Contemporary society has a very interesting relationship with jazz, especially here in the U.S., its birthplace and native land. While it seems to have largely faded from the grand stage of mainstream entertainment, it continues to crop up unexpectedly, drawing a significant following among millenials. For example, there’s Damien Chazelle, who has single-handedly re-introduced America to the sheer energy, fun, and versatility of the genre with movies like “La La Land” and “Whiplash.” Then there’s Tyler, the Creator, who has incorporated jazz sounds into every one of his albums, including work with the hippest Canadian jazz outfit on the planet, Badbadnotgood. The genre-bending musician/comedian Reggie Watts got his start playing jazz and touring Europe with elite groups.
And let’s add to the list Yunus Belgin, a master jazz drummer originally from Germany who has now established himself as a major player not only here in the states, but throughout Europe as well. His illustrious training includes a mentorship with legendary figure Dim Schlichter, who hired Mr. Belgin on as lead drummer for his performing trio. Mr. Belgin also leads a weekly show at the world-famous Wally’s Jazz Cafe in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to drumming, Mr. Belgin also produces, bringing his own unique style to mixing and mastering.
If it wasn’t already obvious, Mr. Belgin leads an ambitious career and is determined to even further expand his reach within the industry. He’s currently planning a far-reaching European tour but was able to take some time out of his jammed schedule to tell us how he got into, and subsequently fell in love with jazz drumming. For one thing, he was happy to discuss the deep history of drumming within the genre.
“The origin of the first drum set can be traced back to the very early days of jazz, where the instrument was created and developed specifically to function as the conductor, or the leader of the band, accompanying other instruments and supporting the music. Now, decades later, the role of the drummer remains the same, if not even more important, as a few extraordinary innovators of the drums took the role a step further and enhanced the way the drums interacted with different instruments in a more musical and deeper fashion. If the drummer is leading with intensity, authenticity, purpose, and humility towards the music, then the groove will always be present.”
And it’s true, jazz love its drummers. In fact, some of the most well-known jazz figures of the 20th-century were drummers, guys like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Max Roach, and Chick Webb. These guys were the big draws, and they weren’t just locking down the beat, they were performing, running off on winding, theatrical solos built on classic techniques that were then amplified, taken to an extreme until all the audience was watching was the drum kit.
Apart from these monsters, Mr. Belgin is quick to thank one man in particular for his contribution to this ongoing love for the genre: bandleader and American jazz drummer Ralph Peterson.
“He is an absolute authority and living legend with a musical career spanning 30 years and has released 20+ records as a sideman and as a leader. I am fortunate to be apprenticed under Ralph. Ralph is more than just a drum mentor, he is a life mentor.”
Having lived in Boston for a good while myself, I ask Mr. Belgin about his experiences with Wally’s over in the South End. In Beantown, everyone knows Wally’s. It’s been around since 1947 and has played host to some of the most famous jazz acts of the last 60 years. Mr. Belgin has become a regular, and as we talked, he recalled one Wally’s show in particular when he felt the deepest possible connection between performers and audience.
“The musicians were at a very high level and so was the music, but one tune we performed towards the end of the set was absolutely invigorating. The whole band was locked in and the energy was there in the present moment and I could feel the whole audience reacting to the music in a profound way. Full attention and focus was given to us on stage and it felt that every musical decision was expressed in its rawest and purest form with absolute intent and purpose. You could feel the crowd’s attention and enthusiasm and naturally we fed off their energy, cheering, roaring, and pushing us to go even further out of our comfort zone.”
He looked off for a second, lost in the memory, summing it up with an understated, “It was a special moment.”
It reminds me of “On the Road,” and the extended scenes of the characters losing their minds at jazz shows, Kerouac doing his best to capture the feeling of those shows, the desperate youthful energy, the music wordlessly speaking to the excitement and anxiety and ambition of being young and alive in America.
Getting to that place of musical nirvana is crucial to Yunus Belgin. He lives to perform and gets very clearly excited just talking about it.
“This is what music and being a musician is all about. Playing the tunes you love and having an intimate connection with the music on a stage in front of an audience is truly an exhilarating feeling. The presence of an audience is indispensable to the music and carries the whole experience of spontaneously creating music on stage to another dimension, which is incalculable but deeply rewarding at the same time. Playing jazz music in a live performance, which is improvised, requires you to be in the present moment, which really is the essence of jazz, and that is what creates an almost ecstatic feeling. Music, especially jazz, is all about split-second decisions and making the right musical choices can be very rewarding, and feedback from the audience can enhance it. The social aspect of music is always a sweet reminder to musicians that, at the end of the day we, as musicians serve the music and the listeners.”
And so it makes perfect sense that Mr. Belgin likes to get out on the road as much as he can, which for next summer means a European tour that, so far, is slated to span Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and several cities in Turkey.
But nothing is off-limits for this phenom, especially given his highly global perspective on what music can offer to society as a whole. I caved and asked him the classic job interview question: where do you see yourself in 5 years?
“Jazz is a vocabulary and it is based on a language that has many dialects. As I have learned so many times through trial and error and through many experiences in my musical journey, just a simple awareness doesn’t cut it to be a better musician, so I am always striving to become a better musician every day by diving deeper into the music and by interacting with a wider range of musicians. Also I would hope to compose more songs and musically try to mix my Turkish heritage with rhythms and harmonies originating from Southern Germany all the way across to Eastern Turkey and Asia. If I can blend different cultural expressions from all over the globe, then I can serve the idea that people can thrive together in harmony and peace.”
There’s certainly something to be learned from this optimistic outlook. After all, the basic concepts behind successful improvisation (listening, experimentation, cooperation) are important for life in general, not just for those of us who spend time on stage.