“You cannot easily listen to another genre once you get into jazz music. Because jazz has such a rich harmonic structure that monophonic music starts feeling weak. But, for example, I like syncopated Turkish rhythms a lot. Jazz musicians use syncopated rhythms as well. These rhythms attract them, too.” 

These words and what you are about to read below belong to Hülya Tunçağ. I cannot write enough about her here. That is why I am going to keep it short. Tunçağ talked about her story from childhood until today, what jazz means, where it was born and how, jazz in Turkey and jazz in the world, as well as about the jazz musician. Things you will read are educational by nature. This is her journey in music, her journey toward “her love for music”. Hülya Tunçağ is one of the rare people in Turkey who have dedicated her heart to jazz, one who knows the best about the genre and one who keeps it alive. I learnt the 101 of “how to make jazz and its program”. I secretly followed her work, I read, I repeated and I asked a lot of questions. I am very thankful that there is such a person as Hülya Tunçağ…

“The jazz musicians I was first influenced by were Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck. I also knew of and liked musicians such as Duke Ellington and Bud Powell. However, I discovered more modern musicians after I became a radio program producer and after I started listening to Cüneyt Sermet’s programs. For example; Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson and Lennie Tristano. Therefore I started learning above movements in jazz and applying them to my programs.”

Hülya Tunçağ was my guest in NTV Radio’s “Bizim Cazcılar” program and she played a few pieces from Bill Evans and Charlie Parker, as well as Dianne Reeves’s ‘Obsession’, Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ and Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’. If you wish, you can listen to one of these to accompany this interview.

Now let’s embark on Hülya Tunçağ’s musical journey.

Where It All Started and My Conscience Awoke  

The first thing I remember when I my conscience awoke is that we were in Mersin. I was born in Balıkesir. My father was a manager in the Turkish Postal Service and I was born after 5 sons. My father was an amateur musician. He even wrote some Classical Turkish Music compositions and was also a very good tenor. My mother loved music and cinema. My oldest brother was studying in the conservatory in Ankara. He even was the classmate of “Mafi” Muvaffak Falay in double bass department. The period when I got conscious is when we came to Mersin with the train. More accurately, first Adana and then they got a house in Mersin. It was an apartment on the second floor of a house located in an orange garden with a room with windows. That was the music room. There were my oldest brother’s red drums and acordeon, my father’s cümbüş (an intrument that is similar to a mandolin, but with a metal body) and violin. Imagine such a room with a piano as well. I grew up in there with all those sounds.

Antalya Days and Jazz

I started going to elementary school when we moved to Antalya. My mother was from Antalya. We lived in a nice house near Vali Konağı (governor’s mansion) and my father started teaching modes (called makam) of Turkish music when I was in the elementary school. I remember trying to read my father’s notes. There was also a radio, we were great radio listeners back then. Radio of Moscow, Radio of Monte Carlo; we would listen to all the world radios. On the other hand we would listen to Ankara radio, Istanbul radio and entertainment programs.

I first listened to jazz when one of my brothers made me listen to Willis Conover’s “Jazz Today” in very early morning hours. I loved getting up early in the mornings, in the midst of so many brothers, and listening to the radio. I listened to Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan. My brother told me that Miles Davis would be an important trumpet player in the future. He must have been 18 years old. This is how I first heard about jazz music.

I was also listening to classical music on the other radio channels. For example, I remember tearing up when I listened to an incredible piano concerto when I turned on the radio after coming home from school. I was in the third grade. I thought, this is beautiful, and wondered what it was. I later on learnt that it was Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto. It started like that. My father would study Classical Turkish Music as an amateur on the other hand, he had his compositions and there would be musical gatherings every month in the house. I listened to pop music with my other brothers, and jazz on the side, and here I am.

Sweet and Bitter Memories, Izmir…  

They sent me to mandolin lessons in the school, I didn’t like it at all. I started to play the end pages of the method and the teacher got angry. I said “I am not going back.” All I wanted was to learn how to play the piano. But we didn’t have the means back then. My father got a stroke and we moved to Izmir, Karşıyaka.

A reason why we came to Izmir was my father’s wish for me to enter the vocal department in the conservatory. My younger brother got into the flute department. I was in the middle school back then. The director said “It is too early for your daughter to enter the vocal department. She should come and apply when she is in high school so that her voice matures.” when they took me to the conservatory. Then my father passed away. They didn’t send me when I got into high school because it was a boarding school. My mother said “I have only one daughter, she should stay by my side.”

My other brothers were serving in the military and my older brother got married. My older brother was a pianist now. He had his orchestra and everything. Ultimately it was a boarding school. We couldn’t travel back and forth. My younger brother went to one as well. I remember how sad I was and that I cried. The director really liked me, and said I had an incredible absolute pitch. They liked my voice and said I would be a soprano and a lyrical soprano. But I wasn’t allowed. Everything has its own outcomes. I think focusing on jazz and becoming a producer is a lovelier occupation. Maybe I would remain as a singer in the choir.

