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Volume 28, Number 4July/August 1977

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Jazz Caravan

Written by Morroe Berger
Illustrated by Don Thompson

Not long ago, a popular Turkish television quiz show flashed a quick view of an American jazz group on the screen and asked a contestant to identify it. Although the group had been taped while on tour in Ankara months before, the TV contestant quickly came up with the correct answer: Benny Carter and his Jazz Quintet. In Turkey, obviously, the band had made a strong impression.

That tour, part of the U.S. State Department's commemoration of America's Bicentennial Year, was an extension of a long-standing U.S. Information Agency effort to bring the best of American jazz to other countries.

So far, it has been an exceptionally successful effort. In 1956 Dizzy Gillespie made the tour with a full orchestra. In 1961 Louis Armstrong played in Egypt. In 1963 it was Duke Ellington's turn. And in 1976, Bennett Lester Carter, a vocalist, and four top musicians came together especially for the tour: Harry "Sweets" Edison, known for his years as a star with Count Basie; Gildo Mahones, a versatile and subtle pianist of superb technique; John B. Williams, a young bassist known for his work with classical orchestras as well as jazz groups; Earl C. Palmer Sr., a percussionist who, bridging the gap between jazz and rock, has been in great demand by top recording artists; and the vocalist, Millicent Browne, a dynamic personality known on several continents for her sensitive blending of words and music.

Carter himself, of course, needs no introduction. Born in New York in 1907, he was, in his early 20's, a leading alto saxophonist, trumpeter, arranger and composer whose bands, from 1928 to 1935, were acclaimed by both musicians and critics and whose arrangements formed a principal element in "swing," which began to sweep the United States and the world in the late 1930's. Many of his recordings have become classics and his arrangements were sought after by such other leaders as Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, and by such singers as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan.

In the early 1940's Benny Carter began a new career' in Hollywood—working on, or appearing in, such films as Stormy Weather (1943), Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Guns of Navarone (1961). Since the '50's he has written music for such television shows as M Squad and Ironside. In recent years, he has also given concerts—and presided over workshops and seminars—at such American universities as Cornell, Yale and Duke. At Princeton, furthermore, which awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1974, he is now a member of the Music Department's advisory council.

During the Bicentennial tour, Carter and his colleagues gave 19 concerts in 14 Middle Eastern cities: Istanbul, Ankara, Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Kuwait, Damascus, Irbid, Amman, Cairo and Alexandria. And at each appearance they played such jazz "standards" as In a Mellotone, Undecided, Take the 'A' Train, Perdido and Honeysuckle Rose with each musician featured on other songs; Carter, the romantic Misty; Sweets Edison, the Latin-jazz Wave and his own Super-sweet; Gildo Mahones, the wistful Autumn Leaves; John Williams, the contemporary Skydive; and Earl Palmer, the percussive explosion Cute. Millicent Browne accented her personal approach with I'm a Woman and A Song for You and the perennial jazz form in Every Day I Have the Blues.

The response of the audiences was uniformly enthusiastic. They loved Carter's lyrical alto saxophone, the quiet brilliance of pianist Gildo Mahones, Sweets Edison's piercing trumpet and wry humor, John Williams' pensive quality on bass and the crispness of Earl Palmer's infectious drumming. The audiences were so captivated by Millicent Browne that they even welcomed her nods in the direction of women's rights. In every city the hall, whatever its size, was filled to capacity.

Most of the audiences were composed of several kinds of people in different proportions. In every Middle Eastern city there were the diplomatic, professional and business communities—already familiar with American music. In most cities, they were far outnumbered by local fans familiar with American and European culture through study and travel. And, of course, at each concert there were the teenagers who, through radio and television, have become enthusiastic supporters of anything new in jazz and rock.

The jazz tour, however, offered more than just concerts. From the moment it was conceived, the tour was viewed as a broad cultural presentation too. For that reason Carter also joined me in conducting seminars on American music at which I spoke to university audiences on cultural and intellectual relations between Americans and the people of the Middle East, Americans of Middle Eastern origin, and the interaction between American jazz and Middle Eastern music.

For the same reason, Carter introduced each concert with a brief explanation of American jazz, pointing out that jazz is a combination of musical influences of several cultures, created by black Americans and characterized by improvisations, or variations, upon a base of written music, or themes. He also participated fully in the receptions and dinners and proved to be the perfect diplomat whether on stage or in the receiving line. In the presence of royalty in one country, for example, he modestly failed to mention that for several decades he has been known as "King" Carter—in the tradition of such jazz nobility as "Duke" Ellington, "Earl" Hines and "Count" Basie.

