Elvan Aracı, one of the most prominent jazz musicians, passed away on the 24th of January, 2018.
Trombone player and pianists Elvan Aracı moved to Sweden in 1977 and worked with Maffy Falay and saxophonist Bernt Rosengren until 1990. He gave workshops with various other musicians in United States in 1994. He returned to Turkey in 1998 and participated in many festivals. He founded Modern Jazz Trio in 2003.
Tunçel Gülsoy had conducted a long interview with him in 2001 for the 22nd edition of JAZZ Dergisi. We are republishing this interview to commemorate Elvan Aracı. He will be buried in Stockholm where he was being treated.
Dancing in the Dark with The Trombone
The doorbell rang; I knew the guest I was expecting was finally here. My guest, whom I spoke to in politest terms until then, walked in. He took off his coat. We exchanged a few words. Most importantly, he asked if he could smoke. I felt that my positive reply made him happy. I didn’t bring out an ashtray but I got something else ready.
I sat him down in the corner where he could listen to the music the best. The sound coming from the speakers filled the room like an evening mist. We started listening to ‘Dancing In the Dark’, the first track on Feyza’s album. The sound of the trombone playing would be heard right after the drum’s intro and it seemed to whisper the words which would soon follow.
Dancing in the dark, until the song is over,
We are dancing in the dark and the song is quickly ending
We question our existence in the arms of the walts
We think we exist in the flow of the time and suddenly disappear.
He lit a cigarette while I went to pour us some tea and quietly started listening to his own trombone solo. I had been watching him in silence for quite a while, he is a man with a tough look in his eyes. He identifies with his trombone; a man who lives his music without smiling to anyone.
We listened to Feyza’s song a couple of times. The music then stopped and he started talking:
“I am the son of Bayram Aracı and Mualla Aracı. My father was a folk bard who raised many students. My mother was a classical musician at Ankara Radio. They met there and got married. I was born on the 10h of January, 1952.”
‘So, you are a Capricorn.’
“Yes I am, Capricorn is a good sign. I trust Capricorn men, they are natural leaders, but I don’t trust their women. They are incompatible and stubborn.”
I was sure he was a natural-born leader, but I kept my thoughts that he wasn’t so easy going either to myself.
“My mother’s hobby was listening to jazz. I remember her listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson. I grew up visiting both my parents’ workplaces. My listening and taste improved and grew fond of both Turkish music and jazz while listening to them.
I started playing instruments by myself at the age of six. I had a green Hofner harmonica, I would play the melodies of the music I heard with it. I also played the mandolin. I listened to Shirley Bassey, Beach Boys, Beatles, Cliff Richard and progressive English bands.”
We were around the same age. We shared the same harmonica and music. He started to feel as comfortable as to address me informally. We went on drinking our tea.
“I enrolled in Istanbul Municipality’s conservatory at Pierre Loti when I graduated from elementary school. I started out with the cello, then switched to the trombone department after the first grade. I quickly got bored of the conservatory. I used to listen to the Beatles from jukeboxes in foosball saloons and then I would replay those from memory on the piano. When the teachers at the conservatory saw me playing the Beatles on the piano they would give me a smack on the back of my neck and tell me not to ‘jazz’. I actually didn’t feel fond of jazz music back then but the teachers thought everything other than classical music is jazz. The teachers who gave the ’culture’ classes as they were called put a lot of pressure on us. I was fed up with them and bored with the school. I informed my father when I got into the fourth grade and went to the principal to give my resignation.
I played the trombone in a band called ‘Çizgiler’ before. We would play at the Ataköy Beach on the weekends. It was already summer when I quit going to the school. I transcribed the notes for 20 new pieces in a week and arranged them for the band. We worked in Burgaz Island that whole summer. I was 16 years old and the commercial music life had started for me.”
I thought Elvan Aracı was similar to a Shakespeare character before I knew him. However, Shakespeare hadn’t written down that particular character just yet. He is a bit like Hamlet with a pinch of Othello and Romeo mixed in. He carries pieces of their tragedies. But he brings me back to our own world by continuing on with his story:
“I worked with Ahit and Cahit Oben brothers afterwards. A single trombone brought beautiful colors to the band it became a part of. I worked with Üstün Poyraz. I met Yalçın Ateş. We started playing together at Istanbul Playboy club. Then we went to the Playboy club in Ankara and worked there. I was hearing more and more jazz music and started to take an interest in the meanwhile. I was 17-18 years old when I started to transcribe the harmonies of the pieces I had heard. I was benefitting from having ‘perfect pitch’.”
