Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Mugham Jazz: Vagif Mustafazade
Roots in Baku's Old City
by Betty Blair
All photos courtesy
Vagif Mustafazade Humanitarian Fund / Afag Aliyeva
and composer Vagif Mustafazade (1940-1979) was the creator of
the jazz mugham movement in Azerbaijan in the 1960s. By merging
two musical genres - Western jazz and Eastern mugham, a type
of traditional improvisational modal music - he created "mugham
jazz", a new sound that was uniquely Azerbaijani. Familiar
Eastern melodies found new expression in Mustafazade's free-spirited
At the end of World War II when Vagif was growing up, jazz had
been banned in the Soviet Union. Stalin had labeled it the "music
of the capitalists". But jazz fans and musicians like Vagif
used to listen secretly on short wave radios so they could know
the latest jazz renditions on BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
and VOA (Voice of America).
Despite the Soviet system's antipathy toward jazz, Mustafazade
was able to achieve international recognition for his music even
during his lifetime. In 1978, he won First Prize at the Eighth
International Jazz Festival in Monaco for his composition "Waiting
for Aziza". In 1979, he was named People's Artist of Azerbaijan.
That same year, he suddenly collapsed and died while performing
onstage in Uzbekistan. He was only 39 years old. His legacy as
a pioneer of jazz mugham preceded his own time and still strongly
impacts how jazz is performed in Azerbaijan today.
Covers of the 6 CDs - Vagif Mustafazade Jazz Collection. Order
Search for "Jazz".
Now that Azerbaijan has gained its independence from the Soviet
Union (1991), Mustafazade's brilliant jazz renditions finally
have a chance to become known beyond his native land and the
former Soviet Union. A collection of 6 CDs featuring 80 of his
works - many of them originally produced on vinyl LPs released
during Vagif's lifetime; others are rare, unreleased selections
from the 1960s and 1970s recorded at Baku's Radio and Television
Studios or preserved at Azerbaijan's National Voice Recording
Archives. The idea for the project came from Mike Barnes, President
of UNOCAL Khazar Ltd., which sponsored the project. Pirouz Khanlou,
Publisher of Azerbaijan International produced the 6 CD set.
Javanshir Guliyev was Project Director and did the digital restoration.
Tarlan Gorchu and Ilham T. Aliyev of Tutu Publishing were involved
with the design of the 6 CD Vagif Mustafazade Collection.
Afag Aliyev of the Vagif Mustafazade Humanitarian Fund provided
photos. Alla Bayramova, Director of the State Museum of Azerbaijani
Musical Culture, also assisted with photos.
Editor of Azerbaijan International, wrote the biographical article
after interviewing Vagif's contemporaries who include:
1. Poet Vagif Samadoghlu: close friend of Mustafazade and pianist
from youth. Vagif has since been honored as "National Poet
of Azerbaijan". He is the son of the famous poet Samad Vurghun,
Member of Parliament and currently one of Azerbaijan's six Parliament
representatives to the Council of Europe.
2. Rafig Guliyev: classical pianist and "People's Artist
of Azerbaijan", Professor at Baku's most prestigious music
institution, Academy of Music.
3. Javanshir Guliyev: composer who knew Vagif from working at
Azerbaijan's State Television and Radio Company.
4. Vasif Babayev: childhood friend who grew up together with
Vagif in the Old City.
5. Eybat Mammadbeyli: guitarist who performed with Vagif's vocal
group "Sevil" in the 1970s.
Arzu Aghayeva, Ulviyya Mammadova, Aynura Huseinova, Gulnar Aydamirova
and Jala Garibova were involved in the Azeri translation for
this CD project which is available at AZER.com - Store.
Biography - Vagif
prepared for a barrage of superlatives if you ask jazz musicians
and jazz lovers in Azerbaijan about Vagif Mustafazade (pronounced
vah-GIF mu-stah-fah-zah-DEH) (1940-1979).
Left: Vagif Mustagazade,
"mugham jazz" (1940-1979)
Rafig Guliyev, one of Azerbaijan's most famous classical pianists
and one of Vagif's contemporaries, reflects on those days: "Vagif
burst in on the jazz elite like a bright meteor.
He was a pianist of great talent and brilliant dimensions. There
has never been another pianist from Azerbaijan of such scale,
of such hurricane strength and talent. He made an invaluable
contribution to jazz. He was first when it came to fusing Azerbaijan's
traditional mugham with jazz, and as we say, 'First is always
Rafig recalls Vagif's live performances: "Hearing Vagif's
recordings is nothing when compared to seeing him perform live.
It was something indescribable. Even the video footage that exists
today doesn't do justice to his brilliance. It doesn't express
the feelings and impression of his live performances. How can
I describe it? You had to have seen it. It was more than passion.
Vagif was so intense when he played: you could have killed him
and he wouldn't have even felt it."
Today Vagif is most remembered, not for being a jazz pianist
in the classical sense of the word, but for taking traditional
Azerbaijani elements - modal scales from Azerbaijan's own improvisational
mugham music-and blending them with jazz to create his own signature.
This style is sometimes referred to as "mugham jazz".
It was a unique fusion of music of both East and West.
Though the West didn't know Vagif very well, there were a few
outstanding jazz performers and critics who had heard his works.
