Rain Sultanov: Putting Baku On The Jazz Map

Ian Patterson By

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The fact is because Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union for many years it wasn’t easy for us, after the 1990s, to declare ourselves as a country, to talk about our jazz history. This is the goal. —Rain Sultanov, saxophonist/Artistic Director, Baku Jazz Festival
The Baku Jazz Festival has been a labor of love for its founder and Artistic Director, Rain Sultanov. And, like most love stories, there have been a few bumps along the road. Thirteen editions in, however, the Baku Jazz Festival is well established as one of the highpoints of Azerbaijan's annual cultural calendar. It mightn't draw the crowds or the sponsors of the Baku Formula 1 Grand Prix, but the Baku Jazz Festival is driven by something other than the allure of glamour and money.

For Sultanov, an internationally renowned saxophonist, jazz historian and mentor to the younger generation of Azeri jazz musicians, the Baku Jazz Festival is built upon several cornerstones. Above all, perhaps, it celebrates the love of jazz and the promotion of the music in Baku. Equally important to Sultanov, however, is the festival's function as a platform for young, up-and-coming jazz talent—from both Azerbaijan and abroad—and its potential as an organic archive to preserve and promote Baku's long-standing association with jazz.

Though the Baku Jazz Festival is relatively young, the first jazz festival to be staged in Baku actually dates back over fifty years ago. A small jazz festival took place in the Green Theatre in 1967, with three local bands on the bill. Over the next two years the festival grew, with the 1969 edition featuring musicians from Georgia, Estonia, The Russian Federation and, in the form of Vagif Mustafazadeh, Rafig Babayev and the vocal quartet Qaya, some of Azerbaijan's most celebrated jazz groups of the day.

A decade and a half would pass, however, before another jazz festival took place, operating on alternate years between 1983 and 1987. The next time a jazz festival got up and running, after another gap of fifteen years, Sultanov was involved. "Some people from England and Germany started The Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival in 2002," relates Sultanov. "They contacted me and asked if I could help with the organizing." Like its predecessors, The Caspian Jazz and Blues Festival lasted just three editions before folding.

Undeterred by the historically short life-span of jazz festivals in Baku, Sultanov and his wife, Leyla Efendiyeva, looked for a way to consolidate jazz in the Azerbaijani capital. Backed by a music-loving sponsor, together they set up The Baku Jazz Centre and started the jazz magazine Jazz Dunyasi, a high quality publication that is still going strong to this day. The Jazz Centre, however, has had a more chequered history. "I was the Artistic Director but it wasn't really functioning," admits Sultanov. Determined to make jazz a home for jazz in Baku, Sultanov, made a bold decision. "I thought we should do a jazz festival."

Sultanov sat down with his wife and made a 'to-do' list. With Leyla's guidance a design team revamped the jazz club, opening up a restaurant and bar in the venue. "The Jazz Center was bigger and better than before," says Sultanov," and we started hosting gigs." With a sophisticated venue, new-found momentum and enthusiasm in spades Sultanov and his wife began to contact embassies to gauge interest. "The result," says Sultanov, "was the Baku Jazz Festival."

The launch of the Baku Jazz Festival took place in 2005, with concerts split between the Music Academy and the newly refurbished jazz club. Azeri jazz musicians featured strongly on the festival programme, with Qaya vocalist Javan Zeynalli, guitarist Alasgar Abbasov, the talented pianist Shahin Novrasli and veteran trumpeter Arzu Huseynov. Russian and Turkish bands also featured, though the real coup was the appearance of Joe Zawinul and The Zawinul Syndicate.

Sultanov and Endiyeva also took Jazz Dunyasi to Jazzahead, Bremen, for the first time in 2005. Since then they have returned each year to the world's largest jazz-industry gathering in order to promote Azeri jazz musicians.

The second edition of the Baku Jazz Festival 2006 followed a similar format as the first year, with Azeri talent such as bassist Rauf Sultanov, pianist Emil Ibrahim, and Rain Sultanov-who played with Bobo Stenson—sharing the bill with Maria Joao, Al Jarreau and Herbie Hancock.

Sultanov remembers those first editions of the Baku Jazz Festival with great fondness. "Joe Zawinul said to me that you have to know a person before you can really play music with them. At lunch time we had an open buffet in the jazz club where all the musicians, from abroad and Azeri musicians alike, ate, talked and drank together. This carried over to the jam sessions in the evening. There were a lot of people and the jam sessions carried on to the morning," recalls Sultanov. "It was something special."

From the beginning Sultanov championed the Young Jazz Talent competition, understanding that the future health of jazz in Azerbaijan required the encouragement and nurturing of those young musicians with a passion for the music. With the Young Jazz Talent competition, jam sessions that celebrated the improvisatory, egalitarian traditions of the music, workshops and jazz-related art exhibitions, Sultanov had laid the foundations for a festival that was about so much more than just selling tickets for gigs.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon wasn't to last. The festival's principal sponsor had another vision for the BJF, one that cared less for promoting Azeri jazz or youthful talent and which instead was interested primarily in attracting artists of international renown. "It is true that we did not agree on some issues. I have always believed that there is no need to adapt to the listener, but rather to educate the listener. That said, I have great respect for people who contribute to jazz and in those first two years the festival and the work of the jazz center achieved many of our goals. It was simply time to part ways."

