Charlie Parker and Kudsi Erguner made themselves as the greats in the musical industry respectively in jazz music and Turkish music genre. While Charlie Parker’s virtuosic playing on alto saxophone inspired the origination of a new movement in jazz, Kudsi Erguner gained recognition as one of the best ney flutists in Turkey. The significance of improvisation constitutes an important similarity between jazz and traditional Turkish music, and a key characteristic feature in the works of Parker and Erguner.
Charlie Parker, who was the one invented the Bebop in the 1920s, made himself a great reputation as an American jazz saxophonist and composer, despite his short life. He often incorporated long improvised solos in his music employing either high intervals of a chord in the melody or triadic extensions. He also made use of a technique called “quotation” incorporating segments of classical, popular songs into his solo improvisations.
This technique appears to resonate with what Kudsi Erguner, an acclaimed master of traditional Turkish Mevlevi Sufi music, did when he “quoted” jazz in the context of traditional Turkish music. Plastino highlighted Erguner’s Islam Blues of 2001 with a composition entitled “Mediterranien”.1 This practice manifests the overall tendency towards multiculturalism in Turkish musical identity. Kudsi Erguner, is a successful Turkish musician, born in the 1950s. He is considered as one of the top Turkish ney flautists. Both Jazz and Turkish music genres share some similarities, which includes improvisation in both of the musical styles as a main contributor to change. However, there also are some vast differences between jazz and Turkish music, which I will explore in detail below.
Speaking of the external contexts, historical and social contexts in Jazz and Turkish music, both of the music all derived from the communities. Jazz was being introduced in the late 19th century by the African-American communities, and it got developed from ragtime and blues to the recent free jazz and even the Avant Garde jazz. Charlie Parker made a note to his own jazz music, positions his own music not as entertainment but a rather elevated from of cultural expression on par with that European concert or “art” music.2 This particular statement made by him is true to my opinion, as jazz music at that time was the tool to express their feelings and even Charlie Parker said himself that his music is “more flexible, colorful and more emotional”.3 Indeed, the character and emotions of his compositions are depicted really clear and the listeners are able to grasp the meaning behind his compositions easily.
The importance of the socio-political context of Bebop and its influence on the development and positioning of the style should be highlighted.4 Bebop was played first and foremost for the sake of creating music and experimenting with it rather than for the entertainment of the audience, as was true for the preceding danceable and orderly Swing-era music. Thus, the compositions of Charlie Parker are filled with improvised solos, creative musical ventures, and innovation. Moreover, with its experimental and dissonant interpretations of music, Bebop shaped a sound platform for reflecting political frustrations and socio-cultural controversies.5 In the late 1940s, these included the post-World War II turbulence in the USA, and the early Civil Rights Movement. In this respect, a curious parallel is drawn with the Turkish musical tradition, which combines folk and art music, as shall be discussed shortly. However, the ultimate goal of the folk component of Turkish musical tradition was in fact entertainment.
Jazz music represents a dialogue between the musicians within the band, as well as between the performers and the audience. This dialogue rests on complex harmonies, an array of chord extensions, and major and minor 7th chords, and characteristic dissonance. Jazz rhythms are intricate as well, featuring dotted rhythms and triplets. Bebop commonly is fast in tempo, sometimes with break sections linking the solo passages and the chorus. Among the fundamental features of jazz is its polyphonic texture with musicians improvising together rather than playing improvisation solos in turn.
While the jazz music was solely originated from one community, Turkish music was greatly influenced by the surrounding countries with different cultures: Arab, Persian and even the Byzantine- East Roman Church. It led the music to have its own flavor and characteristics. To this day, Turkish music still remains within certain traditional norms but the music is getting improved by the contribution of the musicians like Kudsi Erguner, who introduced jazz music fused with his own country’s musical style. In Kudsi Erguner’s “Ottomania” album, he introduced the jazz improvisation in his home music.
As to the Turkish musical tradition, it consists of a distinct pattern of rhythms and modes. It is essentially monophonic and employs whole tones and halftones to a greater extent than the intervals. Importantly, traditional Turkish music originated on the crossroad between musical folklore and the so-called art music. The latter was performed in religious settings and the Ottoman Court with lyrics inspired by the Divan poetry, which, in turn, evolved under the significant impact of Sufi thought. Conversely, Turkish folk music stemmed directly from the general public, reflected the daily lives, joys, and troubles of people, and often was meant for entertainment.