One was Willis Connover, who directed Jazz Hour on Voice of America
(VOA) and who saw Vagif perform at the 1967 Tallinn Jazz Festival
in Estonia. Connover called Vagif "the most lyrical musician
I have ever heard".
"Dizzy" Gillespie, one of the greatest trumpeters and
bandleaders in jazz history on the American scene, heard Vagif's
works and remarked: "Vagif was a genius but it seems that
he was born before his time. He brought us the music of the future."
By any standard, Vagif as jazz pianist-composer had chalked up
some impressive prizes in his short lifetime despite the fact
that he had grown up in a period "when Azerbaijan did not
wear the smile of jazz on its face," as his contemporary,
poet Vagif Samadoghlu, described the ban on this genre during
the 1950s and 1960s in the Soviet Union.
In 1978, Vagif Mustafazade won the coveted Grand Prize at the
8th International Monte Carlo Jazz Competition in Monaco.
Mustafazade won the Monte Carlo Jazz Competition Festival in
1978 for his work, "Waiting for Aziza".
from numerous countries had submitted their written compositions.
The judges listened, not knowing the name of the work, its composer,
or which country it represented. Voting was by secret ballot.
Vagif chose "Waiting for Aziza" which he had written
in anticipation of the birth of his second daughter, born in
1969. No one expected an unknown musician from Azerbaijan to
take the First Prize.
Vagif was extremely proud of the honor and in a radio interview
a few months before his death in 1979, he commented that winning
the Monte Carlo Jazz Festival had given him such confidence that
he had since doubled his intensity and enthusiasm.
At the International
Jazz Festivals in Tallinn (Estonia) in 1966 and 1967, Vagif took
First Prize both years. He also won the Tbilisi International
Jazz Festival (1975) and was named the Best Pianist of Tbilisi
78. He also played in Kyiv, Ukraine (1977) and was a three-time
winner of jazz festivals in Baku. In 1979, he performed at the
All Union Composers' Concert Hall in Moscow, along with some
of the other well-known Soviet jazz musicians.
The hall was packed. Vagif received a standing ovation. Already
by 1979, he had produced six LPs, or "vinyls" as they
were called, with Melodiya, the single record producer in the
Soviet Union. This was a feat in itself, given the government's
enormous overburdened bureaucratic system.
In Azerbaijan, he eventually was recognized with the highest
honor possible - National Artist of Azerbaijan (1978). In 1982,
he was awarded the State Prize of Azerbaijan posthumously.
Jazz Roots in Baku
Left: Vagif with his daughter
Aziza in the late 1970s.
had deep roots in Baku long before Vagif Mustafazade arrived
on the scene. In the late 1800s, Baku was already known for its
oil and Europeans were gravitating to this city on the western
shores of the Caspian. Together with local entrepreneurs, they
succeeded in producing more than half of the world's supply of
oil in those years.
At about the same time, America was giving birth to a new musical
form - jazz. These mesmerizing melodies and rhythms emanated
from the restaurants and back alleys of cities like New Orleans
This new musical sound was a synthesis of various cultural traditions,
drawing upon African rhythms, the Asian love for improvisation
and abstract thinking, and European classical music.
this new musical synthesis found its way to other cities in the
world, even to Baku, which because of its oil wealth was not
nearly as isolated in 1900 as it would become during the Soviet
period (1920-1991). Newspaper archives in Baku indicate that
bands were performing jazz in restaurants at that time. There's
even a strong likelihood that the Nobel Brothers - Robert and
Ludwig - who were deeply involved with Baku's oil development
might have listened to jazz, though there are no early recordings
to confirm what the professional quality might have been.
By a tragic twist of fate, the economic oil boom, fueled by its
vigorous entrepreneurial spirit, came to an abrupt halt when
the Bolsheviks took control of Baku in 1920. The Soviet regime
established their authority in the region, and soon Soviet doctrine
penetrated all aspects of life - even attitudes toward art, literature
and emotions. Everything became subject to Communist ideology
and central control. Nothing escaped its scrutiny, not even music,
including what to sing, what to perform and what to listen to.
Major decisions and ideological direction were determined in
the Kremlin in Moscow - not by local artists.
In Soviet Azerbaijan in the late 1930s, the State Jazz Orchestra
was organized by composer and pianist Tofig Guliyev and Maestro
Niyazi. Their ensemble consisted of five saxophones, three trumpets,
a trombone, piano, guitar and various percussion instruments.
The musicians played classical jazz, but they also improvised
on some of the traditional folk songs and mughamstraditional
Azerbaijani modal music.
Enter Vagif Mustafazade. Vagif was born in Baku, Azerbaijan,
on March 16, 1940. World War II was already underway: the Soviet
Union would send troops to fight against Hitler the following
year. Although Azerbaijan never became a combat zone, the Republic
suffered tremendous casualties, as did the entire Soviet Union.
In Azerbaijan alone, of the 700,000 Azerbaijanis who were recruited
for war, an estimated 400,000 never returned. Afterwards, the
Cold War would dog relations between the Soviet Union and the
West and would impact Vagif for the rest of his life, especially
in terms of his ability to become known as a jazz pianist and
composer beyond the territory that the West called "The
After World War II ended in 1945, Stalin (1879-1953) as the Supreme
leader of the Soviet Union imposed a prohibition against jazz,
as "music of the capitalists". There wasn't a decree,
per say, that singled out jazz; rather there was a decision by
the Party "Against Formalism in Literary Art". This
included jazz and every other art form that was created and influenced
by the West. These prohibitions were established, despite the
fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had fought as allies
against the Germans. Hitler, who always touted the superiority
of the Arian race, had already banned jazz in Germany in 1933
as "inferior music" because this was music of Negroes,
which he deemed to be a lesser race.