John Fordham writes that the trombone’s first role in jazz music was to support the winds section of the New Orleans orchestras and occasionally to be used interchangeably with the bass in his book ‘Jazz’. The trombone starts to emerge as a solo instrument during the Big Band era and evolves to what it is today in the Be-bop era. It has a different story for Elvan Aracı though:
“I saw the trombone in the American movies that my mother took me when I was a child for the first time. There were big orchestras and people would dance to their music. I was taken by the trombones in those orchestras and I told my mother I would play that instrument.
The trombone is a very beautiful instrument. People flew through the clouds with its sound.
Unfortunately 80% of those who play the trombone today do not do it justice and play it bad. One plays the trombone according to what is in one’s mind. Just like the violin.
I listened to a J. J Johnson when I was still in the conservatory. It could be considered commercial music. That music made me fall in love with the trombone. I wanted to achieve the softness and fluidity I heard in that album. I succeeded in capturing that tone the more I played. I didn’t listen to any other trombone players after J.J. Johnson to find my own style. Even he lost his significance for me in time.
One finds his own path once he understands his own character. J.J Johnson was my first muse. I paved my own path through the music I have studied for years.”
Feyza’s album stops playing. We start listening to one of my favorite trombone players’, Ray Anderson’s ‘Blues Bred in the Bone’. He laughs and continues on explaining as we listen to a very unique interpretation of ‘Mona Lisa’:
“Look, you know what the trombone is? Trombone is the closest wind instrument to human voice. Cello is the same as a string instrument. Tenor saxophone is similar as well. But trumpet is different. Trombone has its own fluid beauty. Ray Anderson actually uses half of his lips while playing this instrument. He had partial paralysis on his lips. But his sound is stronger than those who play with their full lips.
You have to feel as if the trombone is an extension of your body while playing it. You also have to express the beauty of its tone with the love inside your heart to the instrument. This isn’t possible for everyone. One has to have this natural talent, it only works out that way.
I think trombone is the most noble and emotional instrument. It could easily make one cry, it could fill the band on its own but it is one of the hardest instruments to play at the same time.”
I was confronted by yet another surprise when I went to the kitchen to pour us fresh teas. He sat down in front of our piano and started playing it. I left him alone with himself for a while. He then replies the question I had in my head as he reaches out for the teacup.
“I play the piano as well as the trombone. I was taught by Vecihe Koray. I also played Hammond organ. I have been in various places and played there. Yes, where were we?
Neşet Ruacan played with us at Ankara Playboy as well. We transcribed pieces of famous bands like ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ and ‘Chicago’ through our own efforts.
I decided to learn how to play jazz and go abroad as I listened to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. My chords got richer with the influence of jazz, the voicings started to evolve. That was when the conflict between me and the music industry I worked for started and it still goes on.
I became familiar with drummer Burhanettin Tonguç and saxophonist İsmet Sıral during that period. We became a sort of jazz comrades. Then I met pianist Altan İlter. I also met Tuna Ötenel for the first time. I stayed at his house.”
Elvan Aracı did his mandatory military service in 1975 and commuted from this house. He drew a shorter life-size keyboard on a piece of cardboard to be able to continue working on the piano during his service. He was stationed in the artillery brigade in Burdur but he transferred to officers’ club and continued his actual profession as a trombonist. He also got the opportunity to play the keyboard. He explains what followed his service as such:
“I started playing at İstanbul Gelişim after my military service. The addition of a single trombone made their music more colorful. But I wasn’t fond of pop music. Playing the same music every day in the same manner is like working as a government official. There is something missing. My passion for jazz took precedence over that and I entered the jazz circle again. I continued to play at Büyükada Anatolian Club with Yalçın Ateş. I kept my friendships between my elders İsmet and Burhan. They suggested that I went to the States. I met Okay Temiz in that period. He took some of my records to Sweden and promoted them in music circles. He got a visa issued for me in 45 days and invited me over to Sweden. It was 1977. I met Muvaffak (Maffy) Falay at Okay’s house. Okay wasn’t following the path I wished to take myself, I realized this right away while I lived in his house. I wouldn’t be able to do the things I want with him. I moved to Stockholm. I fell in love with a barmaid I met then and we got married. My relationship with Maffy got more intense then. I met the genius musician Bernt Rosengren and I started to play in his Big Band. I was 25 years old. I was quickly noticed. I also pursued my commercial music work. I worked with Maffy. I met Red Mitchell one day. Red played the piano, the double pass and sang at the same time. He was a real musical giant. I played with him in a piano, trombone and guitar trio for two years. I met other Swedish musicians and formed bonds with them in the meanwhile. I travel back and forth to Turkey between the summers of 1984-87. I played in a couple of places in Bodrum and Istanbul with Tuna. I took my widowed mother with me to Sweden after my father passed away in 1987. I also got divorced from my first wife.”