As monophony is inherent to the Turkish musical tradition, polyphonic elements gradually appeared in this music under Western influence. Developing in the West throughout centuries, polyphony was essentially alien to traditional Turkish music and entered Turkish cultural space with musical plays, orchestra concerts, operettas, choir, tangos, and ballet in the XIX century. However, it was not acceptable in the more elevated social circles until the early XX century – a lengthy process of acceptance that reflected the rigidity of tradition in Turkey.
Much like jazz, traditional Turkish music is closely interconnected with its socio-cultural context. It also reflects the history and development of the community that cherished this music. Considering the historical records and ongoing socio-cultural interactions that influence the evolution of traditional Turkish music, the intricacies of its technical and melodic complexity might appear more elaborate when compared to the significantly younger jazz.
Improvisation takes the most part in both Jazz and Turkish music. Improvisation in music can be understood as a device to create the new motivic ideas based on the original melodic idea. Particularly the improvisation in jazz music, it indirectly derived from the improvised variation techniques from West Africa. 6 Also, the jazz improvisation techniques are mostly based on the set of chords (changes), and it usually appears on the Dixieland style – a jazz variety that sounds similar to a marching band, although most instruments improvise. Moreover, they appear even more in such a dissonant genre like the “Bop” which was introduced by Charlie Parker.
In most instances, the solo instruments that start the “head” (the original theme) will get to improvise after: the saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and others. The rhythm section (usually with the combination of piano, drums and double bass) will continue the rhythmic foundation as a background, providing the soloists with an opportunity to display their improvisatory skills on their instruments. The rhythmic pulse remains constant throughout the whole piece. Syncopations and swung rhythms are the most important characteristics in Jazz Bebop, as it contributes the strong groovy character of the piece.
In a general picture, improvisation in Middle Eastern music is mostly similar in idea with jazz music. However, in Turkish music improvisation (Taksim), it has slight differences when it gets to comparisons. In terms of the size of instrumentation, Taksim usually can be performed with either only one solo instrument, or the combination of one solo instrument with another one instrument in the background, which could be the drum or any other instrument. The instrumentation needs are much smaller while comparing to a jazz ensemble which usually has at least five different instruments.
Not only instrumentation, the way to improvise in Taksim is slightly different than the jazz music. Compare to Jazz music, improvisation in Taksim usually comes with no meter or no strong pulse, but sometimes there is occurence of pulse. Improvisation in Taksim is mostly melodic, and it is usually done by only one instrument, while the jazz music has few solo instruments take turns to improvise based on the original melodic and harmonic material. Percussion instrument is never a main role in Taksim, as the improvisation material is usually without any rhythm.
However, both Jazz music and Taksim do follow the certain formula during improvisation. In Jazz music, most of the extended harmonies or applied chords will be used to improvise, making the new improvised idea more flourished and virtuosic. In Taksim, the main task of the improvisors is the development of motifs, and modulation from the principal maqam, model for tonal content and melodic motifs, to secondary mode: “makam” (rule of composition).7 When a Taksim is performed, there are three chords- the dominant, semi-tonic and tonic of the makam will be emphasized. As the second instrument in Taksim is not featuring itself as the main role, it has none improvisatory materials and it stays at the background of the primary instrument. While in jazz music, usually the harmonic progression goes with the original melody. If it is 12 bar blues, there is a progression to be followed accordingly.
Not only in improvisation, harmonic language in both jazz music and Turkish music are vastly different and it is worth to investigate the insides of these two different kinds of music. In jazz music, chromaticism is the foundation of the jazz compositions, with applied chords, extended harmonies, reharmonization, blue scales and other unique characterstics. In the Bebop years like those, when Charlie Parker was active, most of his works were all having these harmonic techniques applied, such as “Billie’s Bounce”, “Now’s The Time”, “Blues for Alice,” and more.
