Jazz ‘Train’ Out of Iran
By NAT HENTOFF
In May 2009, I received an email message to call someone I didn’t know: “I’m Ehsan from northern Iran.” He wanted my permission to translate into Persian and publish “Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz,” a book I edited with Albert McCarthy in 1974. Then, last year he asked to do the same with “At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene,” which I had just published. I gave my enthusiastic assent to both requests. He had discovered my books in one of the private libraries featuring prohibited materials maintained by private citizens in Iran, and had found out how to contact me via a Facebook page set up for me by one of my children.
As Ehsan had expected, Iran’s censors forbade publication of the first book. And when he found a copy of the second one on the Internet in a PBS edition and printed it out by himself, he didn’t, as is required by law, let the censors know because, as he said, “they’d accuse me of being paid by the West to propagandize Western values.”
Ehsan is Ehsan Khoshbakht, 29, a young Iranian dissident and jazz aficionado whose blog, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” is dedicated to spreading the jazz gospel as a voice for freedom inside his native country, where certain types of music and other arts are prohibited. Mr. Khoshbakht’s initial contact with me blossomed into a continuing dialogue via the Internet and telephone in the years since. In our conversations, I learned how this young man became so determined a member of what he calls “the jazz family,” even under a dictatorship as closed to this music as Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were.
Mr. Khoshbakht says he named his blog (which can be found at ehsankhoshbakht.blogspot.com) after the famous Duke Ellington composition because, “I love Duke, and I see jazz as that train. Living in Iran, the only notion I had of freedom was listening to these jazz people, especially Duke Ellington.”
“On the Web,” he continued, “I read passages from your books and play music by the players you write about. Billie Holiday, Jo Jones who plays like the wind, Charlie Mingus and his cry for freedom. I was born late so I lost the chance of hearing Duke, Basie, Thelonious in person. But in your books, I see you as one of those people.”
That beats any award I’ve ever received.
Mr. Khoshbakht was born in 1982, three years after the revolution, in a small town in northeast Iran. In 1996, his family moved to the religious city of Masshhad, which “in the gloomy days of post-Revolution Iran was possibly the most impossible place to live in,” he says. “Restrictions on arts and entertainment were suffocating throughout the country. No screening of foreign films. No Western music. But in Masshhad, there was no music of any kind, even Iranian traditional and folk music.”
Then, in 1998 Mr. Khoshbakht discovered jazz when he came across a compilation cassette. “What changed my life was Louis Armstrong. When it came to Pops it was like somebody put me on fire,” he says. “Jazz became my religion. It was a way of escaping from the bitter realities of the outside world.”
Beyond the sheer pleasure of the music, Mr. Khoshbakht found a larger lesson in jazz. “If out of the worst imaginable situations and the most horrifying in the history of African Americans—slavery—such a graceful music can emerge, why can’t I be a decent and free human being in the circumstances of Iran’s troubled history of repressing freedom?”
In one of my books, “The Jazz Life,” Mr. Khoshbakht had read about Ellington telling me how, when he and the band were performing in the South in the depths of segregation, they had traveled in rented Pullman cars to get around the problem of being denied hotel accommodations, among other forms of official segregation.
“That became my way of handling difficulties living in Iran,” he explained. “If they’re not going to recognize your rights, you make your own world that nobody can touch,” he told me. “I was traveling with Duke and his orchestra in the cross-country tours of my mind.”
“After receiving my master’s degree in architecture and urban design in Masshhad in 2009, I never really took that future work seriously in the ugly realities of day-to-day life in Iran,” he says. “Instead, I went on to become a full-time jazz aficionado—listening to that music, writing about it and knowing more about it became my main task. I’d had so little to start with. Finding the line-up of a Billie Holiday record from 1944 was as difficult as a trip to the moon. But I think I made that trip.”
Before the nearly pervasive blackout of “Western values” in Iran, Mr. Khoshbakht wrote articles around 2001 for newspapers and magazines on jazz, as well as film and architecture. He also made a documentary, “Caligari to Libeskind,” on German film and architecture during the 1920s and ’30s and its influence.
“I made it only from archival materials and put it together in my own room, recording the narration in my closet,” he says. “It was shortly after Ahmadinejad took power, so my film, due to references to the Holocaust—ending with Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish museum of Berlin as one of the last embodiments of expressionist art—never found a chance of screening.”
“The whole soundtrack is jazz, from Thelonious Monk to Anthony Braxton and Charlie Mingus’s ‘Fables of Faubus’ [about Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor, who barred blacks from his state's public schools]. This music has a great role in the film.”
Mr. Khoshbakht explained that he began his blog in May 2009 by making his own radio programs “and putting them on the Web in my blog with qualities that suited the very slow speed and highly controlled Internet connections in Iran, and having folks download them.”
Although his blog and others are blocked by the censors, he says, the people of Iran, especially the young, manage to download them using antiproxy software, he says.
Five months ago Mr. Khoshbakht left Iran for London to start a new life. “It was impossible to live in Iran any longer and try to do anything creative,” he says. “It’s been hard to survive here but the music keeps me breathing.”
In London, he’s engaged in film studies and keeps up with his blog, which continues to reach into Iran and the rest of Europe, receiving around 200 visits per day world-wide.
He’d arrived in London knowing nobody. “But amazingly, a jazz blogger from New Orleans [familiar with the blog] emailed his musician friends in London about ‘a guy from Iran who knows nobody. See what you can do!’”
Thanks to that appeal, a local bass player invited Mr. Khoshbakht to one of his gigs and introduced him to other musicians. “Also, a Spanish blogger based in London emailed me and showed me around,” he says. “That’s when I understood there still is a jazz family.”
Mr. Khoshbakht’s far-ranging view of jazz reminded me of John Coltrane telling me that in his music he was trying to connect with the global cosmic consciousness. I never dug exactly what that meant. I’ve come closer, though, getting to know Mr. Khoshbakht.
“I’m here because I have to swing. I believe I can feel the pulse of the universe when I’m listening to Ellington or Coleman Hawkins. I think swinging is nothing but attuning the jazz music with that cosmic pulse,” he says. “In a post of mine in October 2009 that I called ‘Jazz means Democracy,’ I wrote: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young; man or woman; a billionaire or a bellboy; free or inside a prison; Muslim or Christian, or Jew. As long as you can be part of this democratic conversation known as jazz, you’re in, and nothing else matters.’”
No wonder the mullahs want to silence people like him.
Mr. Hentoff writes about jazz for the Journal.