Ahmet Gulbay, from Chess Board to Key Board
By Christie Seeley
When I met Ahmet Gulbay, his trio played regularly at the Saint-German jazz club, the Bilboquet, in Paris. It was the same club that had been a favorite since Django Reinhardt played there in his bebop days, when young, so-called misfits, dressed in tight black pants and shirt sleeves, revolved around the dance floor of what was at that time called Club Saint-German.
I had been stopping in to the club for music for several years, but in winter of 2004, I was able to spend a month in Paris and found his trio playing as regulars every evening. My routine was to enjoy dinner somewhere and then walk through Paris's streets until time for the jazz sets.
A frigid January, it snowed just before my arrival. In preparation, I brought with me a long, black wool coat, gloves, and even ear muffs, especially for night. As I entered the club, the elegant staff was amused at my choice of attire to come out to hear jazz. Of course, I shed those heavy outer garments as soon as I was seated on the short red velvet stools of the small intimate club. The atmosphere was cozy, and I was warmed even further by the pianist's radiant inviting smile, Ahmet Gulbay.
Night after night, I enjoyed the great jazz played by his trio and frequent drop-in guests. One night as I arrived, I encountered an adolescent near the powder room nursing a bloody nose. As I inquired about his well-being, he revealed that he was visiting with his parents, and as a jazz pianist from the Berkeley High band, Ahmet invited him to play. What generosity of this renowned musician and what a thrill for the boy and his family. On another occasion, I met a couple, the woman French and her husband Turkish, who knew Ahmet, who was also of Turkish heritage. We enjoyed a wonderful evening together. The next night, they invited me to join them at a dinner to celebrate the woman's father's birthday. We sat at a lovely long table right in front of the band. The woman's family was beautiful, and we enjoyed friendly conversation with the artist during and after the performance.
My visits with Ahmet and the Bilboquet were such a big part of my stays in Paris that on a subsequent trip, when I appeared at the door of the club to find it closed forever, a fire went out in my heart! I located Ahmet at another club and enjoyed his music, but after that trip, I could never find him again at any time I would be visiting Paris.
The internet's charm is that it sometimes just throws things in front of you which you would never expect. So how did I find him? Through chess.
When he was very young in Paris, a friend introduced Ahmet to chess, and they used to play in a space where musicians rehearsed. Fascinated by the piano, Ahmet gave it a try and was a natural. Although the piano eventually took over his life, (he is now one of the most outstanding pianists in Paris) he continues to excel at the game of the 64 squares.
"I consider chess to be an art," he told Bertrand Guyard for the Fígaro in the article I found. His heroes are Bobby Fischer and Fats Waller, "they both have inspiration and, above all, the spirit of sacrifice." “They are men,” he says, “who have given their lives to their art, living their craft more than themselves...Both were looking for the right note and the right stroke for harmony to reign."
Ahmet is a man with a lot of creative energy and has produced music for several films with Jean Becker, a fellow chess enthusiast and producer, he wrote and published a book about jazz and has been instrumental in building the successful jazz festival held each year on I'lle des Ré, Jazz au Phare.
There is no doubt that his driving force lies in those black and white keys. I hope to see him again soon!