Last week, I began a ten-week series exploring jazz that reflects a part of Iran, both as an actual place on the map and as a pure creation of art. This is Iran according to American and European artists of the 20th century. It is also the same country that makes daily headlines in the news, yet it is music that brings it a far greater truth than any pundit on a TV screen. In the second installment of this ten-week series exploring Iran through the world of jazz, let's gaze our eyes down to the magnificent floor coverings that inspired the classic jazz standard tune.
Iran as a country has long been a contested commodity in the modern era, its politics so pervasive, hardly a piece of artwork makes it abroad without some sort of oppositional branding -- the mere fact that it comes from Iran automatically makes it a piece of creative dissidence. The one medium that manages to evade any type of political baggage is not the artwork we hang on our walls, but the adorned canvas we lay out on our floors --Persia’s rugs. Like Iran’s version of Wall Street, these carpets, often called an Iranian’s stock or share, are more than a hypnosis of vivid colors and mesmerizing patterns: they’re a woven record of a country and civilization dating back over 2,500 years, and for most Iranians, a first encounter with the visual blueprints that we come to associate as art.
Three versions of Persian Rug which I'm going to discuss later
composer Neil Moret, an American composer in 1927 to write a new standard of popular music: Persian Rug. The tune, complete with lyrics, reads like Edward Said’s Orientalism set to swing, littered with both racist and naively 1001-nightish verses:
In the distant East, there is a legend old,
I am told
Of a Persian rug, worth all its weight in gold,
I am told.
Dreamers long ago they say,
Sat and wished their cares away,
As I sit and wish today on my rug.
1920s: Fats Waller's Persian Rug is an all-star gem: Jabbo Smith plays cornet, legendary Garvin Bushell take care of the reed instruments, James P. Johnson, one of the masters of stride piano, takes the piano chair, and Fats himself play a very old-fashioned, silent-film-accompaniment type of music. Considering the time it was recorded (March 1928) one can g with clumsy recording of the instruments and dominating sound of organ.
The melody is a simple one, like one you would hear at a carnival or a summer bandstand. However the sound of organ, reminiscing of silent cinema, fairy tales, and the Middle East of Douglas Fairbanks, portrays something that probably unintentionally has some resemblances to Iran. It’s hard to explain how and why, but the faraway sound of trumpet, muted reed, and the interplay between organ and piano perfectly capture the bustling atmosphere of a rug bazaars in Mashhad, Qum, Kashan, Tabriz, on any other major city in Iran: long, labyrinth-like sheltered markets with incredibly complex patterns on the brick-ceiling and clay domes, characterized by arches of holy words or poetic calligraphy. The solos are hypnotic, almost dizzying, yet still crisp, much like the geometric structure of carpets sold at the bazaar.
|Mary Lou Williams|
1940s: My favorite version of the song is interpreted by a giant of jazz piano, Mary Lou Williams. Her solo is as soulful, as if listener is walking barefoot on one of the silk woven Persian carpets. Mary Lou explores the playfulness, charm, and wit of the composition.
Much like these three versions of Persian Rug, it’s an interwoven tale, one produced by different styles of the same excitement that is a culture laid out on a living room floor.