Things Get Serious: An Incredible Team and Marriage 

I entered college entrance exams after high school. I got into English Language and Literature department in Ankara. They didn’t let me go again. The disadvantages of being a girl. However, Izmir Radio gave entrance exams for the first time during that period for the position of a producer for the polyphonic music department. Bülend Özveren was just recently appointed from Istanbul Radio to be our director. My oldest brother heard about this on the last application day from the radio. He told me Hülya this is the job for you. However, we didn’t know what a radio producer was yet. I got into the first exam and received really high grades. We participated in a two-month course and I got through the second exam as well. I became a music producer. But what I really wanted was to make a jazz program. In the meanwhile, I was listening to rock music and I really loved it, classical as well. Our course teacher was Cüneyt Sermet. He is Hüseyin Sermet’s father, and the only jazz authority in Turkey and the only person to write a critical jazz book in Turkey. After İlhan Mimaroğlu of course. He noticed it right away and said “Only Hülya among you can make a jazz program.” I went to the course and become producers with Ali Kocatepe and Ümit Tunçağ.

I got married with Ümit. I started preparing jazz programs in Izmir Radio. When I just got started, I was of course sent Cüneyt Sermet’s programs as an example from the Ankara Radio. They were jazz programs. I learnt how to write the text of a jazz program, how to give explanations etc. by listening to them. I was also discovering many other names; Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, and Oliver Nelson.

Hülya Tunçağ (Photo: Engü Balkan)

One Morning, the 12th of September… 

Not being able to go to college bothered me. They removed the age limitation after some time and I got into the exams again and got into the “musicology” department. The reason why I picked musicology was; I was already doing jazz programs, then I should have command over all the other genres. I gave myself this responsibility. I already knew about Classical Turkish Music from my father. I therefore liked this genre with the influence of my father. But I was more inclined towards polyphonic music. We learnt about folk music in the musicology lessons as well. We would play instruments used in vocal lessons like bağlama (a stringed instrument), flute and piano. I had an advantage by working for the Izmir Radio; there were two prominent court instrument players who had Izmir Radio backgrounds. The studios were close to us, I would listen to them while they recorded. However this genre didn’t really seep into my life much.

Dokuz Eylül University Musicology Department was the first school to give musicology education in Turkey. The late Prof. Gültekin Oransay founded this department. I would go to school early in the mornings and then went to the radio and did my programs. It was very tiring. I got married in the meanwhile and had my son. Radio on one side, family on the other, and musicology throughout… But 12 September events happened during my second year and they took Gültekin Oransay away to prison. We were devastated! My education was cut short…

Second Love “Cinema”  

They lifted the age limit once more a few years later. I got into the exams once more in 1982. This time, I had my heart set on my second love, cinema. I got into Cinema Television and Photography Department. I learnt a lot of systematic things for two years in the musicology department. It affected my job as a program producer a lot. There was some amazing lessons and then I finished the cinema department without any obstacles in 4 years. I was already making a cinema program. That helped as well. Jazz and cinema went hand in hand.

An Award, But Not Just Any award! 

Receiving the “Lifetime Achievement Award” was a turning point in my life. I was in the advisory board of Istanbul Jazz Festival and I was very surprised when they made this decision. It was a voting process actually, but I always suggest who to give this award to. I was so honored when they chose me. Because it was such a huge honor to be among people who received this award previously like Ahmet Ertegün, Arif Mardin and Süheyl Denizci. I was incredibly happy. The award is placed on the most prized location in my house.

Music Born From Poverty and Slavery? 

Jazz is a very special genre. Why was I drawn to jazz among so many other genres? I think because of its feeling of freedom. Jazz is an expression of momentary feelings in a sense. It is influenced by many things. So it is a very special and social music. It is a very extroverted genre. I was attracted by the feeling that starts with the blues, by those chords used in this genre. When we look into its past, jazz is a genre born from poverty and slavery. It has become the expression of being oppressed. There is longing, there is the background of African people being forced into slavery; in fields and in mines.

Combined Rhythms From Ceremonies

I gave seminars on the history of jazz for years. I even have the first recordings. It suddenly reached the level of art music, this is very important and sincere. The musician expressed whatever they are feeling in that instant with notes and a blues form is born. Gospel emerges from church ceremonies. There emerges the idea of “trading”. We see that form of trading in african ceremonies with the chief. The conversation with the tribespeople and the rhythms. African rhythms are combined rhythms, for example. They are similar to our music in that sense. There are a lot of similarities between that and our folk music. The primitive instruments used back then transform into marimba. Then marimba is transformed into vibraphone. The first seeds start sprouting in New Orleans in this historic progression.

