Tangier’s Jazzmen — and their phantom producer

Dizzy Gillespie and Jacques Muyal. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

He rode on Tito Puente’s float during the Puerto Rican Day Parade of 1969, when the mambo king was given a key to the city by Mayor John Lindsay. He was close to Oscar Peterson and Max Roach, he was pall-bearer at Dizzy Gillespie’s funeral. He was part of a team of engineers that designed the technical Oscar-winning Kudelski-Nagra IV recorder, used in film productions. He designed Oris’s jazz-inspired luxury watches honoring the likes of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Dexter Gordon. And he produced a slew of memorable jazz records. 

He is Jacques Muyal – the Moroccan-born producer and aficionado who is one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in the world of jazz. The animated, quick-to-smile 77-year old has been in the news of late for various reasons: because of the release of his latest record “The 4 American Jazzmen in Tangier,” based on recordings he made in Morocco in 1959; the release of a Swiss-television documentary, Jazz: The Only Way of Life of which he is the subject; and because at the recent Dizzy Gillespie centennial at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., he screened a 90-minute film about the late trumpeter, made from previously unreleased home footage. 

Muyal’s singular career, born at the center of French and American jazz initiatives in North Africa, and nourished by Latin and pan-African jazz movements, is in some ways also the story of Tangier, the city where he grew up, and its trajectory from a Spanish-speaking International Zone (1923-1959) to a post-colonial city and node in Morocco’s cultural policy. Inordinate attention has been given to the white European and American presence in this mecca (Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Edith Wharton, Jean Genet). Muyal’s productions sought to highlight a different side of this global city and others. In his lifelong work, Muyal sought to celebrate the black presence not only in Tangier, but also in Paris, Havana and Rio.

Muyal recalls the portentous day in early 1955, when he discovered jazz. He was barely a teenager huddled in front of the family’s shortwave radio, listening to Voice of America, and the show Jazz Hour came on, with its theme song – Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train.” 

“And then,” recalls Muyal, “Willis Conover’s beautiful voice came on – ‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight two young piano players Phineas Newborn Jr. and Randy Weston…” Conover played Weston’s debut record “Cole Porter in a Modern Mood.” Little did this youngster know that this show would set the course of his life – and that he and Randy Weston (who would settle in Tangier in 1967) would become fast friends, launching Tangier’s fabled jazz club African Rhythms, and with Muyal repeatedly recording Weston, including with Dizzy Gillespie.

Muyal was in primary school during the International Zone’s glory years, when Tangier was a post-war boomtown, ruled by a committee of eight western powers, its frail legal system, loose tax and currency laws drawing traders and financiers – and writers and artists of all kinds. The city was home to various communities, the largest being Moroccan Muslims and Spaniards. Music aficionados would flock to the majestic Teatro Cervantes – built in 1913 – to hear mostly Arabic and Spanish music. As a young boy, Muyal’s parents took him to the Cervantes, as it’s still called locally, to see world renowned artists, such as the Cuban bolerista Antonio Machín, the Argentinian crooner Carlos Gardell, and the Mexican singer Jorge Negrete, who rode onto the stage on a white horse. Muyal recalls as a boy standing behind the counter at his father’s shop on Rue Essiaghine, the street that cuts through Tangier’s medina. He remembers the flow of people streaming by – the Indian shopkeepers, the Berber women in straw hats, the Spanish lottery sellers, the Chinese men with ponytails peddling bright-colored shoelaces. This boy obsessed with sound would listen to the chatter of different languages and the chants emanating from the Sufi lodges. “I remember the Saturdays vividly – we’re inside the synagogue listening to the piyyutim (liturgical poems) and the call to prayer would echo from a nearby mosque, and the Hebrew and Arabic would reverberate off the medina’s walls.”

