The notion of modernity is central to the study of twentieth-century Iran. One of the most significant cultural aspects of modernity is that of the aesthetic, and few forms of music embody the modernist aesthetic quite like jazz does. The history of jazz and jazz-adjacent musical forms in Iran is intimately tied to the advent of modernity. While jazz played a relatively marginal role in Iran’s musical and socio-cultural landscape, it found some receptive audiences, and its impact on the imagination of Iranian thinkers and musicians as an expression of dissent is significant. Iran also represented a proving ground for emergent hybrid forms of jazz music that combined traditional elements with established modes. Iran’s radical shifts in political affiliation have shaped its musical landscape and as such, jazz became a representation of the West, modernity, and eventually, “Westoxification.”
From 1925 onwards, the two Pahlavi Shahs sought to modernize Iran by force, and forms of criticism could be met with harsh retribution. As a part of this modernization effort, Iran’s leaders sought to control elements of popular culture, including music. During the reign of the Pahlavi Shahs, jazz was largely, if not singularly perceived as a Western music, and the implications surrounding such perceptions of Western music changed with each regime. Under Reza Shah, the regime tended to compare Iran’s cultural milieu to that of Europe, while the regime of Mohammad Reza looked to the United States as the primary source of Western ideas (Breyley 299). This constant comparison and importation of “modern” values was not popular among many Iranians. Indeed, as a result of ongoing imperialistic interference by Britain and the United States, many Iranians resented the unequal distribution of wealth and the perceived theft of the nation’s resources by outsiders.
In the period from 1925 to 1953, the term “jazz” was applied to nearly all popular music of the West. Reza Shah’s regime, seeking to demonstrate Iran’s “modernity” imported selected aspects of Western popular and musical culture, but did not actively promote jazz as part of this effort, as the regime did not view jazz as sophisticated or respectable (Nikzad 64). As such, jazz did not fall in line with the regime’s particular vision of Iranian modernity and was of marginal popularity and cultural significance.
By the 1950’s the Cold War context had fully began to make its way into Iranian statecraft. The election of Mohammad Mossadq as prime minister in 1951 reflected a growing disenchantment with and rejection of the West. Mossadeq’s oil nationalization program contributed to his widespread popularity and stoked the fears of the Shah and the United States. In the CIA-backed coup of 1953, the United States reinforced the Shah’s supremacy and a new distrust of the West by the people of Iran. Mohammad Reza welcomed much of the cultural soft power promoted by the United States at this time, and simultaneously restricted what he saw as backwards left-wing revolutionary agendas.
The coup established a new relationship with the United States that permeated all echelons of cultural activity in Iran, as U.S. citizens began to work in the oil, education, media, arts, and other industries. Such migrants to Iran lived privileged lives and authorities catered to their cultural tastes, marking them as new objects of resentment for some Iranians (Breyley 306). The U.S.-backed regime did not actively promote jazz, but was tolerant of its performance and production in select cases. During this time, it was American jazz musicians living in or visiting Iran who enjoyed considerable freedoms in their practice, whereas Iranian jazz musicians encountered active resistance from the state. Musicians who were seen as promoting dissent through their music faced almost certain persecution by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police force, either in the form of arrest, imprisonment, torture, or even execution (Breyley 300). In this case, jazz was not singled out as a specific musical form to be suppressed, but any music that could be deemed offensive to the regime was at risk of punishment.
Jazz found a receptive audience under Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime. Jazz was popular with many pro-Shah Iranians, who viewed the musical form as a reaffirmation of their special connection to the United States. Alternatively, the inherent creative disobedience of jazz music and its role in the underground made it popular among some leftist dissidents. Much of the commercially viable popular music at the time carried traces of jazz. Two such practitioners of this jazz-inflected pop are singers Farhad (www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5eNaqX_g0o) and Dariush (www.youtube.com/watch?v=OpDXSyH9Ye4), whose works employ trace elements of jazz piano, brass, and guitar.
Jazz and other popular musics of the West influenced a form of hybridized national and cultural expression when fused with Iranian art and music. Such hybridity is present in the jazz-adjacent works of Iranian artists Vigen Derderian, Googoosh, and Hassan Golnaraqi. Golnaraqi’s evocative track “Mara Beboos” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3pL4FKwoqU) which contains some of the downtempo style of jazz guitarists like Django Reinhardt.