Unable to reconcile himself with an overtly commercial programme, and with regret, Sultanov walked away in 2007 from the festival he had dreamt of and founded.

Without Sultanov guiding the BJF it ran the danger of disappearing, like all the other jazz festivals that had got a start in Baku since the 1960s. 2008, in fact, was a fallow year. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism rebooted the BJF between 2009 and 2015, though the character of the festival in those years was markedly different. "It had changed," says Sultanov, with a little sadness in his voice. "There were no workshops, no competition, no exhibitions -nothing. Just big American names."

There were just six concerts in 2009, with Branford Marsalis and Richard Bona top of the bill. In 2010 the programme was an all-American affair, with no room for any Azeri jazz musicians. 2013 was a very similar story, with plenty of American jazz muscle in the form of Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Marcus Miller, Bob James & David Sanborn -but not a single Azeri musician.

There was room for the Elchin Shirinov Trio and the Emil Afrasiyab Group in 2015 on a bill headlined by Charles Lloyd, Fourplay and Diana Krall, but with just six concerts spread over ten days and no other activities at all there was little in the way of a festival feel to spark the enthusiasm of the Baku jazz-loving public.

The story of the Baku Jazz Festival was to take another twist in 2015 when word reached Sultanov that the Ministry of Culture and Tourism was pulling the rug from under the festival. There was no longer any money, not just for the BJF, but also for the city's principal folk festival, The Mugham Festival, and significantly, the Mstislav Rostropovich Baku International Festival -all of which fell by the wayside.

If there were no funds to sustain the festival founded by one of Baku's most famous sons, the internationally celebrated cellist and conductor Rostropovich, then what chance jazz?

There imminent demise of the BJF, however, opened a window of opportunity, as Sultanov explains. "When we heard that the BJF would stop because there was no more money from the government Leyla asked me: 'Rain, do you want to organize the festival again?' There was no budget, of course," relates Sultanov. "The government couldn't help financially, but I thought that perhaps with several venues it might be possible. So I said 'Okay. We will try.' Leyla asked me if I was sure and I said, 'Yes, it's my child.'"

Thanks to Sultanov and Efendiyeva, the Baku Jazz Festival not only survived, but was effectively reborn in 2016, with Sultanov resuming the role of Artistic Director and Efendiyeva guiding the ship as Festival Director. Sultanov is quick to acknowledge the influence of Efendiyeva, who doubles as Chief Editor of Jazz Dunyasi. "She is my spouse and my true friend. I couldn't have achieved everything without her. We work together as a team and always have. I know that everything she does will be done for sure, and on time."

From six concerts in 2015, the BJF 2016 under Sultanov and Efendiyeva's stewardship expanded to twenty. From an all American-programme the year before, BJF 2016 moved to embrace jazz musicians from Brazil, Spain, Germany, Italy, the UK, Lithuania, Poland, The Republic of Mauritius, France, Georgia, Hungary, Macedonia, Austria and Norway. Naturally, Sultanov welcomed back Azeri jazz musicians, and, in a nod to the music's historical roots, one of New Orleans most progressive contemporary jazz groups, Plunge.

It was a programme that was truly representative of jazz's global reach, and one that underlined Sultanov's philosophy: "My strategy is I don't need famous, big names. I need good music, good musicians, and I try to show a lot of styles of jazz music, not only traditional, old-school jazz, but more contemporary jazz as well. From the start of the festival to the end you can feel that each band plays its own style of jazz. Today is one style, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are something completely different. It's important for the audience."

In addition, Sultanov reactivated the Young Jazz Talent competition, and reintroduced daily workshops, jam sessions, jazz-related films and an art exhibition to the programme. In all, BJF 2016 comprised sixty four events -ten times the previous year's programme.

The festival's new home was in The Landmark Hotel, a luxurious hotel facing The Caspian Sea with tremendous panoramas of Baku. The bulk of the concerts were held The Landmark Hotel's Rotunda Jazz Club, which made it easy for rehearsals, and the musicians were accommodated and fed in the hotel.

Sultanov is extremely grateful to Eran Muduroglu, The Landmark hotel's owner, whose sponsorship of BJF has been crucial to the success of its relaunch. So too, Rauf Aliyev, whose production company A+A Events provides all the sound equipment for BJF. "Thank God we have these two partners and our embassy partners" stresses Sultanov. "They are very important. It is thanks to them that we can do the jazz festival. For the rest, you must do yourself, to find the sponsorship. It's very difficult, but I feel every year that more and more companies are interested in supporting Baku Jazz Festival."

The 2017 edition followed the same blueprint established in 2016 -Azeri and international acts representing a broad spectrum of jazz-but was of slightly smaller scale. In 2018, BJF—reviewed here in a separate article—roared back with an extended programme of eighteen main concerts and over forty events. There was a special Azeri Jazz Day, which featured the talents of Nurlan Abdullazadeh, Elvin Bashirov Group and Afgan Rasul Trio. "It is important that our audience sees and hears Azeri musicians," says Sultanov.
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