As a high school student at the Lycée Regnault, he would hang out at the Danish-owned Club Safari, the most celebrated jazz spot in the International Zone. There he met Robert “Juice” Wilson, the Missouri-born saxophonist and violinist, who had settled in Tangier in 1936. (Muyal would pen a lovely profile of Wilson for Jazz Magazine in 1960). When Wilson and other musicians took to the floor, Muyal would sometimes join them, plucking at a borrowed bass. On weekends, the teenager would take his clunky movie camera and walk around the town filming street scenes. He filmed Tangier’s newly-formed theatre group rehearsing at the Cervantes, and grew close to Bachir Skirej, Morocco’s most well-known comedic actor.

Muyal’s passion for music and bilingualism did not go unnoticed, and in 1955, he was hired by the Voice of America, which since World War II had been based in the American Legation, the Moorish-style building in the medina and the first diplomatic property acquired by the US in 1821. Muyal was recruited to produce Spanish translations of Jazz Hour, which were then transmitted on VOA Spanish. With dictionary in hand, he would listen to Connover, study the vinyl covers (Capitol Records shipped records directly to the Legation) and dream of meeting the artists. His first translation was of a broadcast of the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.

The 15-year old would soon become a player in the local and regional music scene. When the State Department launched its jazz diplomacy program in 1956, one of the regular stops for the “jambassadors” was Tangier. When flutist Herbie Mann came to perform in the city in March 1959, with Carlos “Patato” Valdez and Jose Mangual, Muyal was tasked with introducing their concert at the Cinema Alhambra. He would publish a review of the show in the Tangier Times, introducing readers to “[Le] Jazz Afro Cubain.” When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and Antonio Machín was expelled from Spain by Franco – because the singer’s daughter was a suspected Communist – he fled to Tangier, where the young Muyal was his host.

In the International Zone, Tangier was home to a bevy of radio stations — Radio Tanger International, Radio Africa, Radio Maghreb, Radio Pan-America – broadcasting in Arabic, English, French and Spanish. Concerned about growing Soviet influence in the city, the US had set up a Voice of America relay station in 1949. Tangier’s airwaves transmitted a range of cultural and ideological messages. (Radio Africa, for instance, was founded by the notorious Jacques Trémoulet, who ran Vichy’s radio propaganda during the war and after being sentenced to death in absentia in 1946, fled France to Francoist Spain – where he founded Radio Intercontinental Madrid – and then continued to Tangier.) Radio Tanger and Radio Africa both had jazz programs, led by French radio hosts. The French had long invited American artists (Sydney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Buck Clayton and others) to perform in Morocco under the auspices of Hot Club, as Jazz Magazine reported in 1961. The Americans, however, had a different vision for jazz diplomacy than the French (who often wanted to highlight the freedom that African American artists enjoyed in France). As the Americans set up shop in post-war Morocco, they began to butt against the French musical presence. The Dixie Jazz Band of Rabat and the Moon Glows Quartet of the (Nouasser) American base in Kenitra began organizing concerts and lecture series about America’s classical music.

In Tangier, these competing visions would play out in battles to control Radio Tanger International. In 1956, André Francis, head of jazz programing at RTI, kept clashing with the station’s American head (“Mr Southworth”), and one day he called Muyal to tell him that he was returning to France, and offered him his show. Soon the 15-year old was hosting “Le Club de Jazz” broadcast every Friday night at 8:30pm, and listed on the back pages of the internationally-circulated Jazz Magazine. Soon after, French promoter Marcel Romano – who famously enlisted Miles Davis  to record the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1958 film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) – arrived in Tangier, and took the young deejay under his wing. Muyal would go on to write the Spanish lyrics for the track “No Hay Problema” (performed by Art Blakey) for Romano’s film, Les Liasons Dangereuses.

A image of Muyal with “Juice Wilson” on the cover of a magazine. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

Like most youth growing up in Tangier, Muyal tried to learn English by listening to the radio. “I listened to Conover, I studied the liner notes – and dreamt of one day meeting the artists on the album covers,” says Muyal. One evening in July 1959, he was walking down Boulevard Pasteur and saw four black men walk past him. “I thought – I’ve seen that face somewhere.” He ran after them, and tapped one of them on the shoulder, “Aren’t you Idriss Sulieman?” Sulieman smiled and raised both hands like he was being arrested.