According to Azerbaijani composer Javanshir Guliyev, during the
Soviet era, the music that was most esteemed by the highest echelons
of power was what one might call "Monumental Music",
which meant classical music - symphonies, concertos, operas and
ballets. "This was their attempt to express their quest
for the greatness and monumentalism of the State - in this case,
the Soviet Empire." Javanshir feels that this Soviet trend
somehow was influenced by Hitler's fondness of the music by Wagner
with its majestic sound and large orchestras. The Communists
simply emulated Hitler's tastes, Javanshir believes.
between 1945 and Stalin's death (1953), not only was jazz prohibited,
but so were the instruments closely associated with this genre.
Even the saxophone solo in Ravel's famous "Bolero"
was substituted with a bassoon. Jazz performances in the Soviet
Union were entirely banned during these years.
Such restrictions could have been anticipated, given the nature
of jazz itself. Classical pianist Rafig Guliyev describes it
this way: "What is jazz other than freedom, independence
and improvisation? Any kind of freedom or any kind of improvisation
goes beyond the borders of what the Bolsheviks could control.
It's not that they didn't like jazz or didn't understand it.
Simply, they were afraid of it. Jazz is the most progressive
music on earth!" Rafig observes that, in general, totalitarian
regimes are invariably suspicious of artistic forms that are
based on independent, spontaneous and improvisational techniques,
especially at a grass roots level.
My Mom, the Sea, and the Old City
What influenced Vagif to become such a great musician? According
to Rauf Farhadov, Vagif offered a simple explanation, which is
both poetic and profound in its implications.
Left: Vagif with his mother
Zivar Khanim (1960s).
He credited his music to three things: "My mom, the sea,
and 'Ichari Shahar'". In other words: Zivar Aliyeva, the
Caspian, and Baku's oldest residential section where Vagif grew
up. He saw these three factors playing the greatest roles in
shaping his character and in providing him with tremendous tenacity,
identity, and vision to cope with the unreasonable authoritarianism
that surrounded him.
Home for Vagif was Baku's "Ichari Shahar" (literally
"Inner City", which often is referred to as "The
Old City" by foreigners). No one is quite sure how early
to date this section of town, surrounded by high citadel walls
- perhaps, to the 12th century. Perhaps earlier.
Not only was "Ichari Shahar" with its narrow winding
streets, the oldest, most picturesque part of the city. Not only
was it adjacent to the sea, but it boasted one of the most closely
knit neighborhoods which had the greatest concentration of Azerbaijanis.
Though many Russians, Armenians, Jews and even some Georgians
and Lesgians lived in other sections of the capital, the Old
City was still populated mostly by Azerbaijanis, who were identified
by their accent, food and character.
"Ichari Shahar", says Rafig Guliyev, "was the
'belly-button of Baku'. Kids who grew up there walked with their
own swagger. They were difficult kids. To tell you the truth,
us city guys were a little afraid of the Inner City guys. They
were known for their stubbornness, their belligerence, their
determination," Rafig recalls. "They had an acute sense
of justice. It was like 'all for one and one for all'. And they
were always 'the life of the party' - the center of attraction
- passionate and free-spirited. They had a sense of identity:
you could even identify Inner City guys by the clothes they wore
- loose pants and white shirts."
Childhood playmate Vasif Babayev (now a TV producer) recalls
those early years growing up together with Vagif in "Ichari
Shahar". "Those years you could hear mugham music coming
out of nearly every home. When you passed by under the windows
along those narrow streets, you could hear people playing the
tar and kamancha (traditional stringed instruments). 'Ichari
Shahar' was a unique place from this point of view. Vagif grew
up literally surrounded by mugham."
There was another thing about the Inner City: traditionally everybody
who lived there was given a nickname. Vasif remembers: "Vagif's
nickname was 'muzikant' ('musician' in Russian) because he had
the best sense of rhythm and music. We used to gather in the
park below Philharmonic Hall where public dances were held -
ballroom dances in the open air. Vagif was nine or ten years
old at the time. He was the best dancer! And he was good looking.
Everybody loved him - guys and girls alike. Everybody wanted
to attract his attention."
The boys from "Ichari Shahar" played together. Vasif
describes some of their favorite haunts: the small beach (which
no longer exists) in front of Giz Galasi (Maiden's Tower), and
the park below the Philharmonic with its iron bars through which
they would wiggle after 7 p.m. when the park closed so they could
play soccer or swim in Baku's deepest pool (4 meters). "We
used to climb up on the frog statues and jump into the water,"
Vasif recalls. "And when it came to that mysterious famous
landmark, the Maiden's Tower, we used to try to find a way to
go up inside it. At that time, only scholars were allowed inside.