There is another country which played an important role in Elvan Aracı’s life: United States of America. He explains this country’s contributions to his own jazz life as such:
“I worked as a jazz musician in Sweden. They gave me Honorable Mention Awards. Bernt Rosengren was an incredible performer. I reaped what I learnt from him in 1994 when I went to New York. Swedish and American governments gave me a scholarship together and I attended The New School for Social Research, Jazz and Contemporary Music. I finished the 4-year program in a mere 1.5 year. I met important New Yorker musicians such as double bass player Buster Willams, pianist Hilton Ruiz and pianist Richie Beirach. I attended workshops. I played a lot of latin jazz. I was able to make a living during my school years this way. I wanted to go back to the States in 1997 but I had a visa mishap. I actually found my place in America. I came back to Turkey in 1998. I played at various jazz clubs. I am a Swedish citizen now. I live occasionally live there and occasionally here. Being a jazz musician requires a specific life style. We can accept Muvaffak Falay and Tuna Ötenel as jazz musicians in this aspect. Tuna Ötenel owes a lot to Metin and Melih Gürel brothers. His work with Erol Pekcan also played an important role in his development. I think Tuna is one of the first real jazz musicians in Turkey. I also include myself in this category.
We grew up in this life style in Sweden. Horace Parlan and Doug Rainey lived in Sweden. We played in Bernt’s band together. I learnt my first jazz forms, chords and changes from Horace Parlan. These musicians taught me about the responsibility that jazz brings in its knowledge. Maffy contributed a lot to my development. Being a jazz musician is a crazy thing. Speaking about our country: The jazz scene in Turkey is horrible. Jazz venues and musicians are both very limited in number. New musicians do not know the jazz atmosphere or rhythm. They copy others. This isn’t music. Those who are perfectionist, like Tuna and I, are outcasts in such a circle. Jazz is a perfectionist genre. Those who claim otherwise should listen to Count Basie and earlier periods of Duke Ellington. They will understand then. This applies to all instruments. Jazz requires a high IQ. One has to be clever.
Turkey is a country that doesn’t know its own values. We want to be useful to our own country. Real musicians are serious and uncompromising. Managements claim ownership over musicians. Those who call themselves musicians would not work with such people.
It is enough for me to be called a living legend in Turkey. I do not value money, I am already compensated by the value the world gives me.”
His voice carries a sense of being angry, both openly and secretly. What he is talking about doesn’t only applied to music in Turkey but also to other subjects as well. Anger is a sign of a lack of communication; a sign of desperation. I convey these ideas to him and tell him he should express himself better. He thinks otherwise:
“You have to think like me to understand me. I worked with many esteemed musicians abroad and our work concluded with happiness and kindness. People understand each other and can play together as an ensemble there even if they are in different musical levels. Here people who has studied music are jealous of each other instead of incorporating other esteemed musicians to their music. Except for Aydın Esen. I don’t know him very well but I know that this doesn’t apply to him. Aydın is too good for this country. He did his best work abroad, and makes a living that way.
I am actually not someone who is angry all the time as you think. But I want to emphasize something. I wouldn’t achieve the talent I have today if I followed a policy of not caring like some other people do. There is a goal to my anger. I will not make compromises for nonchalant musicians in Turkey. That is why I am called argumentative. Anger is born from attitude and behavioural disorders. As god is my witness, I find love abroad. Relationships in Turkey feel hypocritical to me. Therefore I express my anger.