Taking Charlie Parker’s Now’s The Time as an example, the melodic material is more complex than the earlier jazz compositions, yet the harmonic usage on Blues style- using blue scales is still predominant and easy to be recognized by our ears. Another composition by Charlie Parker, “Blues for Alice”, it had more harmonic innovations and the blues form was harmonically stretched the furthest from its origins by Parker’s composition.8 He introduced the reharmonization technique in this song, and the harmonies travelled to seven different keys. Yet, the primary blues elements still remain within the context of the standard blues style.
While in Turkish music the Taksim, the musical practice is rather more complex than the Jazz music due to the complexity of the Turkish culture. However, Taksim is generally more synthesized with the Western musical styles, generally more Western styles, and thereby playing important roles in the evolution of a system of modal harmony which, in many respects, is common to the entire region.9 However, there is still some musical system to be followed in Turkish music. In Taksim, the intervallic structure contributes the main importance of the music, and it is a usual bone of argument among the Turkish musicians. An artist will be criticized severely for con- fusing the microtonal inflections required by the various makam.10
Other than intervallic structure, modulation is another important harmonic element in Taksim. Not like jazz music, though there is reharmonization technique, but in Turkish Taksim the performers are free to modulate to another makams rather than staying in the original key like in jazz music. Taking Kudsi Erguner’s music as an example, his “Makam Uzzal: Taksim”, demonstrates the different makams in his improvisations and also the different types of intervallic and scales structure, which does not appear in jazz music. Since there is no real structure and non-metric on Taksim, the performers are free to do all sorts of variations in their improvisation to make the music sounds more interesting.
Kudsi Erguner in his musical career has also experimented with incorporating the ney flute into the context of jazz music within the 1988 album project The Mystic Flutes of Sufi: Preludes to Ceremonies of the Whirling Dervishes. Although Erguner’s experience of playing ney in the unusual setting of a jazz ensemble proved eclectic, the ney improvisations sounded out of context, and this created a somewhat unnatural impression.11 The particular concern with the artificiality of the sound of ney is explained by the spiritual connotation associated with the instrument in Turkish tradition. Şenay writes that in certain circles, ney is referred to as an “instrument of the soul” that has a natural quality of revealing the inner voice of the player.12 Moreover, the Islam-inclined audience assigns spiritual connotations to the shape of ney – vertical, slim, associated with the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, alif, that symbolizes divine unity.13 Therefore, later in his work, Kudsi Erguner refrained from further musical digression with the ney preferring to embrace its cultural singularity.
Generally, first attempts to revive traditional Turkish music and interpret it through the prism of Western musical forms occurred in the early 1970s and manifested themselves in ethnic jazz. Değirmenci remarked that mostly, this process was led by expatriated Turkish musicians abroad.14 He also observed that this adaptation of jazz by the Turkish artists reflected the overarching dichotomy of monophony-polyphony in Turkish musical tradition. Curiously, the encounters between jazz and Turkish musical traditions, much like in the case of other variations of jazz, were directly linked to immigration and reflected the pervasive synergy between music and general socio-cultural conditions.
A peculiar way of viewing the music of Charlie Parker and Kudsi Erguner is from the angle of their signature musical instruments. For both artists, those are wind instruments – Parker’s saxophone and Erguner’s ney. In both cases, the instruments carry certain symbolic connotations – ney’s cultural and religious significance, as described by Senay, and the image of the saxophone as an iconic jazz instrument.1516 However, in terms of functionality in jazz music, the saxophone appears significantly more versatile and adjustable. It allows for navigation among an array of musical textures, such as technically complex jazz harmonies, slow-moving backdrop chords, elegant unison melodies. Other techniques specific to jazz generally and Bebop, in particular, include tongue stopping, half-tonguing, and halftone. Thinking of the array of jazz interpretations in the context of various cultures and traditions offers a unique platform, on which the music of Charlie Parker and Kudsi Erguner can be viewed concurrently despite the East-West dichotomy and other contrasting factors.
In summary, jazz and traditional Turkish music present fruitful ground for discussion and analysis – considering their socio-cultural characteristics, as well as technical features and innovation potential. The genres are strongly connected to the communities and present socially constructed phenomena when music provides the necessary platform for self-expression and celebrating diversity. The history of jazz is linked to the challenging times people faces after World War II in the USA. Turkish music has evolved under the influence of neighboring nations – Arab, Persian and the Byzantine cultures. Nevertheless, both genres regained some of their identifiers. Jazz music and Turkish music are great music still in our age, both of the musical genres display the different cultural backgrounds enriched by history.
