Here are my favorite multi-cultural moments from the ninth annual Istanbul Jazz Festival, held each July in the world’s only city to span two continents (that’s Europe and Asia, for the geographically challenged)...
Chick Corea is a rock star in Turkey.
His concert in the gleaming and imposing Lutif Kirdar Kngre ve Sergi Sarayi Andalou Oditoryumu (Congress and Exhibition Hall) had been sold out for a week, which was notable for three reasons: It was on a Wednesday night in the middle of a sweltering summer, the hall holds more than 1,700 people, and his only accompaniment was Gonzalo Rubalcaba on the big, bare stage, with nothing but their two grand pianos nestled together under white spotlights.
But when the house lights dimmed and Corea and Rubalcaba emerged stage right, they clapped loudly. When Corea said, “hello,” they clapped. When he finished introducing Rubalcaba and said they were now going to play some songs together, they clapped.
They clapped each song. They clapped after each solo. They clapped when Corea started messing around with some small percussion instruments. Not polite applause, either. This was palm-reddening hand-slapping.
I wondered if these Turks were more enthusiastic than informed. Maybe they’ve never heard Chick Corea, but simply heard of him. That notion was dispelled after Rubalcaba finished his featured solo song and walked off stage to let Corea take a turn. As he stood at the microphone, Corea wondered aloud, “I think I’ll play for you … Hmm, I don’t know what to play.”
As he rubbed his chin, cries of “Spain! Spain!” came from the center rows and from the balcony. They at least knew Corea’s famous 1971 Grammy-winner. “Um, maybe later,” Corea said, obviously weary of that request. Some of the audience laughed knowingly.
Corea and Rubalcaba returned for three encores, although judging from their hesitancy upon their third return, it looked like they didn’t expect to be there again. After Rubucalba ended the final encore by standing up, reaching inside his piano, and plucking a chord, the cheering approached rock-concert proportions: Standing ovations with men jumping up and down as they clapped and hollered, young women giggling in each other’s ears as they clapped (with he young and handsome Rubalcaba their obvious target), and even a fortysomething woman trying to dab her eyes with a balled-up tissue while still clapping. Not wanting to play again but obviously moved, Corea and Rubalcaba came out for a curtain call, waved, stood, waved, stood, looked at each other, and exited stage right.
Slumped in a chair in his dressing room after the show, with a towel draped around his neck, Corea was at first blasé about his fanatical Turkish following. “I find that kind of reaction everywhere I go,” he said, perhaps with deserved immodesty, given his long and lauded career. But then he smiled, leaned forward, and added, “It was a great thing, wasn’t it?”
Babylon is a tiny nightclub located in a building that’s quite possibly older than the United States, but no one knows for sure, or even cares, because a 225-year-old structure means little in a city that ran the civilized world as far back as 330 AD.
What means a lot at Babylon is live music and a full house. Since Istanbul has no fire codes, “max occupancy” was a relative term during the Istanbul Jazz Festival, which booked three dissimilar but sold-out shows on consecutive nights:
Vocalist Mari Boine traveled from her native Lapland in northernmost Finland, where it was 13 degrees in July, to Istanbul, where it was well over 90. “Thank you for a wonderful – and hot – evening,” she told the crowd that sat at café tables so crammed together that you couldn’t get to the bathroom unless all the tables around you stood up. Boine, who sings a little like Bjork and looks a lot like an older sister of the famed Icelandic rocker, crooned native Lapland tunes and delicate, atmospheric covers to an audience that sat in an eerie and attentive silence – until Boine finished each song, at which point they applauded wildly.
There was no silence and few café tables the next evening. Babylon’s management obviously recognized what would happen when the 10 members of Mexico’s party band Los de Abajo started playing their frenetic jazz-rock – everyone would want to dance. Even up on the second-floor terrace, those who couldn’t peer between the throngs squeezed against the railings simply danced in twos and threes behind them.
British vocalist Sarah Jane Morris strode onstage wearing a camouflage dress with a largely see-through blouse and covered Janis Joplin’s “Take Another Piece of My Heart” to a crowd that applauded wildly because it may not have realized she didn’t write the song.
What they call “backstage” at Cemil Topuzlu Acik Hava Sahnesi – the 4,000-seat amphitheatre that’s the festival’s largest venue – is really just a narrow alleyway behind the building’s old stone walls. But with some folding tables, hot food, and Turkish tea, it was a comfortable place for journalists and musicians to socialize in the warm evening air.
It was also where perhaps the most multicultural moment of the festival occurred: CNN Turkey interviewing an Italian jazz critic (Francesco Martinelli) in English during the intermission between a Romanian big band (Laco Tafya) and a traditional gypsy party band (Taraf de Haidouks).
CNN Turkey interviewed me next. The reporter wanted to know: What did an American think of Istanbul’s interpretation of jazz?
I replied: “I’m impressed and embarrassed, I guess. We invented jazz, but a lot of our festivals have gotten boring and predictable. They’re mostly about the money, so every festival ends up with the same acts. Here, I’ve seen different acts in different venues all over a city of 12 million people – and I missed the first week, with Jane Monheit, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Antibalas, Erik Truffaz, and DJ Logic. It’s sad that I have to fly halfway around the world to see this much musical diversity.”
The next night, I watched CNN Turkey in my hotel room and listened to myself overdubbed with a lush Turkish baritone. Hope I wasn’t misquoted.