Friday, April 10, 2015

Interview with Attila Zoller 1/3

Attila Cornelius Zoller (June 13, 1927 – January 25, 1998) was a Hungarian-born jazz guitarist. He won the Deutscher Filmpreis for "Beste Filmmusik" (best score) in Germany for the film Das Brot der frühen Jahre in 1962.

Born in Visegrád, Hungary, as a child Zoller was taught classical violin by his father, who was a professional violinist. In his teens, he switched to flugelhorn, then bass, and finally guitar. Zoller quit school during the Russian occupation of Hungary following World War II and began playing professionally in Budapest jazz clubs. He escaped Hungary in 1948 just before the permanent Soviet blockade of the country and began his serious music career after he moved to Vienna in 1948. He formed a jazz group with the accordionist and vibraphonist Vera Auer. Zoller left Austria for Germany in 1954, where he played with pianist Jutta Hipp, saxophonist Hans Koller and trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff. Visiting American musicians Oscar Pettiford and Lee Konitz found Zoller's work notable and they urged him to move to the US which he did in 1959, after winning a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz. There he studied with Jim Hall and roomed with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, whose influence sparked Zoller's interest in free jazz.

Zoller played in drummer Chico Hamilton's group in 1960, with Benny Goodman and flautist Herbie Mann from 1962-1965. In 1965, he began leading a free jazz-influenced group with the pianist Don Friedman, and in 1968 co-led a group with Konitz and Mangelsdorff.
Zoller played and recorded with, among others, Tony Scott, Stan Getz, Red Norvo, Jimmy Raney, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Shirley Scott and Cal Tjader. In addition, his concert and touring activities took him regularly to the European festival circuit, to Japan, and to various US jazz clubs.

Zoller was the founding president of the Vermont Jazz Center (1985) where he also taught music until 1998. In 1995, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New England Foundation for the Arts for his lifelong musical contribution to jazz. He was also a designer of musical instruments; he patented a bi-directional pickup for guitars in 1971 and helped design his own signature line of guitars with different companies. He died in Townshend, Vermont. A tribute album of his music is in the works and is to be released in 2015 with ENJA Records. The recording will include artists such as Ron Carter, John Abercrombie, Mike Stern, Peter Bernstein, Pat Metheny' Jim Hall, Gene Bertoncini. The album is being produced by David Becker.

by Bill Donaldson

I understand that you were born on June 13, 1927. 

AZ: June 13, yes, in Visegrad (Hungary).

Was your family musical? 

AZ: Yeah, my father was. I mean, my whole family was musical. My sister was playing violin. My mother was not; she played piano a little and she sang. My father was a professional teacher. He was going to be a concert violinist. But he was not out playing concerts. That was his goal. Anyway, we lived in the town outside Budapest, and so he was teaching.

Where did he teach? 

AZ: In the conservatory in Budapest before the war. He started me on violin when I was four, and later I played trumpet when I was nine or ten already. I played trumpet in the high school orchestra until I was 17. I just picked up the trumpet, and afterwards I took lessons. When I went to the first high school class, I joined the orchestra there.

What type of music did you play then? 

AZ: Bartok and Kodaly music - you know, Hungarian things.

Did you start to play guitar after high school? 

AZ: After the war. During the war I played trumpet still.

When did you graduate from high school? 

AZ: The war finished the high school for me in 1945. Then I went to Budapest and started to work. It was all a mess at that time in Hungary, you know.

How were the war conditions in Hungary?

AZ: Well, in the last few months, the soldiers were in there. The Germans took over, and then the Russians took over. And that was quite a mess then.

How did that affect you? 

AZ: Well, I mean, I was in my hometown, Visegrad, and had to survive.

You continued to go to high school as long as you could? 
AZ: No, that was hard. In November, they sent us home and we couldn't go to the school. And the next year in May, we went or the first time to Budapest. There were five months when I didn't go to school. I mean, that was a bad time, you know. The soldiers just came in. I just started to play then guitar because the soldiers were there. Some of them got drunk, you know. If there is a church, that is fine, you know. So I was next to the church.

Did you play in the church or did you play for the soldiers outside the church? 

AZ: Yes, I played a lot inside the church. I grew up in the church. I was living right next door to the church. I mean, in the town on the church square there was our house there.

Did you play guitar to entertain the soldiers? 

AZ: Yeah. They came, and they were playing and I was playing. Some of them played accordion, and then we played accordion and guitar. I just figured out the chords, you know. I could hear chords. With my ear, I could put chords to tunes that I knew. It's not normal; you learn that.

Were they German or Russian soldiers? 

AZ: They were Russian. The Germans were there before them. But I learned to play guitar when the Russians came.

Was there any violence? 

AZ: Oh, a little violence, but not too much. There was some raping - soldiers going around to find a woman, you know. They would take what possessions they wanted. With my Jazz career, I had nothing to do. I went to Budapest; I played there in a band later. In a few months through another accordion player with whom I played in Visegrad, I met the top accordion player in Budapest.

Tabanyi Pinoccio? 

AZ: Yes! How do you know Tabanyi?

Was anyone else in the band? 

AZ: Yeah, a bass was in the band too and sometimes piano. And a clarinet player, he played too. But basically it was an accordion, bass and guitar trio.

 Where did you play? 

AZ: In restaurants, you know. With those engagements, you played every night for months. In '46, I started to be more known in Budapest. In the summer of 1946 or '47, we went down to the Balaton - a big lake. In the summers you went there for an engagement like you go to the Catskills. They're like the Balaton there. It is a big lake; you don't see the other side. That was just a simple engagement. That's unimportant. Ask me something important.

Oh, but it is important. When did you go to Vienna? 

AZ: In '48, I went to Vienna. There I started to get interested in Jazz.

