The whole color spectrum reflected in tasbihs, hanging from the shop windows. The smell of rosewater perfumes. Carpets and rugs piled inside doorless, windowless shops and a carney-like salesman shouting outside, encouraging curious pedestrians to go in and see the “best.” Kebab shops, sending the smell of rice and meat to the air, next to a fabric shop that no lady can resist stopping by and bargaining with the humorous, assured salesman. This is the daily scene in the bazaar of Mashhad (where I lived most of my life), Grand Bazaar of Tehran, or the dream-like Vakil Bazaar of Shiraz, a Persian market somewhere in Iran where its colors, noises, smells and movements are uniquely inspiring for any poet, musician, filmmaker and anyone interested in turning the sights and sounds of the daily street life into a piece of art. [above photo: ceiling of a bazaar in Iran. Photography by Reza Hakimi.]
Now, the jazz connection, or rather the story of a song: The story begins in England, where the Birmingham born son of an engraver, Albert Ketèlbey (1875-1959) wrote this week’s theme tune, In a Persian Market. In 1920, Ketèlbey, a busy composer in London’s West End music halls, probably without ever being to a Persian market, used his imagination to depict a busy day in a Persian bazaar. His compositions soon became a popular hit, recycled many times, and even found its way to the jazz songbook.
The YouTube video of the orchestral performance of the song is illustrated by beautiful paintings that like Ketèlbey’s tune can’t distinguish Arabic and Indian influences from what is precisely Persian. Therefore, in the imaginary Persian market of Ketèlbey, camels and elephants stroll along the fully-covered women, while inside the majestic buildings with an eclectic architecture, half-naked women listen to the music of blacksmiths and beggars of bazaar; images of a Middle Eastern Utopia that invites a westerner to its exotic landscape of prosperity.
Jazz world, always capable of absorbing any sound from Bach to Country Music, took notice of Persian Market in 1940 and pianist Joe Bushkin recorded it as In a Persian Black Market, accompanied by legendary drummer, Cozy Cole.
Later, the veteran New Orleans-style trombone player, Wilbur de Paris, emphasized on the exoticism of the Persian Market and added Banjo to its instrumentation which cultivated a laid-back voicing, without necessarily remaining faithful to the original source.
It was fun enough, or exotic enough, that Woody Allen used de Paris’ version as the soundtrack in one of his oddest films, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001).
Also in the 1950s, the television impresario and musician, Lawrence Welk, Frenchized the sound of Persia by adding a good-natured accordion and organ, and nicely rearranging it to please the 1956 TV viewers across the USA.
After three decades, the song, once more, crossed the Atlantic and returned to where it was born in England. This time Acker Bilk, a product of the traditional jazz boom in the UK that swept the island in the late 1950s, picked it up, and for the first time made a national hit out of it.
Persia and jazz became an excuse for endless reproductions and crossed many borders, especially those which usually nobody dares to pass. In this video from 1964 you can see how the Persian Market serves the purpose of a cultural exchange between two sides of the iron curtain, as Bilk is playing it in Prague.
Ironically, what was supposedly a part of English musical heritage, in Bilk’s arrangements and his style of clarinet playing, transformed to something strictly American.
Then came the vocal version, and who better for such performance than a member of the Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr., whose gang had a good relationship with then Shah of Iran. The lyrics written for Sammy Davis is no less then ridiculous. Instead of mosques, he sings about temples, in which the sound of bells is heard. Iran is the Persia, the far off land 'cross the sea where Amber moon and the sweet perfume call lovers:
“Like a dream she soon was gone/But her spell still lingers on/It was in a Persian market/I found love and lost my heart.”
The last notable return to the tune occurred in 1975 by John Fahey’s imaginative finger-style steel-string acoustic guitar which I believe is the most genuine version, in terms of its melancholic mood and eastern harmonies.
It seems that as long as the subject is Iran, the (mis)interpretations of In a Persian Market will never cease to appear. When in 2010 someone uploaded another rendition of In a Persian Market on YouTube and stating that “when I listen to this piece of music that repeatedly changes between western and oriental styles, it reminds me the existing Iranian nuclear and missile programs that endanger the world. The conflict between Iran and the west is escalating. Negotiations in such a Persian market of contradictory interests are not so trivial.” And in comment section, a user accused the uploader of abusing an artistic product of a respected composer for political reasons.
In a Persian market, as a tune with a long journey throughout the history of 20th century music, with its reincarnations in various musical genres is the story of a misinterpretation: everybody plays it, but nobody think or says that there are no elephants in Iran.