We would beg them to take us up so we could climb the circular
stairs and exit on the roof that opened up to a view of the whole
The Caspian Sea is inextricably linked with the Old City and
Vagif could see it from his window just a few blocks away when
he practiced the piano. No doubt, the rhythm of the waves, characterized
by improvisation and variability shaped his music as well. But
it's likely when Vagif mentions the sea as one of the primary
factors shaping his music that he also means his yearning for
freedom and faraway places. It wasn't just poets who stood at
the edge of the Caspian imagining distant shores and life beyond
the restrictive Soviet rule. This may have been the Caspian's
most compelling feature for Vagif. It was one of his greatest
dreams to be able to perform outside the borders of the Soviet
Union. Unfortunately, it was a dream that never became reality
And then there was his mom - Zivar Khanim (Mrs. Zivar) - as she
was endearingly and respectfully called. Vagif lived with his
mom on the third floor of what had once been a residence built
during the Oil Baron era on the eve of the 20th century. Like
hundreds of other buildings in the center of Baku, the Soviets
had confiscated the property and furniture of the wealthy and
elite, and divided these luxurious residences into numerous apartments.
That one-room apartment became the repository of an immense musical
knowledge that would shape the movement of jazz in Azerbaijan.
Vagif's father, Aziz Abdul Karim oglu Mustafazade, a major in
the Medical Service, served eight years in the Far East. He was
known to have played the tar, a traditional stringed instrument,
quite well. The tar is one of the primary instruments traditionally
used in performing mugham music. Little is said about Vagif's
father. Vagif's contemporaries today only mention the powerful
influence of his mom.
Zivar Khanim taught piano at School No. 1, a seven-year (elementary)
music school. These days in Azerbaijan, it is not unusual for
a young girl to pursue a music career but in Zivar Khanim's day,
it was quite an achievement. She should be given immense credit
for becoming a professional musician in the 1920s and 1930s.
It wasn't so easy for women to enter professional music at that
time. Despite the fact that the Bolsheviks had established a
new government in 1920 that would lead to the formation of the
Soviet state, Azerbaijan at that time was still basically a traditional
Muslim society that censured women who dared to move outside
the arena of the home, and pursue careers, especially those which
required any performance in public.
For example, it was 1912 before the first woman ever performed
on stage in Azerbaijan. Shovkat Mammadova had just returned from
Milan after professionally studying voice there. Up until then,
it was men who had always performed women's roles in operas.
But Shovkat, who was 15 at the time, appeared on stage in Baku
in European dress without wearing the traditional veil. It was
a disaster. Too much, too soon. She was threatened and run off
stage. Had she not run out the back door and jumped into a carriage,
waiting for her in anticipation of such an emergency, the story
might have ended differently. The driver was instructed to "speed
away so that the sparks would fly from the horses' hooves".
For the next several days, it is said that Shovkat hid in oil
fields on the Absheron peninsula. Shaken, when she finally managed
to return to the city a few days later, she decided to leave
for Tbilisi (Georgia) where attitudes towards women performing
on stage were more tolerant. She would not return to Baku until
eight years later at which time she was able to pursue a musical
career as a professor in the Music Conservatory. It wasn't until
the late 1920s that the Soviets began to succeed in their campaign
of getting Muslim women to shed their veils.
It was Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), who had arranged for Shovkat
to perform on stage that ill-fated evening. He did not give up
in his determination for women to excel in music and to comprise
much of the pedagogical powerhouse for training youth in music.
Hajibeyov would become Zivar Khanim's mentor and teacher.
Hajibeyov became known as "The Father of Composed Music
in Azerbaijan" because he challenged musicians to write
down Azerbaijan's traditional music. Prior to that time, all
music had been played by ear and based entirely upon improvisation.
In 1945 Hajibeyov published his major work, "Principles
of the Folk Music of Azerbaijan" (The English edition came
out in 1985). It was a topic he spent nearly 20 years to research.
He identified seven main modes [mughams] built on 12-tone scales,
which, according to him, provided 84 variations upon which to
improvise melodies. Zivar Khanim would pass this knowledge and
passion for mugham music on to her son.
Vagif's friends say that mughams based on the modal scales of
"Bayati Shiraz" and "Shur" became his favorites.
"Shur" was one of the most popular mughams since a
great majority of Azerbaijan songs and folk dances were based
on this mode. Some may wish to differ with the analysis, but
Hajibeyov describes "Shur" as "cheerful and lyrical"
while he considered "Bayati-Shiraz" as "melancholic
But not only did Vagif's knowledge of folk music shape the music
he would create, it affected his attitude toward traditional
folk musicians. "Unlike many other jazz and classical musicians,
Vagif never looked down on folk musicians," according to
Javanshir. "He got on well with the mugham singers and tar
players. He understood their language and they understood his.
Other jazz musicians snubbed folk musicians and looked upon them
condescendingly, but Vagif took folk music and folk musicians
Left: By age nine, Vagif
Gershwin's jazz rendition of "The Man I Love". His
mother, Zivar Khanim was his first piano teacher.
Vagif started playing the piano at age three. That was the same
year that Zivar Khanim began to realize that her son had an exceptional
memory. Poet Vagif Samadoghlu recalls the story that Zivar Khanim
told his father, the famous poet Vurghun. "Once Zivar Khanim
was quoting some lines from my father's play, 'Farhad and Shirin'.
Vagif heard her. Though he was little more than a toddler and
too young to comprehend the meaning of the drama, he started
repeating the lines back to her. Zivar Khanim was amazed. And
so was my father," recalled Vagif the poet.