Muyal had recognized the musician from a Monk album cover — Sulieman was one of the first trumpeters to play with the pianist. The other three musicians were pianist Oscar Dennard, bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Buster Smith. The musicians had traveled to Tangier, looking for gigs and musical inspiration, but also for religious reasons. With the collapse of the Garveyite movement in the 1930s, many politically active African Americans had gravitated towards the Nation of Islam and the Baha’i movement. Tangier is home to myriad Sufi shrines and brotherhoods, and at 20 miles from the Spanish coast, it was the closest point of the Muslim world for American converts visiting Europe. But also, in the mid-1950s, a small Baha’i community had formed in Tangier, led by Helen Elsie Austin, an American foreign service officer teaching at the newly founded American School. [Incidentally, Gillespie would end up converting to Bahaism and reflecting Baha’i teachings name his band “The United Nation Orchestra,” Muyal would in jest often tell him, “you really should have called your band the Tangier Orchestra, because it’s in Tangier where the nations of the world converge.”]

“They came looking for Islamic spirituality,” says Muyal, “Idriss Sulieman was one of the first converts to Islam, Oscar Dennard was also Muslim – his [Muslim] name was Zain Mustapha.” Muyal would book the musicians for a three-month stint at the Russian-owned Casino de Tanger, where they performed as the “4 American Jazzmen in Tangier.” But before that he invited them to the studio at Radio Tanger, where he recorded an impromptu session. “We had a badly tuned upright piano,” recalls Muyal, “I didn’t have money for a band (tape), so I just glued together some tape from broken reels we had.” 

After Tangier, the jazzmen traveled to Tunis and then Cairo, where the 30-year old Dennard contracted typhoid and died. He would be buried at Zein Eldin cemetery in the Egyptian capital, his grave for many years a stop for jazz musicians visiting Egypt. This enigmatic, self-effacing Memphis-born prodigy who had played regularly with Lionel Hampton was widely admired for his dazzling style, but he left no recordings behind – except for the impromptu session at Radio Tanger. And that is the recording that Muyal released earlier this year. In the early 1970s Muyal stumbled upon the tape and sent cassette copies to some of his pianist friends – Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, McCoy Tyner – the word spread and soon his phone was ringing off the hook. 

“Oscar was a prodigy, he was the inspiration for Ahmed Jamal and Harold Mayborn – listening to him it’s hard to believe that there are only two hands playing,” says Muyal, “But I never thought it would become a historic recording.” The recent release “4 American Jazzmen in Tangier: Idress Sulieman Quartet featuring Oscar Dennard” is two discs: the first is the RTI session recorded in 1959, and the second a recording that Jamil Naser sent to Muyal, 45 years ago, of Sulieman’s quartet and Oscar Dennard playing at a party in Quincy Jones’s Manhattan apartment in early 1959, just before they traveled overseas. The audio of the second tape was not high quality, but new technology has allowed Muyal to shore up the sound. On the Tangier recording one can hear the echo of a small studio and the poorly-tuned piano, but Dennard’s scintillating touch and Sulieman’s mournful trumpet make for a crisp, intimate, bluesy sound.

Tangier occupies a curious role in the American jazz imagination. Tune in to WBGO, New York’s only jazz station, on any weekday morning and at some point you’ll hear whirling wind, faint drums and a voice over, “Imagine yourself in Tangiers [sic] … listening to “Morning Jazz,” as sand blows against wind screens.” Compositions named for the city abound – Idrees Sulieman’s “Tangier Blues,” Herbie Mann’s “In Tangier,” Randy Weston’s “Tangier Bay,” Ornette Coleman’s “Interzone Suite,” Carol Robbin’s “Tangier,” Hot Jazz Club “Swing de Tangiers.”

In the mid-1950s, the eminent jazz critic Albert Murray, then a young captain stationed at the Nouasser air base in Casablanca, delivered a series of lectures (in French) on the meaning of jazz. He stressed that the art form was the creation of the “black American” – l’Américain d’Afrique – adding rather cryptically that “jazz in Africa does not exist, with the exception of Lionel or Armstrong, when they come to Tangier, Casablanca or Marrakesh.”