Known colloquially as the “Sultan of Jazz,” Vigen Derderia was perhaps the most commercially successful star of the era. Vigen began his career in the early 1950’s in the cafés and nightclubs of Tehran, and developed a smooth “crooner” pop style that was deemed acceptable to the Shah’s cultural requirements. While Vigen’s music does not sound explicitly like jazz as many Western audiences know it, it is reflective of some of the most Westernized music in the post-war period. He is often compared with Elvis Presley, and like “The King,” he appeared in popular films. Vigen’s musical work is emblematic of jazz in Iran. There exists a complex relationship between Western and non-Western traditions, as the Western elements and aesthetics of Vigen’s music are inexorably tied to the non-Western (Breyley 307). His stage demeanor, hairstyle, costumes and album design are all decidedly non-Western, but contain currents of Western popular forms of music like swing and early rock and roll, both of which contain jazz-derived rhythmic and harmonic elements.
Some colorful YouTube commentary on a video of Vigen’s music sheds light on the complexities in understanding diasporic jazz and the problems of discussing jazz as a generalized form. In the comments section of one of his major hits “Lalai” (Lullaby) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpB5Enr3iaI), two commenters engage in a debate about whether Vigen’s music should be called jazz:
Kadkhoda Ahvazi: “this was not a jazz singer and he never sang even one jazz song” [translated from Persian]
Nasir Delshaad: “WHAT DIFFERENT [DOES IT] MAKE WEATHER HE WAS CALLED KING OF JAZ OR KING OF POP, HE WAS THE BEST IN HIS [PROFESSION]”
Challia25: “Sir, between pop and jazz it makes no difference, don’t take it so seriously” [translated from Persian]
These commenters encapsulate the struggle in defining whether one of Iran’s most prominent musical figures should be grouped into the broader umbrella of jazz. Whether or not he deserves the nickname “Sultan of Jazz” is beside the point, perhaps attempting to generalize or sort all music into restricted individual genres is a fool’s errand.
New Iranian pop music also incorporated this notion of hybridity. Following the advent of television in Iran during the late 1950’s, stars like Googoosh and Fereydun Farrokhzad began to enter the musical fold. While seen as primarily Westernized, such artists incorporated elements from a myriad cultural contexts including Turkish psychedelic, Arabic, Indian, Latin American, and Eastern European styles (Breyley 309). While jazz had contributed to the mainstream pop of these other influences, and therefore found its way into Iranian music through transitive relation, it remained in the minority of musical popularity. It was reserved for some left-wing intellectuals who would frequent Tehran’s small clubs and cafés in search of contact with the more creative side of the West, which would have been, in this case, those traveling “the hippie trail,” or the overland journey taken by members of the hippie subculture and others from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s between Europe and South Asia, primarily through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. As such, elements of jazz, beat, and folk mixed with traditional musical forms (MacLean).
During the Cold War, the United States employed jazz as a “sonic secret weapon,” in which American jazz performers would visit other countries to transmute American cultural practices (Belair). In 1956 the U.S. state department sent bebop trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie to perform in the oil city of Abadan, kicking off a regional strategic tour of cultural dissemination stretching across the Middle East, Asia and Eastern Europe (Von Eschen). Subsequent campaigns were led by jazz giants like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Harry Edison, and others (Breyley 308). These cultural ambassadors would have attracted young fans as well as foreigners who were working in Iran. These tours in turn influenced American musicians like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, whose composition ‘Isfahan’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2U1MGX8SLU) was certainly impacted by the Persian musical forms which they gleaned on their tours.
The emergent musical dialogue between the two countries was instrumental in the development of new forms of jazz. One particularly noteworthy jazz practitioner who embodies the cultural osmosis between Iran and the United States was Lloyd Miller. Dr. Miller is known for his research work on Persian music, is fluent in Persian, can play 100 instruments in 15 jazz, ethnic and world music traditions, and holds a doctorate in Persian studies. During the 1950’s and 60’s, Miller played Iranian instruments with top jazz artists in Europe like Don Ellis and Eddie Harris, and often played at the famous Blue Note in Paris, where he sat in for Bud Powell to play with Kenny Clark. Miller learned Persian art music formally under the Iranian master Dariush Safvat, who was also living in Paris at the time (Breyley 311). Miller lived in Iran for six years, absorbing the music of the country and blending it with his own jazz practice. During the 1970s, Miller even hosted his own prime-time main network jazz show on NIRTV in Tehran, “Kurosh Ali Khan and Friends,” where he performed under a pseudonym Kurosh Ali Khan (https://youtu.be/5Oegi6LlG90?t=328). The show featured improvisational performances by mostly unknown Iranian artists. (JazzScope).