Vasif Babayev, Vagif's childhood friend, remembers how everybody
was afraid and paid attention to Zivar Khanim. "She was
a very strict woman. Whenever Vagif was practicing the piano,
she wouldn't let anybody disturb him. She would say: 'One day
Vagif will become famous, so don't disturb him.' She would even
come and take him away from the park and from the ball dances
if he needed to practice. Vagif was very obedient to his mother.
She was like fire."
Influence of Classical
By the age of nine, Vagif was playing George Gershwin's "The
Man I Love," which he continued to perform throughout his
life. He went on to study the classics - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,
Chopin, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Mendelssohn and others. In fact,
so intense was his passion for music that it was impossible to
make him study subjects like algebra, physics, geometry and chemistry.
Vagif thought such studies were a waste of his time. He had little
interest in them. According to Rafig Guliyev, "Vagif didn't
like etudes and exercises. Of course, we were from the classical
school and were convinced that such exercises were absolutely
essential. But now 30 years later as I reflect back on Vagif's
life, I think he was probably right. Why did he need etudes?
He was at the piano all the time; he really didn't need to practice
Rafig recalls how one of Vagif's early teachers Rebecca Levine
used to complain how difficult some of the classical works were
for Vagif. "She had a hard time with him and told me about
it on several occasions," said Rafig. "He had difficulty
with Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 and Beethoven's Sonata No.
11. But, you know, Vagif compensated for every weakness the minute
he sat down and started improvising jazz."
There's a story that Rauf Farhadov tells in his book about Vagif.
Once his piano teacher Georgi Sharoyev at the Azaf Zeynalli Music
School had assigned Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.
As usual Vagif's mom had accompanied him to the lesson. Vagif
played the work beautifully from memory. But then Sharoyev observed,
"Zivar Khanim, he's playing C-Sharp Minor in the key of
This was something totally unacceptable to Sharoyev. Even though
Vagif had perfect pitch, it seems he hadn't realized that he
was playing it differently. So he played it again, this time
in C-Sharp Minor, amazing his teacher with his ability to transpose
with such ease and speed.
Later on, Vagif would always credit his versatility as a jazz
performer to his strong foundation in classical piano. In an
interview in 1979 with radio journalist (now Parliament member)
Rafael Huseinov, Vagif emphasized the value of classics as basic
preparation for the improvisational genre.
"If you want to go into jazz," Vagif had said, "you
have to enter through symphonic music. You can't become a professional
jazz performer without knowing symphonic music well. It's impossible.
You can't come to jazz without being able to play Tchaikovsky,
Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Mozart and Chopin. And when it comes to
Bach, he's absolutely essential. If a jazzman doesn't know Bach,
it's like 'his eyes have not been opened', as we say."
Vagif went on to describe the main difference between classical
music and jazz: "There are no scores in jazz. Only certain
rhythms, themes and compositions are written down. Then it's
up to the musician to improvise and show what he can do In jazz,
the composition is created and developed during the process of
actual playing. Everything begins from the moment that you sit
down at the piano and start to play."
Unlike classical music, when it came to learning jazz, Vagif
didn't have any specific teachers. He found his way independently,
experimenting and improvising entirely on his own. He learned
traditional jazz by listening to Charlie Parker and Bill Evans.
Vagif told Rafael Huseinov, "I love Bill Evans so much.
He's such a lyrical and unique pianist. Evans eats the keyboard."
Then there was Cecil Taylor, Michael Tyner, Ahmad Jamal and others.
Among the Soviet groups, he was particularly fond of Lukyanov's
Ensemble, Kozlov, and the Nikolai Levinski Ensemble.
Jazz on Short-Wave
Poet Vagif Samadoghlu recalls fond memories when he and Vagif
spent endless hours together, secretly listening to the short-wave
radio programs on VOA (Voice of America) and the BBC (British
Broadcasting Company), desperate to catch some lines of jazz.
Neither of them knew English. It was forbidden to listen to jazz,
so they would turn the radio down low so that no one could detect
them in adjacent apartments, just a thin wall away.
"After listening, we would try to reproduce the music on
the old piano in Vagif's apartment." Despite the fact that
both youth had studied music all their lives, it wasn't until
the mid-1950s that they ever actually laid eyes on any jazz scores.
"The only thing we could do was to listen every chance we
got, and then try to replicate the sounds that we heard,"
Nor did they have any means of copying the music that they heard.
Vinyl records, of course, did exist at the time. But personal
tape recorders and tape players were not widely available. Vagif's
teen years long preceded the age of videos, CDs and MP3 players.
On occasions, samples of some of the greatest Western jazz performers
would find their way into the Soviet Union, as they were very
popular. But mostly, budding musicians had to rely entirely on
memory and ear. According to those who knew Vagif well, he was
especially talented in these two aspects, endowed with a photographic
memory and an incredible ear for music.
Poet Vagif Samadoghlu tells how they used to pick up on jazz
motifs at the movies, too. "When we found a movie that had
jazz motifs, we would go watch that film over and over again,
sometimes 20-30 times. We would wait for the sections that had
jazz, then rush back home to try to reproduce them while they
were still fresh in our minds.
"You could always tell when an American spy was about to
appear in a Soviet movie. A few lines of jazz would signal his
entrance. The song, 'Sad Baby' in the film, 'The Fate of an American
Soldier,' always used to make us cry," Vagif recalls. After
World War II, they even had access to a few American films, some
of which had jazz on their soundtracks.
