I became familiar with folk music when I was abroad and played with many musicians. This includes Cubans and Africans. I played Indian music, I played R&B with African-Americans. However, they don’t allow you much space in folk music. The same goes for Turkish folk music. So you cannot play outside the boundaries. Therefore I couldn’t do this for a long time, but fed on it for my own purposes as I played in these circles. Because jazz has become something that gave me the opportunity to use all that I have learnt and heard. That is why I became so involved in free jazz. I think my soul cannot be confined in formats and limitations. That’s why jazz drew me in.
There Are No Written Rules
I think the most important aspects of jazz are radical individuality and its understanding of community. You take the mic and you play a solo, but at the same time there is an incredible sense of community. There is never a sense of “I did this” because you have 2-3 more people with you in the back. I know this because I played African music; this tradition comes partly from Africa and without this, there is no such thing as jazz. So jazz isn’t only playing Blue Note, or playing certain rhythms. This is in its soul. Whether you are a known or unknown pianist, you have to abide by this. There are no written rules. You bake on the stage through the years, but I cannot play with people who doesn’t see me eye-to-eye on this or those who disregard this aspect anymore. If the soloist stumbles, you support them; if they do their job great, you say “Good job mate!”
Jazz Is Glorified Folk Music
%99 of the music in the world is folk music. This includes jazz as well. When I was a young, purist jazz musician, I heard a saying by Erik Saite. He called jazz glorified folk music. I was offended by this, and didn’t understand what he really meant. Jazz actually is folk music and I play this as folk music as well. So, I played it during house parties in the States. When you step outside the boundaries of folk music, what we call Classical Western Music is actually such a small part in all the musics of the world. Maybe it lived in the streets of Vienna in the 1800s but it is hard to keep it alive 150 years later. Therefore, folk music has its own unique power. Jazz is a kind of folk music too. But it took the more advanced knowledge of harmony in Europe, and combined that with the African musical understanding…
You Are As Good As You Have Played Last Evening
Nobody has asked me for 35 years what I have done at Berklee. You are as good as you have played last evening. So we don’t give concerts and get ecstatic afterwards, because we are perpetually being tested. Classical musicians are a bit like that. I find their situation very tough. They study a single piece for months or years. Oh my god! What a huge stress! Maybe they think what I do is tough as well. However, if you play jazz great one evening and then rest for three weeks you lose it. World doesn’t end if you play subpar either, you can play better in 2 days. The common thing in good jazz musicians seem to be self discipline. Nobody tells you to sit down and study your style for 4-5 hours. Because of the people whose LPs we play, it takes a long time to improvize. I don’t want to bring the young generation down, but practicing 20-30 years is a must.
Jazz Is Getting Old
Jazz became a bit too elitist. I find this odd. This genre used to be played at clubs, these clubs were its laboratory; it is now very glorified and lost its essence. It is following the path of classical music. It became prestigious, a genre of concert music. It didn’t used to be like that. It lost its touch with the audience because of this glorification. I don’t know the numbers in Turkey, but jazz audience is getting smaller in size according to Americans. It is getting old, those were the statistics I saw—the average age of the listener used to be 37, now it is at the end of 50s. It is becoming very similar to classical music in this aspect. This doesn’t mean that unique things don’t happen. But it no longer is what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Classical music has been alive for 200 years. This genre probably has lived for 80-90. I am curious about what will happen…