Dr. Miller’s magnum opus, aptly titled “Oriental Jazz” elegantly fuses traditional American bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, and big band forms with traditional Persian instruments like the tar, zarb, and santur, 6/8 time signatures, and microtonal scales, all cornerstones of traditional Persian music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=478hfvZ9Tqw). As Miller seamlessly melds Persian instrumentation and modes with American jazz, his music showcases the dialogue between the two. When one first sees the album art and title, there is almost an expectation that the music will be a stiff, buttoned-up imitation of Iranian music, indeed the application of the term “oriental” already implies a certain degree of cultural appropriation. Upon hearing tracks like “Gol-e Gandom,” “Amber Eyes,” and “Hue Wail,” the listener is immersed in a swirling, kaleidoscopic dreamscape of jazz-fusion. The style is not necessarily academic, but contains an ineffable sophistication and clear evidence of the work that Miller put in to learn and play these native instruments from players in Iran.
Miller describes his successful dialogue between jazz and Iranian music as less of a blending and more of a meeting, stating how, “I’d play this Iranian stuff with the Arab oud and Turkish clarinet and Vietnamese flat harp, and we’d play some jazz things with [Western] instruments. So instead of trying to play jazz on [Persian instruments], or trying to play Persian music on Western instruments…I played those instruments…not blended at all. They met, and went side by side” (Breyley 311). Miller’s concept of “side by side” music reflects the aversion to fusion or contamination shared by the supporters of the Golha radio program, discussed below.
“Oriental Jazz” was part of a body of work that kicked off the genre of “spiritual jazz.” Stylistically, spiritual jazz is marked by a mixture of jazz with approximations of ethnic music styles (often a blend of styles evocative of African, Indian, and East Asian musical traditions), religious music of non-Christian traditions, and the ecstatic, transcendental aspects of Free Jazz. Other practitioners of “Spiritual Jazz” include John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Pharoh Sanders, Sun Ra and His Solar-Myth Arkestra, and Dorothy Ashby. All of these artists participated in a musical movement that saw jazz artists striking out beyond jazz’s constraints, be it chord changes, predetermined tempos, or “standard” melodies, striving toward freedom and spiritual transcendence amidst the great cultural tumult of the 1960’s.
One of jazz-harpist Dorothy Ashby’s most critically-acclaimed albums takes a cue from Iranian cultural heritage, reflected in the title of the 1970 masterpiece: “The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby: Original compositions inspired by the words of Omar Khayyam, arranged and conducted by Richard Evans.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdmAM0abahs). Ashby’s downtempo harp and vocals represent a mannered, lush, and cinematic listening experience, with lyrics supplied by the notoriously inaccurate Fitzgerald translation of Omar Khayyam. The record is self-consciously philosophical, with a grandiosity and mystical sensibility present in the works of other spiritual jazz or soul jazz practitioners.
By the mid-fifties, some of Iran’s urban intellectual communities expressed their concerns about a perceived lack of appreciation and taste for singularly Persian art and music. Such communities saw the emergent popular music as infected by Western, Arabic, Turkish and other influences, which included jazz (Breyley 308). Such fears prompted Davud Pirnia to develop a music program on national radio called Golha or “Flowers,” a reserved space to play authentically Persian music with no sense of cultural interference. Such a narrow goal is nigh impossible to achieve, but nonetheless Pirina established a newfound appreciation for certain new forms of Iranian music that came out of an interdependent musical atmosphere. Golha represented an accumulation of musicians who improvised in the Motrebi or “light-urban” form of music style, lyricists and composers, and some proponents of the Westernized style who emphasized harmony and fixed-meter works (Breyley 308). In many ways, Golha became part of the “back to roots” movement that played a significant role in the revolution.