After Stalin's death in March 1953, there was a backlash against
the harsh dictatorial practices that people had lived under for
the previous 30 years. Historians sometimes dub this period "Khrushchev's
Thaw" to designate how censorship was less severe. Some
of the prohibitions against jazz gradually lifted. But, naturally,
the public was cautious. It wasn't that the pubic didn't like
jazz. Rather, they felt that they needed to test which way the
political winds were blowing so as to be "politically correct".
The consequences of misjudging were too severe and so, the negative
attitude toward jazz lingered on. It was impossible to change
For example, once a Jazz Music Evening was scheduled for Music
School No. 1. Though no formal announcement had been made in
advance, the hall was packed. It was to be the first time that
Vagif would be performing his own compositions in public. But
at the very last minute, the concert was cancelled. The reason:
forbidden genre- jazz. It was one of the first of many disappointments
in his journey to become a jazz pianist.
Vagif graduated from Asaf Zeynalli Music College in 1963. Vasif
Babayev recalls those years: "There used to be parties in
the evenings at the universities where they played and danced
'rock-n-roll'. Vagif would go. When he appeared, everybody would
applaud and ask him to play something on the piano. Those years,
the authorities highly disapproved of 'rock-n-roll'-since it
originated in the West. Police would arrest anyone caught dancing
to it. So when Vagif would play, one student would stand guard
at the door to watch for university officials."
When it came to performance technique, Vagif had his own idiosyncrasies.
"From the point of view of classical fingering," says
pianist Rafig Guliyev, "the anatomy of his hands was abnormal.
Everything was incorrect. He shouldn't have even been able to
play. Let me give you an example. When you play the scale of
E major, you have to position your hands a certain way. What
Vagif did is beyond description; it was something monstrous.
Vagif was extremely talented and brilliant; otherwise, it would
have been impossible for him to play like he did. It's impossible
to give a classical explanation to the nature of his playing
and describe his technique.
For example, with intervals of thirds, you're supposed to play
with your first four fingers. That's the classical way, but Vagif
would play them simultaneously with just one finger. I don't
want to give the impression that Vagif always played like a hurricane.
Not at all," Rafig continues. "His lyrical works, compositions
and improvisations were full of such stunning sensitivity and
such delicacy that they would make any classical player jealous.
Nobody taught him this. It was God-given."
In 1967, Vagif performed at the Tallinn Jazz Festival. Famous
world-known jazz players were there in the concert hall. Vagif
told Rafael Huseinov: "Before our trio performed, the Charles
Lloyd Quartet and Zbigniew Namislovski Quartet were on stage.
It was very difficult to impress the audience after their performances."
But Vagif went on to take the First Prize at the festival. "Even
those performers applauded us from their hearts. That concert
turned out to be one of the beautiful days of my life,"
he had recalled.
Javanshir recalls that at the end of each festival, there used
to be jam sessions. "Once Vagif proposed that they improvise
on a theme, for example, in E Miinor, but there was one restriction:
they had to play without touching the main key -"E".
It was an absurd idea to most musicians. Nobody believed it could
be done. But Vagif took up the challenge and started playing.
Others would stop him from time to time to check whether he really
had played the signature note or not. And they confirmed that
he really had not touched that note. It shows what kind of technical
level he had achieved."
Javanshir continues: "Once he was playing one of his pieces
called, 'Watch Out, Don't Make a Mistake' and he asked the rest
of us to guess what meter he was playing in. Nobody could identify
the beat but it turned out to be the simplest of rhythms: 4/4.
It's just that Vagif had just shifted the accent and that's what
had puzzled the audience. In classical music, they had already
started using such techniques. He knew classical music so well,
not just jazz."
One of the biggest disappointments in Vagif's life came when
he was not accepted into Baku's most prestigious music institution-the
Conservatory of Music (now Academy). You won't find it written
anywhere that the Rector rejected Vagif because he was too closely
identified with that troublesome genre, but Vagif's contemporaries
will tell you. And they'll tell you how disappointed he was not
to have been accepted into the Composers' Union, even though
everything he did was related to composing. Soviet bureaucrats
countered that Vagif did not qualify because "he had studied
Performance, not Composition" which was the criteria they
used for admittance.
Despite the fact that Vagif was appointed as pianist for the
Variety Orchestra of Azerbaijan State TV and piano soloist for
the Radio Committee of Azerbaijan following graduation from Azaf
Zeynalli music school, these other disappointments overshadowed
the situation, causing him to decide to leave for Tbilisi, Georgia.
There he would work three years, organize a musical group, and
meet Georgian Elsa Bandzeladze, whom he later married and with
whom he had his second daughter Aziza. It was popular songwriter
Rauf Hajiyev who begged Vagif to return to Azerbaijan. Baku beckoned
and Vagif returned.
Bucking the System
Vagif's tenacity, Javanshir Guliyev observed: "Even if the
official line against jazz had not softened during the Soviet
times, I believe that Vagif still would never have changed his
Left: Desperate to catch
some lines of the jazz being broadcast on shortwave radio BBC
and VOA (Voice of America). During those days, jazz was forbidden
in the Soviet Union.
passionate about jazz. He became consumed with this love and
obsession. It was even a mystery to him why he was so attracted
to it. But this music came from the heart and gave him the chance
to express his feelings."
