Attila Zoller, Founder
Attila Zoller initiated the Vermont Jazz Center at his country home in rural Vermont. This master of guitar has performed with a Who’s Who of jazz greats, being one himself.
Attila Zoller was presented with an Achievement in Jazz award by the New England Foundation for the Arts in June, 1995, for his many years of dedication to jazz education, his performance and recording history, and his proliferation of the jazz idiom in the region.
After establishing himself as Europe’s preeminent jazz guitarist in the ’50s, he emigrated to the New York Jazz Scene to work with leading jazzmen of the ’60s: Chico Hamilton, Herbie Mann, Stan Getz and Benny Goodman, among others.
Zoller topped polls in Europe for over a dozen years in the ’50s and ’60s and earned DownBeat international critics poll awards for “talent deserving wider recognition” in 1964 and 1973. Recipient of the German Oscar in film scoring for “The Bread of Our Early Years” (1962), he has over 20 albums to his credit — the latest, a trio album with Don Friedman and Lee Konitz entitled “Thingin’.” He is founding president and artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center.
Download the Cadence Magazine Interview (PDF) with Attila Zoller, which was transcribed by Bill Donaldson.
Attila was born in Visegrad, Hungary on June 13, 1927. His father, a professional violinist and music teacher, taught Attila and his sister Anna Terezia, two years his senior, to play classical violin and piano respectively. Switching to flugelhorn for the high school band, Zoller became interested in jazz bass and guitar at age 18.
When the Russians occupied Hungary after World War II, he abandoned his formal education and began performing professionally in the jazz clubs of Budapest. Three days before the Soviets were to “permanently” blockade the Hungarian borders in October of 1948, he journeyed on foot across the mountains to freedom in Austria, carrying only his guitar case filled with his instrument and a few bits of clothing.
Time in Germany
Zoller was based in Vienna for the next few years and became an Austrian citizen. There he formed a jazz band with classical accordion prodigy Vera Auer, for whom he designed and built a vibraphone. Then the rapidly growing German jazz scene lured him further west. He rose quickly to pre-eminence as a member of pianist Jutta Hipp’s combo and topped Germany’s jazz guitar polls for nearly a decade. Also a talented composer, Zoller was presented with the 1962 German Bundespreis for filmscoring of “The Bread of Our Early Years.”
Move to America
Touring American jazz stars, among them saxophonist Lee Konitz and bassist Oscar Pettiford, urged Zoller to come to New York. Visits in 1956 and 1958 were followed by a permanent move in 1959. Though based in the U.S., he continued a Transatlantic performance schedule for nearly forty years, working with his own groups or joining American and European jazz artists on tour.
Zoller’s skill as a versatile guitarist was sought out by prominent bandleaders of the ’60s, including Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Benny Goodman. He toured for nearly two years with Herbie Mann, performing at the original Newport Jazz Festival.
Driven to find his own niche and expression in the jazz world, and influenced by rooming with Ornette Coleman at Lenox one summer, Zoller became a pioneer in Free Jazz during the mid- to late ’60s. Three albums were released in collaboration with pianist Don Friedman, as well as the acclaimed “Gypsy Cry” (Embryo, 1970) and “Dream Bells” (ENJA, 1976), in which strains of Zoller’s Hungarian roots are thematic elements.
Awards and Discography
Zoller’s performing and recording efforts were honored with two Downbeat International Critics Poll awards for talent deserving wider recognition, in 1964 and 1973.
The Zoller discography now includes over thirty titles, including three duo albums with late guitarist Jimmy Raney (1979-80, a recent double CD), several other titles for ENJA from 1979 to 1986, a live duo album with vibraphonist Wolfgang Lackerschmid in 1992, and three CDs recorded since December 1994: “When It’s Time” (ENJA), featuring Larry Willis, Lee Konitz, Santi Debriano and Yoron Israel; “Thingin” with Don Friedman and Lee Konitz live on tour in Europe; and “Lasting Love,” a just-released solo album of original ballads.