It’s not clear what the meaning of Tangier is to jazz aficionados and artists – a triumph of American ascendency, escape from western society, an African wellspring – but a succession of jazz artists have spent time in Tangier, from Josephine Baker and Ted Joans to Archie Schepp and Ornette Coleman. And it’s fair to say that the city would not have gained such a prominent place in the jazz world were it not for the half-century partnership between Muyal and pianist Randy Weston. Based respectively in Geneva and Brooklyn, they brought the sounds of Morocco – particularly Gnawa music – to jazz audiences. When Algeria organized its pan-African music festival in 1969, Weston, in response, organized the first pan-African jazz festival in Tangier in June 1972 that brought Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew, Billy Harper, Odetta, Pucho and the Latin Soul Brothers and others to the Teatro Cervantes. Weston’s festival would become the inspiration for the multiple jazz festivals now organized year-round in Morocco.

After high school, Muyal moved to Paris for university, but almost failed out, as he was also working late nights as a jazz promoter. So he moved Geneva, where he earned a degree in sound engineering from the prestigious École Polytechnique in Lausanne. In the mid-1970s, with the rise of the Fania All Stars, he would become a critical link between Europe and the world of Latin jazz, going on to produce documentaries for Spanish television on saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera and the music scene in Havana. (His most recent Latin jazz record is a gem of bossa nova piano, titled Kenny Barron and the Brazilian Knights (recorded in Rio in 2012).

Oscar Dennard and his quartet in Tangier. Published with permission from Jacques Muyal.

Muyal began traveling regularly to North America. In the US, he found a mentor and kindred spirit in Norman Grantz, the founder of Verve Records, who had sought to use jazz to break down segregation. Muyal’s ability to move effortlessly between identities and communities fascinated his jazz associates – much to his amusement. D’Rivera dubbed him the “Afro-Swiss;” poet Ted Joans would call him “afrospanishjewishmoroccan music/hipster.” The great pianist Bud Powell would regularly ask: “So Jack, you’re from Tangier right? So does that make you a Moor? You’re sure you’re not a Moor? 

Muyal grew closest to Dizzy Gillespie, and would take time off work to accompany the trumpeter on his tours around the world. After the shows, he would crash in Gillespie’s suite. When in New York, he would stay in Gillespie’s home in Englewood, New Jersey. “Lorraine [Gillespie’s wife] wouldn’t let anyone stay over,” laughs Randy Weston, “And yet this Tangier cat would spend weeks at their house.”

In the documentary, Muyal speaks emotionally about Gillespie’s final days at the hospital, how the musician would beckon his doctors by clapping his hands as he did on stage to direct his band members. When Dizzy, propped up in a chair, drew his last breath, Muyal carried him to his bed. An hour later he called in an article to Jazz Magazine in Paris – “The Bluest Blues,” a tribute to his friend — that was included in the publication’s 100-year anniversary volume.

When not touring the world and being feted like an elder statesman, he returns to his duplex apartment on Lake Geneva. At the entrance to his office hangs a small, intricately-carved bronze lamp, a Moroccan hannukiah, passed down through the Muyal family. Inside one sees a drum set, the various Nagra recorders and weight scales he designed, a framed album cover of Norman Grantz’s first concert at the New York Philharmonic – and lots of Dizzy paraphernalia (Dizzy’s bent trumpet, his necklace-medallion, framed photographs of the be-bopper in Paris, a poster of Dizzy’s film “A Night in Havana,” and so on.) On the book shelf behind Muyal’s desk sits a volume, a Spanish translation of Marshall Stearn’s classic The Story of Jazz (1956), which he was awarded as a prize for his translations of Conover’s show.

“Jazz has taken me around the world. From Japan to Uruguay and back to Morocco,” says Muyal picking up the book, “I dreamed a life and I lived it. I say it’s the baraka of Tangier.”

Hisham Aidi

Hisham Aidi is a Fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (NYPL) in New York City.

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