He became addicted to jazz. He started experimenting with drugs
as well. Everybody knows, though few talk about it much. They
always insist that Vagif must be remembered for his brilliant
music and nothing else. His friends say that the fact that this
brilliant musician couldn't expose his inner world openly, gnawed
away at him. That's when he started drinking and getting involved
with drugs, they say.
Critics didn't help either. They offered contradictory opinions:
some sang his eulogies; others brutalized him. The pressure on
Vagif, both physically and psychologically was immense, according
to Javanshir. "It was difficult to commit yourself to jazz
under such pressure. Many other musicians gave up and took to
other popular forms of popular music-like the genre of Love Song."
Vagif ran into considerable opposition from the authorities.
Once the chairman of the TV Committee called him in and told
him that he would have to shave his big moustache because it
wasn't appropriate for TV. "I won't let you appear on TV
looking like that! We're building socialism. This kind of image
could hurt our reputation," the chairman insisted. And Vagif
shot back: "What about Marx? He had both a moustache and
a long beard, too." The chairman understood the irony of
his request and let it go. But Vagif was extremely upset and
disappointed. According to Javanshir, Vagif shared this story
among friends for years.
The TV people also complained about the big, ostentatious rings
he wore. They felt this showed lack of modesty and contradicted
the ideal image of the Soviet man. But Vagif wouldn't take them
off. "Vagif would never swallow criticism like this,"
observed Rafig. "He was rebellious by nature. He would not
accept their framework and prohibitions. He couldn't have cared
less about Communist rules and morals."
Vasif remembers that Vagif liked to dress like Elvis Presley,
wearing bell-bottom pants. Rafig Guliyev notes: "From outside
appearances, Vagif appeared to be such a peaceful lad. But when
it came to his work, he was a cruel taskmaster. He had such a
highly refined sense of perfection, and he demanded the same
dedication from those who worked with him. He didn't realize
that he was a genius and that others were mere ordinary mortals.
That led to confrontations and nervous breakdowns. Bad music
instruments simply 'killed him' and bad accompanists 'killed
There were other obstacles. Many had to do with restricting his
travel. The authorities wouldn't let him go out of the country.
Only once he went to the Soviet satellite state of Poland. Even
in that group, Eybat Mammadbeyli, Vagif's guitarist, recalls
how their group had to meet the other musicians in Moscow first
and present themselves as if they were part of the Moscow group.
Though they were capable of performing alone, they had to accompany
the other singers, too.
Aziza, Vagif's daughter, tells how her father used to receive
invitations to perform in Europe. "Once he was invited to
Finland to participate in a jazz festival. All the preparations
had been made and he had even boarded the plane. But just a few
minutes prior to departure, an official announced, 'Mr. Mustafazade.
Vagif Mustafazade, please return. Someone is waiting for you.'
So Vagif got up to see what was happening, and then they wouldn't
allow him back on the plane. It took off without him. It was
a ploy just to keep him from performing abroad. Simply, he was
a jazz player. There were many occasions like that," Aziza
"People like Vagif are heroes," says Javanshir. "They
struggled against their environs-against people who didn't understand
them. They had to be so strong just to keep doing their own work
and not betray their own artistic integrity."
Left: Waiting for a TV shoot.
Javanshir continues: "Censorship was everywhere. Music was
not exempt. Anything that was not in conformity with the Soviet
ideology was disapproved and banned. If, in the opinion of some
high official, a work was not in tune with the Soviet ideology,
the doors were slammed shut.
Alternatively, they would suggest that an artist create something
that would glorify the Soviet system. They would openly say:
'If you do so-and-so, your job will be much easier.' So musicians
and composers had to become very clever to accomplish their own
a member of the vocal group called "Sevil" that Vagif
created to perform on TV, recalls such compromises. Vagif was
severely restricted. "They didn't let us play jazz on TV
so we played Vagif's pieces after work. Unfortunately, our audience
was limited. Only after we resigned from the TV post were we
able to spend our time performing concerts and were less restricted."
"It was only because of Vagif's determination that he continued
with jazz," observed Javanshir. "He made the Azerbaijani
people so fortunate but it made his life so difficult. All these
pressures affected his relationships. Consequently, it began
to affect his health. There's no doubt that this immense stress
accelerated his death." Eybat elaborated, "In general,
he was a difficult person to communicate with. People were careful
when they spoke with him. You might say he was a person with
thorns, who demanded 100 percent sincerity and honesty from others,
as he was very honest himself, very sincere and appropriate in
his behavior towards others."
The Last Concert
Just prior to his death when he went to Tashkent (Uzbekistan)
to perform in 1979, Vagif passed Javanshir in the street and
stopped him. "We were experiencing such a cold spell in
Baku at the time," Javanshir recalls, "but Vagif held
me for 40 minutes there in the street, pouring out his heart
and complaining about his problems. He was extremely nervous.
You could even see the veins bulging in his neck. He complained
that his direction was fixed towards the West, but that the authorities
were sending him to the East. 'They never send me to Europe.
That's where they should send me, but instead they're sending
me to Tashkent. What am I supposed to do there?' Vagif had lamented."
