Monday, June 3, 2013

Jazz Mirrors Iran#3: Iranic

Vank Cathedral in Iran [photo by Reza Hakiminejad]

Two weeks ago I began a ten-week series (that now I might extend it to 12!) 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 jazz musicians of the 20th century. In the third installment, I look at the "ironies" shared between a culture and a musical form.

From the Shahs of Sunset to the Mullahs of Qom, Iran stands a Catch-22 waddling to find its way between Bravo and Basij, Marxist and Muslim, youth and establishment, sincerity and tar’ruf. Sound confusing? Welcome to Irani irony, a culture where expectations are implied but never stated, perhaps the only one where you’ll find yourself politely chastised. To navigate in it is an improvisational act of its own, an interplay where actions depend on relational anticipation. This is the game of Persian life.

.                         Iranic by Jimmy Giuffre                        .        

The emergence of free-form jazz in the 1950s, pioneered amongst others by composer and multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Giuffre, was no less a paradox than the musical form's emergence itself, challenging the limitations of established bebop, hard bop and modal, breaking down standards that characterized traditional jazz. Where bebop treated musicians as interpreters, free jazz placed them at the forefront as the tune's dominant voice. Framework from jazz charts gave way to improvisation. Professionals, in their experimentation came off to the naked ear as amateurish, as if they were students doing their best to sound good. Not so confident to play constantly and seamlessly, they pause, wait, look at each other, and think deeply for what they should play for the next chorus.

At least that’s how Jimmy Giuffre’s Iranic, recorded in Los Angeles’s Capitol Studios in 1955, sounds.

Iranic, this short and folkloric tune has always been a mystery to me. First of all, I didn’t know about the existence of the word “Iranic”. My research revealed that such word existed, though not in use anymore, and it refered to anything related to Iran. Also there are some connections to the “Iranic Hallaj” language which is a forgotten language in the west of Iran, where the name of Hallaj is derived from mystic figure Mansur Al-Hallaj.

Jimmy Giuffre

But why one of the most eminent figures in history of modern jazz, and one of the fathers of Cool sounds of the West Coast should title his composition Iranic?

Interestingly the 1992 reissue of the song, in a Capitol three-CD set to commemorate the company's treasuryIronic. The producer of that set was Michael Cuscuna who later founded the Mosaic records, and again, in one of the Mosaic massive boxed sets dedicated to the music of Jimmy Giuffre, the tune was reissued as Iranic.
of recordings, re-titled it as

Now back to Iran.

Takhte Jamshid Ave., Tehran
Only a couple of month after recording Iranic, both the Senate and the Majlis in Iran passed a new law that gave the authority to every city with a population of over 5,000 to establish its own municipality. The law shifted Iran’s class structure, marking the unstoppable relocation from villages to cities, and a sudden increase in the population of the middle class in Iran. The migration marked one of the highest urban growth rates in the world, rising from 27% in the 50s to 60% in 2002, and estimated to rise to 80% by 2030. As the urban middle class grew, it co-existed in a schism with the lower-income traditional class. With urbanization comes an accelerated pace that tradition couldn’t keep up with, and its paradox only deepened the rift between the haves and have-nots.

Iranic sights
Like free jazz, the growing middle class valued individual progress over the framework of tradition. As Iran’s 1979 revolution swept through with Marxist ideas of economic equality, it eventually gave way to rising mullahs, who claimed to even the economic gap between urban and traditional classes, but only reinforced it for middle class urbanites aligned with government politics. To this day, the challenges that the urban class poses on the limitations of established economic stagnation is a cultural irony in of itself, questioning competing conventions in what constitutes “Iran.”

Iranic, as a word, gets enough punch in daily vocabulary. Asghar Farhadi’s masterful depiction of middle class life in A Separation is “Iranic.” The Persian underground bands in the northern part of Tehran are “Iranic.” “Iranic” is the explanation for the unheard popularity of a puppet show, Kolah Ghermezi [left], a primary example of subversive art in Iran, a daily puppet show that talks about many things (no religion or politics though) in the format of a children’s program. Everyone’s waiting for the latest episode and the maddening, but lovable picture of the hectic life of Iranians. Very Iranic indeed!

Those who have travelled to Iran and crossed the eastern tail of the Alborz Mountain in the Semnan area can
Northwest of Iran [source]
understand the “Irany,” or to be more precise, what Giuffre refers to as the “aesthetics of quietness” in Iranic. Dan Morgenstern points to the bluesy sound of it, and the unique low-register clarinet “at its very best,” evoking a “soft meditation of man, homely foot-tapping while playing out on his front porch, sufficiently solitary, and unselfconscious to forget the rules and try out unfamiliar tonalities.” (Cook/Morton) I must say it is one of the most unforgettable representations of Iran in any art former. Every single one of these words rang true.

Un-self-consciously forgetting about the rules, and hence playing with them and changing them, this piece is about both the past and the future of Iran, in all its irony and cultural identity.

Post Script:
The introduction you read to each installment (which I quote in decreased indent) is written by my then editor Safa Samiezade'-Yazd. They are actually articulated editions of the main thought lines given to her by me, and occasionally she has quoted me in there. I have to point that the Jazz Mirrors Iran series was previously presented on Aslan Media website rather poorly both in audio-visual terms and omitting the passages discussing the music and instead inserting bits and pieces of naive political messages. However, I need to thank Safa and her wonderful support and encouragement during the 7 weeks I ran the series for them. Why seven weeks instead of the promised ten? The answer lies in one other very Iranic/ironic fact that without feeling any need for a notice or explanation they stopped running my column. A great lesson I've learned from working with Iranians: never work with them.


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