These conclusions find confirmation in the works of Charlie Parker, one of the founders of Bebop, and Kudsi Erguner, a celebrated master of traditional Turkish music. Charlie Parker, no doubt, is a great master of the early Jazz period and introduced the Bebop style. As the Bebop style slowly evolved into more complex jazz forms, Turkish music too continued its development through the contribution of the accomplished musicians and interaction with the global culture. Kudsi Erguner experimented fusing Taksim with jazz improvisation elements shaping more unique musical techniques.
Most of the music around the world borrows some elements that are inherent in countries and modifies these details to their own musical language. The musical language is a complex and dynamic phenomenon that, in the context of the modern world, is compelled to transcend the boundaries of a single culture or society. As a result, all genres have a chance to evolve not only under the influence of their culture, but also through learning about and appreciating the ideas of others.
This finds confirmation in the work of such celebrated figures on the international music scene as Charlie Parker and Kudsi Erguner. Both musicians demonstrate the flexibility of musical genres and their potential for evolution. The new and exciting potential of the musical language captures the attention of the audience in a higher degree, and more of the audience are willing to enjoy concerts and shows. Thus, innovation in music, as shown in the examples of Kudsi Erguner and Charlie Parker, drives both music and its audiences to widen their view of art.
Alper, Garth. “How the Flexibility of the Twelve-Bar Blues Has Helped Shape the Jazz Language.” College Music Symposium 45 (2005): 1-12.
Apel, Willi. The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Değirmenci, Koray. Creating Global Music in Turkey. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. California: University of California Press, 1999.
Manuel, Peter. “Modal Harmony in Andalusian, Eastern European, and Turkish Syncretic Musics.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 21, (1989): 70-94.
Nielsen, Cynthia. “Strategic Afro-Modernism, Dynamic Hybridity, and Bebop’s Sociopolitical Significance.” Music and Law Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance 18, (2013): 129-148.
Plastino, Goffredo. Mediterranean Mosaic: Popular Music and Global Sounds. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Şenay, Banu. “Rethinking Spirituality Through Music Education in Istanbul.” European Journal of Turkish Studies 25, (2017): 1-21.
Signell, Karl. “Esthetics of Improvisation in Turkish Art Music.” Asian Music 5, no. 2, (1974): 45-49.
Stewart, Jesse. “No Boundary Line to Art: ‘Bebop’ as Afro-Modernist Discourse.” American Music 29, no. 3, (2011): 332-352.
West, Chad and Mike Titlebaum. Teaching School Jazz: Perspectives, Principles, and Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Goffredo Plastino, Mediterranean Mosaic: Popular Music and Global Sounds (New York: Routledge, 2013), 38.
- Jesse Stewart, “No Boundary Line to Art: ‘Bebop’ as Afro-Modernist Discourse,” American Music 29, no. 3, (2011): 333
- Stewart, 333.
- Cynthia Nielsen, “Strategic Afro-Modernism, Dynamic Hybridity, and Bebop’s Sociopolitical Significance,” Music and Law Sociology of Crime, Law and Deviance 18, (2013): 135.
- Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (California: University of California Press, 1999), 59.
- Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2003), 62.
- Apel, 59.
- Garth Alper, “How the Flexibility of the Twelve-Bar Blues Has Helped Shape the Jazz Language,” College Music Symposium 45 (2005): 6.
- Peter Manuel, “Modal Harmony in Andalusian, Eastern European, and Turkish Syncretic Musics,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 21, (1989): 81.
- Karl Signell, “Esthetics of Improvisation in Turkish Art Music,” Asian Music 5, no. 2, (1974): 45.
- Koray Değirmenci, Creating Global Music in Turkey (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013), 29.
- Banu Şenay, “Rethinking Spirituality Through Music Education in Istanbul,” European Journal of Turkish Studies 25, (2017): 1.
- Şenay, 12.
- Değirmenci, 39.
- Şenay, 13.
- Chad West and Mike Titlebaum, Teaching School Jazz: Perspectives, Principles, and Strategies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 43.