A place for jazz

Babylon is one of the leading musical organizations in Istanbul, producing international musicians as well as yet unknown jazz bands. Find out about its unique spirit before you can enjoy an evening with Babylon artists next september in Gaîté lyrique.

During the final decade of the previous century, listening to good jazz music in İstanbul had proved to be a complicated affair. One would need to wait for the main two jazz festivals of the city —one in the summer the other in the early autumn— and read about past performances, catch up with the latest recordings before waiting for about ten months until the following festival season was on. Which amounted to the fact that listening to jazz music in İstanbul was a peculiarly rare event —the likes of us would realise the opportunity as it arose and when Babylon had suddenly appeared in 1999 it seemed to offer a place where there would be jazz all year long regardless of festival seasons and planned concerts. I remember exactly our initial impressions of the place, the New Yorker/Blue Note style atmosphere and the ability to have those wonderful drummers and bassists and guitarists and ECM musicians coming from the States or the continent within a stone's throw. The intimacy of the place had engulfed us: we could afford beers as undergraduates and yell to and talk with the musicians. The following morning we would joyously describe our night out at Babylon, picking out signed records of the artists and our friends too would be intrigued.

Upon meeting its owners a decade later, I knew exactly the reason why. Mehmet Uluğ and his brother Ahmet teamed up with Cem Yegül in 1989 to set up the production company Pozitif. It is in the same building with Babylon's Asmalımescit club and upstairs the Pozitif team had gradually expanded their enterprise. Last year they produced U2's stadium concert and a week later realised the long awaited Akbank Jazz Festival (one of the two main jazz festivals). But none of their major productions came close to the intimate experience of Babylon as over the last decade it turned into a meeting point for university students, young executives and musicians. And the audience grew increasingly international as the place was picked by the international media outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times and Le Monde as the jazz club to visit in Turkey. Uluğ brothers and Yegül were influenced by their own experiences of New York avant-garde jazz clubs where they listened to the likes of John Zorn, Bill Frisell and Cecil Taylor and a decade later handpicking artists from around the world they had tried to reflect their common taste in progressive jazz. But what became as a marginal enterprise turned out to be nothing less than a success story in terms of entrepreneurship as well. The word of mouth created the necessary demand for the concerts and tasteful posters and beautifully designed booklets helped their cause. It was the place to be in İstanbul, weekdays included.

Manu Chao was in Babylon a few months ago. The Turkish-born saxophonist İlhan Erşahin and his group Wax Poetic had been among the early favourites. Bill Frisell and Charles Gayle performed to packed audiences. When Tindersticks performed some members of the audience apparently made too much noise which led to Babylon's introducing 'The Silent Performances' concept for certain concerts. But the most amusing anecdotes of the place are to do with their Oldies but Goldies programmes where a long day's night is cheered up by local DJs with a touch of fun and irony, playing dated popular songs that sound both nostalgic and funny.

After the success of the place the Babylon building was instrumentalised to accomodate another venue —Babylon Lounge aimed at a maturer and wealthier audience who could afford table meals while listening to good music. But last year the place made a detour to its roots by getting rid of the Lounge concept and setting up Nublu instead, a new club that continues the ideas of İlhan Erşahin's Nublu club in New York's East Village. With huge windows looking out to the Asmalımescit and colourful furniture the new Babylon venue is poshly designed. You can just get in without any jazz-club formalities, listen to a few songs, have a beer and leave. One of the best new jazz bands of town, 123 regularly plays at Nublu. Those who have grown with the place now seems to overtake it as we observe how Babylon is being taken back to its basic, experimental and avant-garde roots.

This article appeared in Gaîté lyrique's magazine section. For a French translation of the piece you can visit this link.

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