In Karachi, John Williams also joined the cultural presentations during a talk and demonstration I gave, with tapes of jazz and Middle Eastern music, to an audience of music students. In it we reviewed attempts by Americans to incorporate elements of Middle Eastern music into their own work and Amir Ahmad Khan, a producer with Radio Pakistan, introduced local players of the sitar and tabla who, with Williams, compared and demonstrated their music and instruments to an enthralled audience. At the same presentation Lutfallah Khan, a leading authority on oriental and western music, explained their similarities and differences in terms we could all follow.

Similar programs were equally successful. In Cairo, for example, Samha el-Kholy, director of the Conservatory of Music, gathered several hundred of her students from grade school to graduate school to hear musical examples demonstrating the fusion of American jazz and Middle Eastern music.

During the tour, of course, we heard jazz as well. In every city we found jazz experts and in Ankara and Cairo we found musicians sufficiently well organized to join the Benny Carter quintet during performances. In Ankara, for example, Erol Pecan, producer, drummer and band leader, joined the Americans along with Tuna Otenel on piano and alto saxophone, and Selcuk Sun on bass. In Cairo, Salah Ragab, a former army officer who is a percussionist and jazz band leader, joined the quintet on Caravan, along with Sayed Salama on tenor saxophone and Bib Haneen, whose playing on the tabla with drumsticks was musically exciting and dexterous.

It was in Cairo, too, that Carter spoke at the opening of the Memorial Collection of American Jazz in the John F. Kennedy Cultural Center. This collection was a memorial to its original owner, Zareh Misketian, a native Cairene who, until his death in 1974, had been informal host to jazz musicians for nearly four decades. Carter told his audience how he had almost come to Cairo from Paris in the late 1930's with a group of colleagues who spent nearly two years there and in Alexandria as the "Rhythmakers."

There was yet a different kind of program in Kuwait: a discussion and demonstration of some elements and techniques of jazz. To illustrate changes in the use of several instruments, we played a tape of Honeysuckle Rose as arranged by Carter and recorded in Paris in 1937. The quintet then played the same tune in contemporary style. And to show the place of religious themes in the growth of jazz, the quintet played When the Saints Go Marching In, first as a hymn and then in the more famous Dixieland style.

Throughout the tour, the interaction between American jazz and Middle Eastern music came up regularly. In our time jazz has influenced formal and popular music everywhere, but in its own evolution jazz gathered up and transformed elements of music from several other cultures, including Middle Eastern ones. Jazz historians agree that Islamic influences in black and Arab Africa were felt in Muslim Spain, and that black American music reflects something of these musical cultures. From its earliest development in this century, jazz adopted Latin and Middle Eastern themes, at first sketchily, but in recent years more explicitly and perceptively.

The recorded examples we brought along showed this progression: from Palesteena, recorded in 1920 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, to the recent work of Ahmed Abdul-Malik, born in Brooklyn of Sudanese parents, who between 1958 and 1963 recorded several superb albums in which he brought together Middle Eastern and black American instrumentalists, playing his own beautiful and convincing arrangements and interweaving these two types of music. The most characteristic of these albums, unfortunately no longer available, are Jazz Sahara (Riverside, 1958) and East Meets West (RCA Victor, 1959).

Several song titles also reflect the interest of black American musicians in Middle Eastern themes—Egyptian Fantasy and A Night in Tunisia, for example, and two already mentioned. Caravan and Palesteena. In the 1950's prominent black American musicians adopted such names as Liaqat Ali Salaam, Sahib Shihab, Idriss Suleiman, Yusuf Lateef and Ahmad Jamal. All these facts were received by our Middle Eastern audiences with interest and surprise.

On the other hand, the Middle East made a strong impression on the musicians, too. As Benny Carter summed it up after the tour, the impact of the Middle East upon the visitors was considerable. "We travel a lot," he told the audience at the end of the concert in Amman, Jordan, "and the more we travel, the more we realize how important are the things we have in common with all the people we meet."

The jazz tour first originated in a suggestion made by Morroe Berger, director of Princeton University's Program in Near Eastern Studies.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the July/August 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1977 images.