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    Entries in jazz (2)

    A Young Turk’s Disdain for Western Popular Culture, or Not Everyone Loved Frederick’s Jazz

    One warm summer evening in 1921, a well-born and sharp-eyed young Turk visited Frederick Thomas’s nightclub in Constantinople and noted his impressions of the place.  These are jolting because they hint at some of the nationalistic forces that were already at work in the country, and that would transform it, and everyone’s lives in it, in just a few years. 



    Mufty-Zade K. Zia Bey had lived in the United States for a decade before he and his American wife returned to Constantinople during the Allied occupation.  Together with a Greek friend, they decided to sample the town’s nightlife and began with a Russian restaurant in Pera, which they followed with a performance by dancers from the Imperial Russian Ballet in Petrograd.  Then, at the Greek’s suggestion, they continued the evening at a “café chantant” that was widely thought to be the “best” in the city. 

    Frederick’s “Anglo-American Villa” was crowded when the three arrived, and Zia Bey, who was very proud of his conservative and traditional Turkish values, was immediately put off by the libertine atmosphere he witnessed:


    Every one seems to be intoxicated and the weird music of a regular jazz band composed of genu­ine American Negroes fires the blood of the rollick­ing crowd to demonstrations unknown even to the Bowery in its most flourishing days before the Volstead Act. Much bejeweled and rouged “noble” waitresses sit, drink and smoke at the tables of their own clients. The proprietor of the place, an American colored man who was established in Russia before the Bolshevik revolu­tion and who—it seems—protected and helped most efficiently some British and American officers and relief workers at the time of the Revolution, is watching the crowd in a rather aloof manner. Frankly he seems to me more human than his clients; at least he is sober and acts with con­sideration and politeness, which is not the case with most of the people who are here.


    Despite his sophistication and familiarity with the United States, Zia Bey disapproved of the drinking, the unbridled exuberance, and the women on gaudy display.  By contrast, his sketch of Frederick is very un-American—and quite Turkish—in its respectful acceptance. 

    Zia Bey also bristles at the way everything about the Villa reflects the Allied presence in Constantinople and the secondary role that has been forced on the city’s Muslim natives:


    Not one real Turk is in sight. Many foreigners, but mostly Greeks, Armenians and Levantines—with dissipated puffed-up faces, greedy of pleasure and materialism. We have a liqueur. The show is a vaudeville which is not very interesting. Every minute that passes makes the crowd more and more demonstrative.  Carayanni [the Greek friend] is enjoying it immensely, but I realize that our presence puts a damper on his good time and although he de­fends himself in the most exquisite manner when I tease him about it and accuse him of being evidently an “habitué” of the place, the glances that he exchanges surreptitiously with one of the waitresses—a real Russian beauty with pale skin, fire-red lips and languid black eyes—confirm my suspicions.  


    After a short while, Zia Bey decides that the Villa’s alien atmosphere has gotten “decidedly too tense” for him and his wife, and starts to think about leaving, when, suddenly, a party of two couples enters a private box near the stage and “immediately pulls the curtain, thus cut­ting itself entirely from the view of the public.”  Zia Bey’s wife looks at him with genuine surprise, as if she has imagined that the four are about to launch into some sort of incredible debauch behind the curtain.  “We really must go,” he quickly concludes, and after leaving the Greek friend to his Russian beauty, they hurry to take one of the automobiles waiting outside in a long line by the curb. 

    Before long, Zia Bey and his wife are safely out of Pera, across the Galata Bridge, and back home in “our Stamboul, the beautiful Turkish city, sleeping in the night the sleep of the just; poor Stamboul, ruined by fires and by wars, sad in her misery, but decent and noble; a dethroned queen dreaming of her past splendour and trusting in her future.” 

    Zia Bey’s attitude represented manifold concealed threats to the world of which Frederick was a part, although few could have foreseen at the time how these would develop.    

    Frederick Thomas and Black Music

    There was feature of black church services that appears to have affected Frederick early on, that stayed with him for the rest of his life, and that likely had a profound impact on his career.  This was music--specifically, the glorious, soaring spirituals that were an inherent part of every black service, and the numerous offshoots that grew out of this tradition. 

    The Delta in general and Coahoma County, MS, in particular, with Clarksdale at its epicenter, had an enormous influence on American twentieth-century music and, via the popularity of American culture, on music around the world.  The old, slave-era spirituals, which survived into the 1900s, morphed into gospel music, which in turn gave rise to “soul” after the Second World War.  “Blues,” the famous guitar-accompanied laments about life, love, and loss, originated in the area too, growing out of slave-era field songs, “hollers,” and “work calls.”  They became one of the primary roots of jazz when the great migration of blacks to the North, and especially to Chicago, took place after the Great War.  Delta musicians who had played a style of music in the early twentieth century that they called “slow drag” and “barrelhouse,” recognized it later when it came back to them as “jazz” and “swing.”  After World War II, blues and gospel also fed into rock and roll, and thus into countless other types of popular music around the world. 

    Visitors still come to Clarksdale from everywhere in the United States and abroad to travel the “blues trail”—a network of sites associated with famous early twentieth-century practitioners and performers of the blues.  When I was there several years ago to do research in the Coahoma County Courthouse, there were some young people from Holland staying next door to me in the motel.  The “Crossroads”—the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 on what is now the ragged southern edge of Clarksdale is where the legendary blues man Robert Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar as he wished. 

    Despite the enormous changes Frederick experienced after he left the South, music was a constant in his life.  He claimed that it was what originally sent him to Europe.  His cultivation of musical variety acts and new trends in popular music helped to make him rich in Russia.  He is still remembered by aficionados in Istanbul for introducing jazz to a wildly enthusiastic public after the Great War.  And two of his sons continued his tradition by becoming performers themselves—one was a jazz singer in Turkey and the other sang gospel and Russian cabaret in Paris.