LOCAL JAZZ HEROES
Born in Istanbul in 1940, jazz pianist and composer Emin Fındıkoğlu is the coolest jazz musician I know!
I invited Emin Fındıkoğlu to NTV Radio’s “Bizim Cazcılar” program, which focuses on past and contemporary Turkish jazz musicians. The master jazz artist accepted my invitation.
I learned that he is sort of a difficult man within minutes of meeting him, though I already knew a bit about this. Almost all jazz musicians I converse with talks about themselves. He is such a legend. I told Sevin Okyay “I spoke with Mr. Fındıkoğlu, and he accepted my invitation, we will do the program.” She replied “Alright, but be sensitive about what you ask him İrem.” She also told a couple of stories. I knew she was happily laughing on the inside when I saw her face. We spoke a bit on my questions. I was guessing that he wouldn’t like a majority of the questions I had prepared, because I read his previous interviews and studied my lesson.
From what I hear, he must take a liking to me. I don’t think I am a dislikable person. But when it comes to this crazy jazz musician, I don’t even know how to answer questions about myself.
I have to tell you about our meeting ceremony, we will get to know Fındıkoğlu better through this interview and these anecdotes.
Finally, the meeting day came.
I had listened to him play many times, but he is also just as charismatic when he walks. Don’t let his age fool you, he would surpass any youth. He has the sharpest memory. He looks after himself really well, it is evident. He was carrying a big bag. I asked to carry it for him, but he didn’t let me; I thought he also came prepared. We went into the studio. His first sentence was “Forget about those questions, write these down, I will tell you the questions to ask.” I said okay. I began writing, but I needed his story. The questions wouldn’t work. I told him “Mr. Fındıkoğlu, I will ask these questions as well, but let me ask the questions I prepared beforehand, and we could skip over the ones you don’t like.” He thought about what to do for a minute in a serious fashion. Then, he said “Okay, let’s start” with his cool attitude.
I cannot express how happy I was in that moment. I was anxious and excited, all because of those gossips I have heard about. He told me to start, but we conversed a bit off the record beforehand. I don’t know what had happened, but he started smiling when we was talking. I really liked Mr. Fındıkoğlu. I think he liked me too. He even told me a joke before we started recording, but I don’t know whether I should share it with you. I will just say that it was a joke about my auto control, I don’t remember the reason due to my excitement. Yes, I am from the Black Sea. I think after saying this, I am bound to tell you the joke…
It goes like this:
Temel (an archetypal character in Turkish jokes) bought a concert ticket, and he went in the venue. A pianist walked onto the stage, he was about to give a recital. He looked a bit like someone from the Black Sea (‘laz’ in Turkish) but his name was American. Temel, of course, got suspicious. He went to meet the pianist after the concert had ended. He asked him “How are you brother?” in Turkish. Pianist was surprised and asked Temel how he understood that he was ‘laz’. Temel replied; because all the other pianists pulled their chair towards the piano and you pulled the piano to your chair instead…
And laughter ensued. To listen to this joke from Emin Fındıkoğlu… He likes joking; I admired his love for fun and his energy.
Now, I suggest you play one of the pieces Emin Fındıkoğlu considers to be special (Nina Simone’a “Just in Time” or “Wait Until Fall, Beth Trollan’s “I Thought About You”, Teri Thornton’s “Salty Mama” or “Nature Boy”) to accompany this interview. And imagine Fındıkoğlu, who loves to sing to these songs, accompanying the musicians as you listen…
How were you introduced to jazz, Mr. Fındıkoğlu, how old were you, could you tell us your story?
I started playing at the age of 16, in the Classical Music orchestra of Saint Joseph High School. I started there, because one of my friends played jazz. I really liked it, because I hadn’t heard it before. I asked him “What is this?” and he replied “Jazz”. I asked him how I could be a part of it. He told me I should start playing an instrument first. So how was I to play? He said that my school already had the instruments, I should learn how to play one of those. So that was that. I started playing jazz with a wind instrument. I started to listen to jazz. Then I met jazz musicians.
You decided to play jazz… Could you give some details of this adventure?
After becoming obsessed about this genre, I started to practice with discipline. I was a high school student, and my grades went from very high to a bit mediocre. Because I couldn’t spare time for my studies. Somehow I graduated this way or the other. I would run away and go to the conservatory in the afternoon. In the meanwhile I had started to learn from Cüneyt Sermet. How to distinguish between good music and bad music, things like that. After that, Arif Mardin, when he came back from the States in 1959. I took a lesson from him every week during 1959. This class was actually open to all Turkish musicians, but nobody else showed up. But I went. He cancelled twice in those 52 weeks. It became like a private lesson when nobody else showed up and it was great. Arif Mardin returned to the States after that and got me a scholarship. I finished my military service and went to the States right away.
You lived in Bodrum for a long period…It felt like you stayed away from the music scene, not music itself. Why?
I started to play in Bodrum in the summer of 1980. 4 long summers… And I played every single night for the whole summer. After this, I continued to occasionally play in the summers. I couldn’t have stayed or hidden away in Bodrum in those 80s summers… Because BİLSAK started in 1984. BİLSAK Jazz Centre. We founded that, and organised jazz festivals starting with 1985. So I was here in Istanbul then. I had to intensively write arrangements for 1-2 winters. I did those in Bodrum in front of my piano, didn’t come back here for 1-2 years. Everybody thinks I live in Bodrum for that reason. However, that is not true. I travel back and forth.
Making jazz in Turkey requires a lot more effort compared to other genres, it doesn’t receive the attention it should. Didn’t you want to stay in the States, and to continue working there?