Was that with Vera Auer? 

AZ: Yes. I met Vera Auer in Vienna in the variety show. I played bass in the pit. I played also double bass. Vera played accordion. That's how I got in an accordion bag.

(Laughs) How did you meet her? 

AZ: It's some other funny story, how I met her then. This guy was getting from Hohner a special accordion made. It was Tabanyi, who was in Hungary. And it was stolen at the end of '47 or the beginning of '48. And I'm going to Vienna and this woman on the stage played Bach and this rhapsody - you know, classical music on the accordion. It was like an orchestra. And I see the accordion was the same accordion - the same number on it - which Tabanyi had. I thought somebody stole it in Budapest and brought it up to Vienna. I said, "Where did you get this accordion?" I went to her dressing room. And that's how we met altogether. I told her the story that I wanted Tabanyi's accordion, and she said, "Oh, you know Tabanyi!" I said, "Yeah, I worked a year with him." She said, "Oh, he's my big idol!" and all this shit. And we got together and she was interested to play Jazz, you know. I mean, that was not how Tabanyi played. OK, so I knew all his licks for a whole year.

Where did Vera hear Jazz? 

AZ: She heard all the different Jazz bands. She always wanted to play Jazz. And then we got together and we started a trio again with me on guitar. She was very good in business, so she could get a lot of gigs. We played then in American clubs. We put a bass together and then the piano also and drums. I stayed with her until '53. We played in Vienna mostly. We went to Istanbul in Turkey for three months in '51. Hers was the first group that I had something to do with Jazz. Joe Zawinul played with us, you know. He was our piano player later, and we had Hans Solomon on alto and clarinet. We played then George Shearing-style things, and we did also some swing stuff. And then we played some Tristano music - you know, a couple things what we heard from the records. That was the beginning, you know. When I first heard the King Cole trio with Oscar Moore and Slam Stewart.... That record I heard in Budapest already. But really the first Jazz I heard was in Vienna. I heard the Tristano music, you know, and I later heard Mulligan. Then when I came to the U.S., I heard Clifford Brown and Max Roach. They turned me completely around from the cool Jazz. Musically, it was not good - that cool Jazz. But Lee Konitz' sound, it sticks with me. And Lee Konitz was my idol improvisation-wise. In '55 we met in Cologne, Germany. And when I came over here, he was my friend. I went to his home, you know, to see what a nice family he had. Now he got remarried and lives in Germany. He was divorced for a long time, and then his second wife died. Anyway, we've been friends ever since, and we've been recording also in between. In '68, we had a record; it was called Zo-Ko-Ma. It was an MPS record. I played the world around everywhere later. Later, we were with Tony Scott; I started to play with him in '58. When I played in Tony Scott's group, I had the chance to play with Bill Evans, you know, and Jimmy Garrison and Pete LaRoca. Bill Evans was part of Tony's group. That was when Scott LaFaro came in Monday afternoon for one of our rehearsals. And then he sat in there with Bill. Yeah, it was nice. And then later with Chico Hamilton I played, and Herbie Mann.

Did you join Jutta Hipp after you left Vera Auer's group? 

AZ: That was in Frankfurt with Jutta then. I met Jutta when I went to Frankfurt, and we became friends. It was in that hillbilly club, you know. It was Nashville music in Frankfurt. They played things like "Steel Guitar Rag." (Laughs) That was the NCO club there, and there were mostly soldiers there. So it was good experience for me. Also, an accordion player played there who knew all the tunes and so on; I don't remember the accordion player's name any more. Jutta played piano. Later, I had to get some other engagements in between with other bands where I can make some money. So I went to Holland with a dance band, which was a good Jazz band actually. But they played their program for dance music. That was good; I made some money. That was not with Jutta then, however. After Holland, I went to Nuremburg. It was the end of a summer engagement in Holland, and that started for six months. We worked until March, you know. That was a great engagement. They paid three times the salary the other group paid. And after that, I went back to Jutta (in Nuremburg) because we had too many fights, you know. She was already in Germany a very established Jazz piano player. And it was like she was almost the only one on (Jazz) piano in Germany. There weren't a few good players; I mean, none played the caliber that she did. We played in Sweden and a few American club engagements in Frankfurt in '55. She came to the States in November of '55. And then I played in a Dutch band in France in different American clubs for soldiers who were stationed there. I finished with that Dutch band. Of course, I didn't work after that, and so I followed Jutta in January or February. That's why I came here in '56 - we were engaged and supposed to get married, you know. We broke up. With Jutta, I made some contacts.

But that didn't lead to many jobs? 

AZ: No, I didn't stay. I was with Jutta then for two or three weeks here. She dropped out in 1960. A lot of people think she recorded with Stan Getz. That's a big mistake. She recorded with Zoot Sims. I don't think Jutta ever recorded with Stan Getz, except for one tune. It was her record where Stan played one tune.

What did she do after she dropped out? 

AZ: She took a job in some clothing store making alterations or something. She stitched pants, if you know what I mean. I never saw her working, but I know it was a tailor shop.

Why did she stop playing? 

AZ: I don't know. Everybody tried to arrange interviews with her, but she doesn't say why. And then after we broke up, I went back to Europe right away to start with Hans Koller. I had a loft in Frankfurt already, so I thought I'd go back to Germany and make some money and come back (to the United States) again. A friend already had a telegram for me saying I could start with Hans Koller the first of April. Hans Koller was a saxophone player who Jutta used to work with before she split. They started their own quintets, you know. It was a Tristano kind of a quintet with Emil Mangelsdorff on alto saxophone and Joki Freund on tenor. They were at that time very good established German musicians. For the rest of the year, I played with Hans Koller in the Cologne area. Roland Kovacs was on piano, Johnny Fisher was on bass and Rudi Sehring was on drums.