Vagif Mustafa Zadeh was an Azerbaijani jazz pianist and composer, famous for fusing jazz and traditional Azeri folk music known as mugam. (His daughter Aziza Mustafa Zadeh now follows in his footsteps as a pianist, composer and singer in the jazz-mugam style.) He was born March 16, 1940 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and died of a heart-attack after a concert on December 17, 1979 in Tashkent, shortly before the birthdays of his wife Eliza (December 17) and daughter (December 19).
Azerbaijan fell under control of the Soviets in 1920, 20 years before Vagif was born. Five years after his birth and after World War II, Stalin said that jazz was "the music of capitalists" and had it banned throughout the entire Soviet Union. (Adolf Hitler had done the same in Germany in 1933, stating that it was "the music of the blacks".) Even music played on the saxophone was outlawed. The young Vagif, however, apparently cared little for the Soviets and their bans. As a child, he would listen to jazz on BBC broadcasts and sing Meykhana rhythmic poetry, which had also been banned, with friends. After listening on the radio, he and his friend Vagif Samadoglu would attempt to recreate the music on the piano.
After Stalin's death in 1953, the ban on Jazz was gradually lifted. Gradually, however, is a key word. Even in 1957, Vagif was unable to play jazz compositions in concert. As such, he resorted to playing privately for friends or in clubs. He had an intense passion for improvisational jazz, but found something lacking. Eventually, he began to fuse jazz with traditional Azeri music: Mugam.
By the early 1960s, people were finally becoming more comfortable with jazz and Vagif had started to gain a reputation even outside of Azerbaijan as a great jazz musician. In 1966, Willis Conover, conductor of the "Jazz Time" radio program, even went as far as to say, "Vagif Mustafa Zadeh is an extraordinary pianist. It is impossible to identify his equal. He is the most lyrical pianist I have ever known."
Vagif attended Baku State Musical Technical School, from which he graduated in 1963, ten years after the Soviet ban on jazz was lifted, after having been in effect for almost a decade. He won first prize at the 8th International Music Festival for his performance of "Waiting for Aziza" in Monaco in 1978, but died the next year.
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