Jazz in Azerbaijan: time-honoured tradition


Jazz is a musical genre that originated in the United States of America, although it is rooted in the musical traditions of Africa. It has become a universal language providing intercultural dialogue and connecting people all over the world. Jazz is also loved in Azerbaijan, where it has a longstanding history and is an integral part of national culture.

Azerbaijani jazz is based on Mugham (Muğam) - a traditional musical form characterized by a large degree of improvisation in singing and playing. Contemporary representations of the Azerbaijani Mugham reflect significant ties of the people of Azerbaijan with other neighbours in the Caucasus and a broader Caspian region throughout its history. In 2003, Mugham was recognized by UNESCO in 2008 and was inscribed on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Jazz first appeared in Azerbaijan at the beginning of XX century. According to Mr. Elchin Amirbayov, Ambassador of Azerbaijan in France, during the times of the former Soviet Union, Baku was one of the three-four cities best known for jazz, along with Leningrad and Riga. So, jazz in Azerbaijan is not a recent phenomenon. It’s a tradition.

The two founders of jazz in Azerbaijan are Vagif Mustafazadeh, whose daughter Aziza is now quite well-known in international musical circles, and Rafig Babayev. “Both of them created a fusion of traditional music of Mugham with classical jazz, - added Mr. Elchin Amirbayov. - The thing that unites Mugham and jazz is improvisation”.

Jazz is one of the most popular musical forms in Azerbaijan today. “We have FM channel radio that plays jazz all day, Jazz Hour on TV, and a Jazz Center in the middle of Baku. […] Every year we organize “The Baku International Jazz Festival”. We’ve had some important personalities […] coming to perform there”, - said Mr. Elchin Amirbayov.

Azerbaijani jazz musicians regularly perform abroad and many are well-known throughout the world. They are active participants of many international jazz festivals and winners of international musical competitions. “All of our jazz musicians started as classical pianists. That may explain the success they have enjoyed”, - added Mr. Elchin Amirbayov. The list of names of some of the most prominent jazz musicians in Azerbaijan is long and includes Salman Gambarov, Rain Sultanov, Amina Figarova, Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Isfar Sarabski (young jazz pianist, winner at the 43rd Jazz Festival in Montreux, 2009), and many others.

Today, the name of Shahin Novrasli has become synonymous with the “brand” of Azerbaijani jazz. He has been able to successfully synthesize the melodies of Azerbaijani Mugham with traditional jazz rhythms. “Jazz is a genre which has a structure, but at the same time, it is full of freedom which is illustrated through improvisation, where each artist can express himself,” - stated Shahin Novrasli.

But what is that makes jazz so popular in Azerbaijan? “We are the people from the Caucasus. We are emotional people. We also like to improvise. […] Jazz is the spirit of freedom; it’s the spirit of self-expression”, - said Mr. Elchin Amirbayov.

“Currently, each musician tries to add a touch of something personal, to write new compositions. My music is different in that I use Mugham, a rich cultural heritage of the Azerbaijani people, in jazz. Like it or not, over time, both music and the way we perceive it change. That’s the function of time! To go with the times, or even better to slightly anticipate them - that is contemporary music!” – indicated Shahin Novrasli.

As it turns out, Azerbaijani jazz is a kind of synthesis of western music with the Azerbaijani traditional music, a union of two great cultures – those of the East and of the West - a great example of intercultural dialogue between civilizations.