Today, jazz flourishes in Athens—or at least did before the virus lockdown. Many clubs dot the city, and gifted Greek jazz musicians perform there. Greek jazz greatness begins with a pianist whose name might be new to you—Manolis Mikelis (above). That’s because Mikelis barely recorded, preferring to play live throughout Europe during his lifetime.
Back in the 1950s, when the U.S. State Department began sending American jazz musicians on goodwill tours to the far reaches of the world, artists found an unsettled environment in Greece. Back then, Greece’s civil war between 1946 and 1949 was still fresh in the minds of many Greeks, and political emotions ran hot and cold. Cultural tensions also bubbled up.
According to Lisa E. Davenport’s Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era, a State Department official in a memo frowned on Dizzy Gillespie’s „dizzy“ behavior in 1956, noting he arrived an hour late to a buffet dinner and observed that sophisticated, conservative Athenians preferred the „high arts.“ Compared to the Soviet Union’s Russian Folk Ballet touring at the same time, Gillespie’s audiences in Greece were smaller, he noted.
But that didn’t stop Athenian jazz fans and Greek jazz musicians from admiring Gillespie and other American artists whose albums they heard or collected. One of these Greek artists was Mikelis. According to Jimi Mentis in Athens, Mikelis was born in 1924 and as a child studied classical piano for six years. [Photo above of Dizzy Gillespie and his band performing at a matinee for Greek students in 1956, courtesy of the Marshall Stearns Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University]
Here’s what Jimi wrote me about Mikelis:
Forced to switch to accordion after the death of his father during Nazi occupation in 1942 to support his family, Mikelis with a few other Greek musicians became the first group to play jazz in post-war Greece to great acclaim.
In 1950, Mikelis moved to posh Beirut, Lebanon, where he remained for four years, resuming his classical piano studies while playing at clubs to make ends meet. He then played gigs in Italy and Paris, a jazz center then. But jazz work for non-Americans and non-French was difficult to come by.
In response, Mikelis moved on to Frankfurt, Germany, to play on bases where U.S. Forces were stationed as well as at the Domicil du Jazz, an after-hours club there. In Germany, he worked with Percy Heath during the Modern Jazz Quartet’s two-week stint in 1955. Then he continued on to Morocco, where he lived for four years before heading north to Spain.
There, he worked the best clubs in Madrid, such as the Pasapoga and Whisky Jazz, playing in 1960 with members of the Quincy Jones Orchestra, including Phil Woods, Sahib Shihab, Benny Bailey and Les Spann. He and Spanish piano virtuoso Tete Montoliu became good friends.
After a stint with Don Ellis in Germany, where he met George Russell, he returned to post civil war-torn Greece in 1962. By then, Greece was awash in Marshall Plan cash, and the demand for skilled musicians was high. Mikelis also recorded for film, playing piano and vibes.
But it was the new Athens Hilton’s Galaxy Bar (above), with its stupendous view of the city, that became his home for 12 years. When Stan Getz visited Athens in 1967 for the Athens Festival under the Acropolis for four concerts between July 10 and 16, he had a young Chick Corea on piano. In his spare time, Corea could be seen at the Galaxy either cherishing Mikelis’s mastery or sitting in on drums.
After the Hilton period, Mikelis became a fixture of the Athens jazz scene, jamming with all the greats who visited in the 1970s, such as Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Grady Tate, Monty Alexander.
Mikelis idolized Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson for technique and Bill Evans for lyricism. But as he said, „Red Garland (above) and Tommy Flanagan play with the most soul.“ That’s where his heart was. This shy and self-effacing piano giant died in 1990 at age 66.
Here, with a special thanks to Jimi, are links to clips that exist of Mikelis’s extraordinary playing, both in concert and on an album that you can find at Spotify:
Here’s a rare taped performance by pianist Manolis Mikelis…
From the CD, The Flowering Almond Tree, here’s Polka Dots and Moonbeams…
Here’s Watch What Happens…
Here’s On Green Dolphin Street…
Here’s The Flowering Almond Tree, a solo piano performance played for the first time in front of an audience, as he announces in Greek…
And here’s Satin Doll, Misty, You Stepped Out of a Dream and other songs…