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- Published on Monday, 05 December 2011 07:15
- Category: Artist Profile
For all the attention paid to groundbreaking performers who use their words and melodies to fight censorship and cultivate new voices, it's easy to forget sometimes the other side of music artistry: the music writers who keep these songs' legacies alive.
Ehsan Khoshbakht, recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal, is just such a writer. Until he moved to London several months ago, he diligently wrote about his love of jazz from northeastern Iran, where Western music is experienced only behind closed doors. Born three years after the Islamic Revolution, he knows Iran in no other way. In 1998, a 16-year-old Khoshbakht found a compilation tape and was immediately hooked; in Iran's dominating world of censorship, jazz became his concept of freedom and expression.
In 2009, Khoshbakht began writing Take the A Train, named after the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature tune. The blog is a progressive documentation of American jazz music as both history and as universal creative freedom. Repression has a way of stalling epiphanies, but to extinguish them is a nearly impossible feat. "There is this Lauren Bacall line," Khoshbakht recalled last August, "in her interview with my friend Mark Cousins, when she said about the cinema: 'The industry is shit. It's the medium that's great.' We can second that and expand it to the world of jazz, in which the industry is shit and it's the music itself that is so great."
This insight, like many others in his blog, has its power in the subliminal; his criticism of a certain establishment's regulation, in this case the jazz industry, stands in for others: government censors. At face value the anecdote reads like commentary about commercialism, but between the lines, “industry” becomes a stand-in for thought control.
What makes the blog's political critique stand out is that it pales in comparison to the wealth of Khoshbakht's reviews, musings and histories, which show not only a substantial amount of jazz scholarship, but also a methodical debunking of myths that surround Iran's relationship with music. Through stories such as Swinging Persia, a romantic picture which details a time when jazz was invited into the country, Khoshbakht writes,
"Jazz in Iran? Yes, and no! Once upon a time, before the 1979 revolution, when oil's money was overflowing, a Queen and some of her advisors had the idea of making the country more sophisticated, more prestigious. Thus, among so many decisions they made, one was inviting the jazz acts to the country. Of course, long before this plan Harry 'Sweets' Edison, Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson appear[ed] in Tehran's biggest amphitheater by that invitation, Duke Ellington and his orchestra showed up in Isfahan, a place so inspiring for the Duke, that [sic] persuaded him and Billy Strayhorn to embed all that beauty in one of the most majestic alto solos in history of jazz, Isfahan, as played later by Johnny Hodges."
I wondered more than once while reading his blog if Ehsan Khoshbakht could be coined the Wynton Marsalis of Iran, because his love of jazz elevates it to an almost purist art form. For him, jazz sits on a pedestal that continues to slowly erode from the perpetual onset of lower-brow, common denominator Pop music. "To see the decadence of the culture that we used to admire," he writes, "now VOA is playing to most ridiculous type of sonic distortion known as 'today's music' for the countries who [sic] are fighting for freedom and democracy, again like Iran, for instance. Do they think they're helping democracy by playing music about 'asses shakin’ and limos waitin,’ the type that we can see an hear almost everywhere? Isn't it robbery? An intellectual robbery!”
"I think they are betraying people of those countries, and betraying their own culture, [by] not giving the minimum room to what some not very clever people like me consider 'the real voice of America.' Where is the voice of Duke Ellington? Where is Sam Hopkins, Hank Williams, and Woody Guthrie? And the list can go on forever."
The blog's strength is not in its tributes to the greats of hard bop, swing, fusion and so on, but in its treatment of jazz as a world where democracy is experienced in the form of artistic presence. "Color and nationality are not important in jazz," Khoshbakht noted in 2009, "and 60 years before Americans select a black politician as president, jazz musicians among blacks are elected 'King' and 'Duke'...” They were elected not for ideology, but for skill. In Khoshbakht's writing, the black presence in jazz is a powerful image; long before the Civil Rights movement, jazz wasn't seen as America's indigenous music, but as the voice of America's repressed.
For a young population longing for democracy and a political system where the words of government persistently fall through, what better way to look to diplomacy in the form of tunes that rose from the back of segregated bars to the household music of an entire country?
Take the A Train is blocked in Iran, but the country's youth majority still manages to read it via proxy servers and other online, underground methods. Today, it averages 200 hits a day worldwide.