Lloyd Miller played a role in the ideological preservation of “uncontaminated” Iranian music during this time. His master, Dariush Safvat returned to Iran out of an intensified concern about the Westernization imposed by the Shah’s regime. As such, he established the Centre for the Preservation and Propagation of Iranian Music in Tehran in the late 1960’s. Miller was awarded a fulbright scholarship in 1970 to move to Iran, where he promoted the Centre and its concerts of both traditional art music and jazz. As Miller recalls “[The Centre] wanted to promote the thinking that “Iranian music was going down the tube, it’s the fault of westernization, it’s all the fault of America and its crummy culture and let’s get the Yankees outta here…I didn’t mean it that way, but all these guys were left-wing and loved me ragging on America, and how our music was destroying theirs. I wrote about how great Safvat was saving traditional music” (Nikzad 67)
Additionally, an English-language Iranian magazine article about his television show “Kurosh Ali Khan and Friends” published in the late 1970’s quotes Miller, or “Kurosh” as saying that the United States’ musical landscape was “riddled with union dictatorship, hoods, fakes and swindlers” (JazzScope). Such an ideological position is reflective of a contradiction at the center of Miller’s position in Iran as a jazz practitioner, as Miller enjoyed many of the privileges of being an American in Iran in the 1970’s. Miller was sheltered from, if not immune to the very real and ever-present threat posed by SAVAK, which many Iranian dissidents and aspiring experimental musicians would have faced. Miller enjoyed unprecedented freedom of expression in public contexts while Iranians themselves could only practice and perform their music in private.
For those Iranians who feared cultural colonialism and gharbzadegi (westoxification), jazz represented a prime example of American decadence and moral rot. Critics of the West argued that musical traffic only flowed from West to East, and along with it came the ills of Western society (Milani 831). Indeed, Iranian socio-political critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad declared the West morally and aesthetically bankrupt, as it celebrated what he called the “primitive art of Africa” (Milani 832). This trend of aligning jazz music with the primitive extended to Egypt, where writer and ideologue Sayyid Qtub argued that:
“The American is primitive in his artistic taste, both in what he enjoys as art and in his own artistic works. “Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other. The American’s intoxication in “jazz” music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree… The agitation of the multitude increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears” (Qutb).
Such vehemently racist attacks on jazz were popular, as other thinkers in Iran conflated jazz with westoxification. Indeed, Ayatollah Khomeini and his ideological circle approved and appropriated those views, promulgating anti-modern thought as a function of ecclesiastical doctrine. As thinkers like Al-e-Ahmad provided the ideological underpinnings to the 1979 revolution, it follows that jazz would come under direct censorship and suppression under the new regime. Jazz could not be publicly performed or commercially recorded in Iran between the 1979 revolution and the mid-1990’s (Breyley 313). As such, there exists a complex relationship between the free form musical medium and the totalitarian regime. I hope to touch on the significance of such a frenetic and improvisational art form in the context of a highly regulated society.
In terms of defining an aesthetic modernity, jazz represents one of the most salient art forms in the minds of Iranian thinkers and experimental musicians. Most often, jazz represented a form of dissent, and was perceived as being purely of the West. Jazz also represented a significant pillar of the cultural Cold War, employed by the United States as an overture of the superpower’s aesthetic sophistication, with Iran as one of the proving grounds for the so-called “Sonic secret weapon.” While it did not enjoy the same mainstream success as it did elsewhere, jazz made an impression upon Iranian popular music during a unique moment of cultural osmosis. This musical dialogue also presented the West with traditional Persian music as a new form of inspiration, which sparked the development of new experimental forms in the United States. As for its role in the 1979 revolution, jazz was categorized as an object of resentment by the intellectuals behind “Westoxification,” who attacked the musical form indicative of the moral rot of the West, and of modernity.
Belair Jr., Felix. 1955. ‘United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon – Jazz’. New York Times, 6 November.
Breyley, G.J. “Jazz in Iran since the 1920s.” Jazz and Totalitarianism, by Bruce Johnson et al., Routledge, 2017, pp. 297–324.
Collier, James Lincoln. 1978. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Devlin, Paul. 2015. ‘Jazz Autobiography and the Cold War.’ Popular Music and Society 38 (2): 140-159.
“Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy.” Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy, by Danielle Fosler-Lussier, University of California Press, 2015.
Kajanova, Yvetta. Jazz from Socialist Realism to Postmodernism. Peter Lang, 2016.
MacLean, Rory (2008), Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India, London, New York: Penguin Books, Ig Publishing.
Milani, Abbas. Eminent Persians: the Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941-1979. Syracuse University Press, 2008.
Nikzad, Ramtin. 2013. “Music Side By Side: An Interview with Lloyd Miller.” B’ta’arof: A Magazine for Iranian Culture, Arts & Histories 2: 64-67.
Qutb, Sayyid. “The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values.” CIA.gov, Central Intelligence Agency, 1951, http://www.cia.gov/library/abbottabad-compound/3F/3F56ACA473044436B4C1740F65D5C3B6_Sayyid_Qutb_-_The_America_I_Have_Seen.pdf.
Von Eschen Penny M., Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, Harvard University Press, 2006.