by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 7, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It was December of 1997, I was sitting at a diner, I was waiting to interview jazz guitar master Attila Zoller, and I was nervous. Attila's lifelong dream -- a permanent home for his beloved Vermont Jazz Center, was coming true after 27 years. But I also knew that he was dying. I'd seen him only a few months before, at a Sonny Rollins concert (he played with Rollins in the '50s), and he looked fine -- broad shoulders, big grin, black captain's hat pulled low over his eyes.
So I wasn't prepared when he burst through the doors like a hurricane, unrecognizable except for the hat. He was a huge-eyed skeleton with waves of nervous energy racing through his body and shooting out around him like fl= ames. His hands looked huge, and his large fingers were splayed and rounded at the tips.
Attila was 70 then. He had been born into a musical family in Hungary, and when he was about 21, already a musician in love with jazz, the Communists took over. They wouldn't let him play jazz, so he said good-bye and walked over the mountains, alone, to Austria, carrying only his guitar in a sack. Even then, he was ornery.
Attila ordered homemade apple pie and vanilla ice cream and ate ravenously.
"I'm supposed to eat everything I can," he said in his accented English. "But I can't eat. I have no appetite. So when I find something I can eat, I eat a lot of it."
I asked about his illness, and he waved his hand dismissively. "I have colon cancer," he said.
He pulled up his sweater, found the tumor and cupped it. "It's getting smaller. It goes up, it goes down, it must be the medicine."
He pinched his bicep and winced.
"I used to have muscles. Now I'm bones. But I have strength in reserve from the swimming. Every morning in the summer I swim laps in the Townshend Dam. I want my ashes to be scattered in the Townshend Dam."
For years, Attila had been well-known without being famous. From his work in Austria and Germany, where he topped the jazz guitar polls for nearly a decade, to his arrival in the United States, where he played with Benny Goodman, Chico Hamilton, Stan Getz and Herbie Mann, he lived only to play music. He had long-term musical friendships with players like bassist George Mraz and saxman Lee Konitz, and he told stories about rooming with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. Pat Metheny recognized Attila as one of hismost inspiring teachers.
He played a cool yet emotive, beautiful, free-flowing, mellow jazz guitar. He recorded over 30 albums. He designed guitars, and his patented guitar pickup was used by many prominent performers. There was a line of Zoller strings for guitar and bass.
"He wanted the sound to be just the way he wanted it," said his friend, trumpeter Howard Brofsky. "He had a sense of the international. 'I'm not a blues player,' he said. 'I didn't grow up in America. I'm not black, I don't come out of that tradition.' His sound was unique. He used to criticize students for playing licks that other people had played. Hemade a point of being original, his own person, totally independent and creative."
Attila never had great commercial success, but he won the NewEngland Foundation for the Arts Lifetime Achievement in Jazz award in 1995,and in April, 1997, the American Guitar Museum on Long Island gave him a surprise birthday party and named the day Attila Zoller Day. The Hungarian government had just brought him over to play two concerts. He pulled out a plastic bag filled with medicine and photographs from his Hungarian trip. He showed me pictures of his sister, his old elementary school friends, and the girl who lived next door.
"They did the concert in my old home town, Visegrad. I hadn't been there for 40 years," he said. "My little daughter was shining. Everybody adored her."
From the pill vials he chose a Zantac, but passed on the morphine. "I'm supposed to take it every five or six hours, but then I can't drive," he said.
He continued talking. He had fallen in love with Vermont the first time he came, in 1972. And although he broke his leg skiing on that trip, by 1974 he had bought a house and started a summer jazz school. People played in every room and under every tree, and he imported his friends to teach.
"I gave them room and board, and I cooked, too," Attila said. "I made Hungarian goulash and paprika chicken. It was hard times, but it was a nice way to start here a little scene."
There were never enough students, though, and Attila finally had to sell the house. After that, the Vermont Jazz Center, which was incorporated in 1985, moved from one space to another. But Attila's dream was to keep it going, and he was delighted when he met Eugene Uman, the current director.
"I thought that before I go to other hunting grounds, I should settle something so that the jazz keeps going," Attila said. "I devoted my life to that art form. I would like the spirit to stay going. We have a nice serious cat, Eugene, and his family is beautiful. It looks like we got it rolling in the right way."
The last thing Attila said to me was that dying had improved his playing.
"I play much better now," he said. "It's much more relaxed. You bring 100 percent more of yourself. I was always nervous. Now nothing bothers me. I'm free to improvise. I'm on the trip now."
Then he kissed me on both cheeks and hugged me, and I could feel each of his ribs, sharp and close, under my fingers. He jumped into his little blue car, honked, waved, and took off like a flash. I left the parking lot right behind him, but he was long gone.
When the jazz center held its celebratory concert a month later, Attila wasn't there. He was in Grace Cottage Hospital, and although his doctor said he could play, he was afraid that his pain medication would affect the quality of his music. He died on January 25, 1998.
Since the lake at the Townshend dam was frozen, his friends scattered his ashes from a covered bridge just below the dam, where the water was still moving. Then they opened a bottle of champagne.
Every year, around Attila's June 13th birthday, the jazz center holds a concert in his honor. His dream and his music continues, and that would be all that he would have wanted -- except for to play more jazz, of course.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.