The headmaster called me to his room on the day I had arrived. “Those who come here use this as step to stay here. However, this is not our aim, I should let you know right away. Our aim is to facilitate our students to go back to their own countries and to teach others the things they have learnt here. But it is your decision whether you want to make the arrangements and to stay.” This was the founder and owner of the school. I never forgot about what he had said and I decided to return when my studies were finished. I came back on the last few days of 1966. Let’s call it 1967. I founded “Big Band” with 13 members in the spring of 1967. The star of this Big Band was the bass player, Onno Tunç. Everything revolved around him. He then became my student, in the subject of making arrangements. 20 years later, now, I founded another Big Band… 20 years later, this time with much better musicians, two of them are around 40-50 years old but the rest is around 25-30. We already recorded 8 pieces in the studio. They will be released at the end of this year.
Why haven’t you released more albums? There is a twenty year gap in between your first album and the second. Why did you wait this long?
There was no such thing as making a jazz LP when I was growing up. Nobody did this in Turkey. Turkish musicians recorded some LPs in 1930-1940s, but it ended after those years. There was no such thing in 50, 60 and 70s. Actually, there wasn’t any in 80s either. Jazz records started being released in the 90s. I released an album in 1996, that is my only album. There were three of us playing. Some people joined in for some pieces, and then we played as a quartet. That was 20 years ago. I am happy to be working on another album after 20 years, especially with a Big Band. The good aspect of Big Band is this: since I am the arranger, I do all the arrangements myself. It means I get to show off my talents a bit more. I gathered up a lot of talented young people; they played what I wrote very well, and performed great improvisations in their solos. It is becoming a great album…
Who played in the album?
İmer Demirer and Şenova Ülker are the older musicians. They are the trumpet players. There is another one, a great young trumpet player. Sax players are from Bilgi University, students of that famous RickyFord. They are all young people.
You have worked with singers for years, it feels like you don’t like instrumental groups that much?
I have been working with singers since the beginning of the 80s, maybe even before that. I accompanied singers. I would go and watch famous singers perform in the 60s when I was in the States. I would go to jazz clubs not only to listen to jazz bands, but also to listen to all those singers. I would also buy their records. I still have those. I also had a Europe adventure in the 70s. I played in Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, France and around those parts for 3-4 years. But I didn’t play jazz, I played pop music. They had their own people to play jazz. There was no need for us to play it. But it is also nice to play pop music. It helps the musician to develop their rhythmic side. You gain new outlooks. So, why did I accompany singers? Because I like singers. I know the lyrics as much as they do. I sometimes find myself singing with them, of course, everybody stares, thinking, why is this guy singing. Sometimes I cannot help myself. I think songs are more attractive than instrumental music. Lyrics help to build bridges between people. There was a saying; when you address people with your voice you directly address their hearts. I think that’s why.
Of course, you have your specific tastes about singing, I know that…
After all this work and effort, of course, I developed my own taste about singing. Everybody has different tastes. Some people find it peculiar. They say, what kind of people do you like, where do you find these people. That may be. For example, one of my favourite singers is Josefine Cronholm, she is Norwegian. She can steadily sing a piece with a clear voice. But not like a soprano, or an opera singer, there is something about her that says she is a jazz musician… There is something special about her.
You are both a jazz musician and an instructor. How is your relationship with newer jazz musicians? What are your suggestions for them?
I want to play close attention to all the new jazz musicians. There is at least 8-10 pianists in Istanbul alone. I don’t want to name them because everybody knows who they are. There are great sax players. I think the situation right now is this: My best friend is Tuna Ötenel, he doesn’t play anymore. After listening to new musicians he asks “Why don’t they play like us?” They don’t play like us at all. Because he played just like those before him. And he surpassed them. Look, I think Tuna Ötenel is the best jazz musician this country has ever raised. Without a doubt. Because he kept his connections to those before him. He learnt from them and he played along with them. How connected are new musicians to those who came before them, or did they play a sort of music that is disconnected with the past as they please? There should be a connection between generations. One should not break away from tradition, but also bring innovations for the future… I think we can summarize this topic like that.
I like asking this question to jazz musicians, I will also ask you. Is there a profile for jazz musicians, or are they the same with all the other musicians?
There definitely is. There should be a distinguishing profile for jazz musicians. Men and women who are jazz musicians should live like jazz musicians. It is weird if they aren’t. They shouldn’t live like a classical musician. That is a different thing, because the characteristics of that genre are fundamentally different. One is written down clearly. Of course, there are some interpretations but it is always played in the same way. Jazz, on the other hand, is performed differently every single time. Maybe it is a madness, something like that. Jazz musician should have this characteristic. So, their lifestyle cannot be like other musicians, it shouldn’t be. There are some musician friends who thread the path between classical music and jazz. That is good as well, but I believe a jazz musician should embody anarchy and go against the system.
Are you married Mr. Fındıkoğlu? They say people who make such genres of music are married to their music. Is that the way it is for you?
I am not married. People who make jazz do not have such steady lives. It isn’t something like working for the government, being a civil servant. Imagine a crazy life with no guarantees. People who are stepping into this world now think whether they can earn money from it and make calculations. But in our day, one wouldn’t think how or how much money one would earn. You would dive head first into it. That’s why I did exactly that. I didn’t dwell on such questions. A lot of traveling, living in Europe, years in America followed. There was no thought of marriage in-between.
I walked him to the door when the interview was over. He liked the color of my hair, he told me I had a face to remember. I was happy, I think he will always remember me… He called me an evening after the program was aired. I was anxious to answer. He said “It was a marvellous program, you made my voice sound great!” I let out a sigh of relief.
Emin Fındıkoğlu is a man who loves life, and who lives it madly, just as he pleases. I already told this before; he is a crazy jazz musician. I think the secret to his love for life and his limitlessness lies in jazz!
Thank you Emin Fındıkoğlu…