Poet Vagif Samadoghlu, like other close friends, was not really
surprised when he learned that Vagif had collapsed and died from
heart complications after the performance in Tashkent on December
16th. "Somehow the tragedy came as no surprise to me. I
had somehow anticipated it," Samadoghlu admits. "Every
time I used to see him at the piano, I realized that he was taut
as a string. I knew that he would not be able to survive music
for very long."
Aziza recalls the last time she talked with her daddy-the day
before his death. It was four days prior to her 10th birthday
(December 19). "I had pleaded with him: 'When will you come
home? I want to see you tomorrow.' But he reminded me that he
had a concert the following day. 'But my darling, don't worry,
I'll be back, and we'll be together for Momma's Birthday (December
17)'. But it never happened."
Aziza talked more about the circumstances surrounding his death.
"It seems he had not been feeling well and the doctors had
cautioned him against playing. But he insisted. He gave a superb
concert despite the fact that not many people attended. The concert
had been scheduled to coincide with the annual Muslim religious
commemoration of Ashura-the day each year when traditionally
religious zealots fill the streets and flagellate themselves
to mark the commemoration of the death of Hussein, the third
"Why?" asks Aziza, "Why did they schedule his
concert on that day? Clearly, the Soviet system wanted to antagonize
him. They were always doing things completely wrong. I can't
understand this old system. It broke the lives and hearts and
careers of so many people. In the end, my father died because
he was under so much stress. It really wasn't fair to him. They
had organized a concert for him on a day when they knew very
few people would come. They wanted to embarrass and shame him.
Music is not traditionally performed on that day in Muslim communities."
Three months later, on March 16, 1980, Vagif Samadoghlu helped
to organize a Memorial Night for Vagif at the Actors' House.
So many people came to pay tribute that they had to set up loudspeakers
in the lobby and the street. There just wasn't enough room in
the hall. A few days later VOA's Willis Connover devoted his
45-minute radio jazz program entirely to Vagif. Vasif Babayev,
one of his childhood playmates in the "Ichari Shahar"
notes: "Vagif lived 39 years under the Soviet regime. I
think he achieved more than was possible to have achieved at
"If Vagif were alive now, the whole world would know him.
Simply, he was born too soon," his friends insist. "So
many who had resisted Vagif during his life, embraced him after
his death. Only after he died did people understand what they
had lost," observes Javanshir.
According to Rauf Farhadov, Vagif seemed to sense that he was
going to die at an early age. He once told his wife Elsa, "I'll
go very soon. I don't have much time left." And she had
countered, "I won't let you. You can't do that." And
he had replied, "Well, when Death comes, He won't ask me
or my wife." On another occasion, Vagif had told her that
he sensed he would die while his hair was still thick and black,
not yet gray.
Heart trouble was not new to Vagif. He had had his first heart
attack in July 1969 at the incredibly early age of 29. It made
him always apprehensive about another attack. He had stopped
smoking and had tried to pay more attention to his diet.
Rafig Guliyev reflected, "Seeing that the people around
him wouldn't let him develop, wouldn't give him freedom-all these
things affected him. But the fact is: he loved life, he loved
his wife and his kids-Lala and Aziza, and he loved his friends.
And he infinitely loved this amazing jazz that he created-and
just that fact alone earns him the right to be idolized and not
just by Azerbaijanis."
So many things were left undone; so many dreams unrealized.
Left: Accompanying a vocal
Tours to Samarkand
(Uzbekistan) and Frunze (Kyrgyzstan) had to be canceled. He had
intended to produce another LP based on new arrangements of some
of the Love Songs composed by Tofig Guliyev (1918-2000) [See
earlier arrangements of Tofig's work on Volume 3].
Also in an interview with Rafael Huseinov shortly before that
last concert, Vagif mentioned that he wanted to work together
with his daughter Aziza and put together a concert. She was so
young at the time-not yet 10-but he had already realized her
potential in jazz.
In the radio interview, he shared his dreams with Rafael Huseinov
about creating a school in world jazz based on mugham. "I
have so many ideas. I have some compositions that I haven't finished.
All of them are based on the synthesis of jazz and mugham. Next
year, I'll work harder. I'll concentrate only on these pieces
and work seriously".
It never happened. And Vagif never lived to see the walls of
the Soviet Union come tumbling down. He would only have been
51 years old when Azerbaijan gained its independence in 1991
when so many doors would have opened to him.
His mother Zivar Khanim spent the last years of her life seeking
official permission to convert their apartment in the Old City
of Baku into a Home Museum to honor her son. She finally was
able to acquire two additional rooms to add to the space where
they had once lived. The Vagif Mustafazade Home Museum opened
on March 1, 1988, eight years after Vagif's death. Zivar Khanim
passed away eight years later in January 1996.
The Vagif Mustafazade Home Museum is a simple museum with photos
on the walls. Naturally, the piano draws the most attention,
as does the old wooden short-wave radio from which he and close
friends used to listen to that forbidden genre of jazz, coming
over the airwaves of BBC and VOA.
"It's amazing," said his poet friend Vagif, "that
the music that we strained to hear those 30-40 years ago was
able to penetrate the thick stubborn walls of totalitarianism
and that it still impacts how jazz is played in Azerbaijan today."
The Vagif Mustafazade Home Museum in Baku is open to the public.
It is located in Ichari Shahar on the street that has been named
after him: Vagif Mustafazade at Corner 4.
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