Can a musician be versed in almost all genres of music? We are lucky to witness that reality in our country. Özdemir Erdoğan is such an artist; vehemently devoted to his craft and one of the handful in Turkey.
Erdoğan was born in Istanbul in June 18, 1940. His mother was a classically trained pianist and his uncle played the violin and piano. Around the age of 10, he was making impressions of Frank Sinatra and Zeki Müren at family gatherings. He received his first musical education in the family, but had to discontinue due to circumstances and enroll in a vocational high school of commerce.
However, his maternal genes eventually led him back to music. Encouraged by his father, he bought his first guitar by saving his allowance. It was a crummy Romanian guitar. He learned to play three chords inspired by the film Rock ‘n’ Roll. However, for him this was not enough. So, he took classical guitar lessons first from Ilya Ksantopulos and then from Andreas.
During his training in the military as a reserve officer stationed in Denizli following the coup of May 27, 1960, he met Eray Turgay who introduced Erdoğan to jazz music. He completed his service in the military as the headmaster in the Besniler Arap village in Adıyaman and joined the orchestra of the famed trumpeter Zekai Apaydın, but he had to leave very shortly.
He chose to sing since he thought his guitar playing technique was insufficient. He was very successful in singing standards with his mellifluous baritone. It didn’t take long for him to join the Kadri Ünalan Orchestra as a guitarist and singer. The other singer of the ensemble was Başar Tamer. The orchestra was disbanded when Kadri Ünalan had to leave for his military service. He quickly formed his own band with Oben Brothers and Cankut Özgül. They played in Adana for a year.
However, what truly paved the way for Erdoğan was his joining of tenor saxophone player İsmet Sıral’s ensemble as a singer and guitarist in 1963. He went to Sweden with the ensemble in 1965 and further improved his guitar technique. He was listening to a lot of Jim Hall, Barney Kessell, and Wes Montgomery.
When the band played the Blue Note in Kopenhagen, he caught the attention of Jim Hall and German modern trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff who were in the audience, with his rendition of Autumn Leaves. Jim Hall even gave his guitar to him to play and praised him, saying “Watch out for this cat!” Following the incident, trombonist Günnur Perin started guiding him in guitar technique.
Following the break-up of İsmet Sıral ensemble in September 1968, he formed his own band in October 14. The star studded ensemble featured Günnur Perin on bass and trombone, Ayhan Yünkuş on piano, Atakan Ünüvar on tenor saxophone and flute, Fatih Erkoç on trombone and flute, Uğur Dikmen on keyboards, Onno Tunç on bass guitar and Cankut Özgül on drums. He was named the “Best Guitarist” at a contest held at Fitaş Theatre in 1968 which he entered with bassist Günnur Perin and drummer Turan Eteke.
The late 1960s marked a period of contradictions in his musical career. He was trying his hand in Turkish pop music while working on his guitar technique. His single, released in 1969, featured “Duyduk Duymadık Demeyin” on the A-side and “Uzaklaşma Benden Öyle” on the B-side. The record sold over 1 million copies and certified gold.
Despite the success of the single, he didn’t abandon jazz, concentrating his efforts on blending Turkish Folk and Traditional music with jazz. He released the resulting efforts on an LP titled The Color of My Country in Jazz and headed to the US. He appeared as a guest on Willis Conover’s radio show “Jazz Hour”. His works were broadcasted for two straight days on the show. At the time, these recordings weren’t released in Turkey due to copyright issues. Years later, through his own efforts, Erdoğan compiled his works from 1970 to 1987 and released a CD titled Original Jazz Works.
1975 is the beginning of Erdoğan’s prolific songwriting period. His 1976 record I Yearn to Be With You was named the album of the year by the highly circulated daily Milliyet. Starting from 1977, Erdoğan concentrated his efforts on Turkish Folk and Traditional music trying to bridge them to pop. Criticised by the jazz circles, Erdoğan continued on his path as a meticulous, perfectionist musician.
He founded his own record label in 1984. During the heyday of the musical genre Arabesque, he broke the mold with Songs of Spring and Let Our Love Live Through Music. In 1991, he won TRT’s Golden Antenna song contest. He cemented his status with international concerts and received the title of State Artist of the Republic of Turkey in 1998.
At a time when Erdoğan’s reputation as a jazz interpreter was all but forgotten he made a triumphant return to jazz. He proved that he never lost his passion for the genre with various albums such as Original Jazz Works, Live Recordings From the Stage, The Unilluminated in the History of Turkish Jazz, Jazzists, My Life in Songs, and Cobblestones of Ankara. “Open the Door” and “Baby” from his 2001 album My Life in Songs, and his compositions on his 2011 album Cobblestones of Ankara demonstrate his proficiency in various genres.
In his long and illustrious career Erdoğan has always searched for the new and untried, and despite a period when he took a break from his work, he continued from where he left off with a richer reservoir.
The 23rd Istanbul Jazz Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award will be another crown for Erdoğan’s art. Surely, this award will not be the end point of his career. We will continue to expect more from a multi-faceted, prolific artist such as Özdemir Erdoğan.