I expect humanity, love and respect from music. These unfortunately do not happen in my country. I looked for the fault in myself. But I saw Turkey went downhill. My presence here wouldn’t matter after this point. I don’t see anything positive about Turkey’s future. The only thing to do is to forget. Everybody watches out for their livelihood and income. There is no such thing as good music in a system based on personal gains. Everybody acts like lackeys. Turkey is degenerated, it is a country of copycats. You have to find your own essence.
As I got to know people where I am, I started to like animals more. Even an animal is more emotional and loyal than a human. Philosophy is nonexistent. There are no such things left in the Turkey of today. There should have persevered even if the economics were doing downhill. Jazz gives me the kind of love that I can’t get from people.
We gave another tea break. I put on his favorite trombonist J.J. Johnson’s album. The album was recorded in 1993 but he likes Johnson’s earlier tone. I wanted to change the subject and asked him what jazz is:
“What is jazz? Good question. There is no concrete answer to that. A great ‘uzun hava’ (Traditional Turkish music piece) is also jazz. I believe jazz is turning an inspiration coming from nature to sound and performance. Everything is jazz for me. A taqsim, a religious chant are also jazz. In other words, jazz is a musical style. Jazz doesn’t derive from the word “cazgır” (meaning “loud, vixenish”). A jazz club isn’t “kaz club” (a worldplay on “kaz” which means “goose” and rhymes with jazz). Swedish people read it as ‘yas’ and even that made people angry and was changed.
If I don’t die, my aim is to raise real musicians in Turkey. But everybody knows everything here. It looks like I have nothing left to do. There are some music schools here, most of them are crooks. Some people use jazz for the wrong reasons.
I left Turkey due to similar circumstances in 1977. My country didn’t give me the opportunities I wished for.”
A very important question comes to my mind at this point. I am curious, you lived in Sweden and the people of this country which is open to all the cultures and voices in the world welcomed you as their own despite the fact that you are a foreigner. Then why do you insist and try to do something in this less-developed country which is unlikely to understand you? His face tenses up when I ask him this. Elvan suddenly appeared as a Shakespeare character in front of my eyes.
Then he gives me an answer I already know too well:
“But I returned to Turkey despite that. The soil and air here give me strength.”
Other musicians gave me this answer in different words in the past. Some miss the smell of the tomatoes, some miss eating arugula and drinking rakı and some came back to search for the music they heard in a Rumeli village in their childhood. I saw Hamlet finally reuniting with his beloved father because he says:
“I love this country but I don’t expect anything from anyone. I don’t need it either. Our aim is to promote Turkey internationally. I am proud that I am the best in what I do even if I don’t have any money. The brave has many enemies. I am not great. God is great and he is everywhere. But I am the best in the music I make. I am a solitary person. I don’t have anything other than myself and jazz.
The only thing I know about jazz is that I actually don’t know anything about jazz.
But I am ready to pass on my experiences to those who are curious.
Yes, I am still working in Turkey, my roots are here. My relatives and my past are here.
Why don’t our artists get mentioned internationally? Bulgarian Women Choir recorded a CD in the States; they receive so much attention and their album sales are breaking records.
I want to do something in this country and promote it on international platforms. I want to present my country even if I can only do so when I am abroad myself. If even this isn’t not possible, I will have to take what I know to the grave.”
I thought he still has a lot of road to cover and so much to do in the path that leads to his grave; I understood that I am not wrong when he said:
“The world is my home. My goal is to play my own music with American musicians and introduce it to the world. I have an album project in plans. I want to play with bassist Buster Williams, pianist Hilton Ruiz, drummer Billy Higgins and with Phil Markovitz on the piano for some pieces. I want to play both the piano and the trombone in some pieces. Only a few people know but I have a special playing method for the piano as well. I will build a bridge between Sweden, Turkey and America after I record the album. I want to continue on with jazz music. I don’t want to use it for commercial reasons.
I can enjoy the fruits of my accumulation abroad. But I have some projects in Turkey as well. Emin Fındıkoğlu is a musician I admire and appreciate. You could even say that he is my true friend. He understands me well. I play the trombone in his Detant project.”
We decide to listen to Feyza’s album again. I learn that his son, who is 21 years old, lives with his mother and wants to be a gynaecologist instead of a musician despite the fact that he has a great ear. He says his son turned out to be cleverer.
We silently listen to the final part of Feyza’s first song together:
To banish the darkness
While looking for the light of a new love,
You came into my life
Now we can dance fearlessly
Forever in the dark