His last recording date was in New York, January 7, 1998 with Tommy Flanagan, piano, and George Mraz, bass, the morning after a final gig in the city’s Zinc Bar.
Zoller’s special “sound” was not only the product of his technique, but also resulted from his work to refine the design of his signature guitars first with Framus and later with Hoefner. He then developed and patented a guitar pickup favored by many prominent performers, and worked with the LaBella company of New York to perfect a line of Zoller strings for both guitar and bass.
A source of inspiration for jazz players and students throughout his career, Zoller taught at the National Jazz Camps in the ’60s, then founded the Attila Zoller Jazz Clinics in 1974. Working as administrator, teacher and chef, he organized workshops in his second home on Wiswall Hill until incorporating as the Vermont Jazz Center in 1985.
As founding artistic director of the VJC, he brought together international jazz artist/educators with young professionals and talented amateurs from here and Europe for intensive study and performance each summer. The Vermont Jazz Center continues to thrive in his absence, now as a year ’round jazz program honoring the Zoller Legacy.
A half-century of accomplishments in jazz have not gone unnoticed. In addition to profiles and reviews in the jazz press here and abroad, as well as entries in various musical directories, Zoller was presented with a Lifetime Achievement in Jazz award in 1995 by the New England Foundation for the Arts.
In April 1997, the American Guitar Museum on Long Island feted him with a testimonial gathering of his peers at which they announced establishment of a scholarship in his name. Among other honors presented at this event were citations from the Jazz Foundation of America, JazzTimes magazine and the Mayor of New York City, as well as the Bela Bartok Award brought by a representative of the President of Hungary.
And finally, in early December 1997, Zoller returned to his homeland to perform in two celebratory concerts sponsored by the Hungarian government, one in Budapest and one in his hometown of Visegrad.
In addition to his musical gifts, Zoller was renowned for cooking up delicious “Hungarian soul food,” dishes such as chicken paprikash and savoy cabbage with kielbasa. He was also an avid sportsman, enjoying both downhill and cross-country skiing as well as jogging, swimming, windsurfing and scuba diving.
Postscript By Eugene Uman
Until the last year of his life when cancer slowed him, Attila Zoller swam back and forth five or six times a day along a long concrete dam which briefly confines the West River into a small lake called Townshend Lake. The lake is in the small town of Townshend, Vermont, about eight miles from Attila’s rustic home in Newfane, Vermont. Below this dam, the West River curls southeast, hugged by Vermont Route 30, until it arrives in Brattleboro, where it feeds into the Great Connecticut River. From there, the crystal clean waters of Vermont run through Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York into the Atlantic Ocean.
So too have traveled some of the remains of Attila Zoller.
Attila requested that his ashes be distributed into the waters of this peaceful place where he felt close to nature. Attila told me that he didn’t like the idea of a gravestone where people would come to visit “somebody’s old bones.” Now people can remember Attila when they swim in his favorite place.
On the frigid morning of January 28, Attila’s daughter, Alicia Zoller; former girl-friend, Joy Wallens-Penford; good friend and confidant, Terry Solaro; long-time friend, musical associate and vice president of the Vermont Jazz Center, Howard Brofsky; and Attila’s new friend and newly appointed director of the Vermont Jazz Center, Eugene Uman, gathered at the snow-covered dam.
All of us realized that the ice was too thick for chipping away a hole to spread Attila’s ashes. So we all looked around and saw, about 300 yards to the south, an old abandoned covered bridge, the longest single-span covered bridge in the entire state. The West River ran quickly and freely below it. The bridge was the perfect place from which to spread the ashes of the man we all cared for so completely.
We parked our cars on the side of Route 30, and in a bittersweet celebration we opened a bottle of champagne and toasted Attila, friendship, love, the Vermont Jazz Center, and of course music. We drank the champagne from paper cups and then used those very cups to toss Attila’s ashes into the shallow running waters below. Alicia started and we followed, muttering our little prayers and knowing that this was a monumental occasion, but feeling naked during a moment of such import.
If one looks closely, a person can find, carved into the bridge, a guitar initialed “AZ” next to an arrow pointing into the glistening water.