Hülya Tunçağ (Photo: Tan Tunçağ)

Free But Unsure About What to Do

Think about African-American people who are free, but are left ignorant and are unsure about what to do. They are instinctually drawn to music. Even the salespeople sing blues while doing their business. The first jazz bands are formed on the streets and listened there as well. The organized music is born in the 1920s with Fletcher Henderson. Then arrangements and orchestral arrangements come along and arrangers start emerging. Chicago, Kansas City and New York become centers after the war. It is still ongoing in New York. Modern jazz is actually born in Harlem in Manhattan through bebop.

If Not Jazz, They Would Listen to Rock 

We are used to monophonic music as a nation. We also want to hear human voice in music. We don’t necessarily like instrumental music. Jazz is usually instrumental. When I first got into the radio business in the beginning of the 1980s, one of the programs I suggested was about pop jazz. Because the young generation was listening to rock if not jazz. Jazz was listened by older generations. I wanted young people to listen to it. You cannot reach them with complex and heavy examples. It would have been tough on them.

I Got on This Path, Thinking Young People Should Listen to Jazz

They told me no when I suggested combining pop with jazz. There was a jazz-rock movement back then that started in 1968 which combined rock with jazz. This is called fusion jazz in America, and jazz-rock in the UK. I gained many listeners when I took that as my starting point. I gave jazz music a huge audience. Then I said, if my listeners like jazz, they will get curious about Charlie Parker and like contemporary jazz, and end up learning about the masters. I got into this with an instinct, but I saw this being the truth in the years that followed…

What Should a Novice Listener Do?

They should start with the basics. I would suggest starting with the masters. Start with Louis Armstrong. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday. So they should go slowly, they shouldn’t jump to bebop. They shouldn’t go straight to Charlie Parker. They should listen to New Orleans Jazz and to New Orleans Orchestras. So this means they should start at the beginning of jazz history. They should inspect where it progresses to. Also, we have some incredible musicians. We even have musicians who combined Turkish folk music with jazz in the 1960s-70s. For example Okay Temiz. Muvaffak Falay, and his Sevda Grubu. They should look into their works. Okay Temiz is intrumental in making a lot of people like jazz. He is very productive and a world musician. One should start everything at the beginning. This is the same for classical music. You cannot start listening to avant-garde music right away. You cannot listen to electronic music, you have to start at baroque. Or go even before baroque, and go slowly. There is a method to everything.

Hülya Tunçağ & Francesco Martinelli (Photo: Engü Balkan)

These Guys Are Great! 

I stayed away from ethnic works. Because there is only a handful of people in Turkey who do it successfully. You have to know both sides very well in order to be able to do this. Otherwise, the resulting work is like a patchwork of sorts. For example, once it was very fashionable to start with folk lyrics like ‘Kızılcıklar oldu mu’ (meaning ‘Did the cranberries ripen?’) and then jump to blues. This won’t work. This is wrong, I am very wary when I hear such things. But there are also some musicians who do this very well. Okay Temiz is a pioneer and then Önder Focan has some alaturca pieces that are amazing. Muvaffak Falay has some such works. For example Aydın Esen’s piece called Anadolu (Anatolia) is incredible. These are the references. Baki Duyarlar, who comes from a musical family himself, he knows a lot about classical music, jazz and Classical Turkish Music. We have such people. For example Fatih Erkoç. He is incredible. He also plays the oud. He sings Classical Turkish Music very well, he also sings pop and he is a great trombone player. I would prefer if Fatih only played the trombone and sang jazz. But he is great at all of these. Özdemir Erdoğan is a great jazz guitarist. He knows jazz very well and has some incredible works. I really like him. So it depends on the musician who is doing it.

It Is All About Writing in Classical Music, and Playing in Jazz

Both our jazz musicians and the ones abroad are very special people… Okay, classical composers are like that, too. Is it easy to create a big symphony? Writing its orchestrations alone is very hard. It is incredible. We don’t have a Mozart or Beethoven emerge every minute. Jazz is a different thing, of course. Creativity is all about writing in classical music and playing in jazz. But a jazz musician also knows about classical music and might play that genre well.

Jazz in Turkey and Making a Living? 

Jazz is a humble genre. Because it was born underground. Like tango. Tango was born on the streets, in brothels. Jazz was born underground as well. In the fields, in barrel houses. And then it evolves into the level of art music. But we have an audience, not our musicians. What else could the musicians do. They try to play jazz despite everything. Is it easy playing jazz and making a living with it in Turkey? But such a segment formed that is showing off to others by listening to jazz. Jazz isn’t like that. Jazz is sharing. While listening to jazz you share the solos and become one altogether. You catch a stranger’s gaze and share the same feelings even though that might be the first time you have seen them.

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