Viennese music legend Harri Stojka looks ahead at 60
There’s very little certainty in the life and career of an artist. Musical trends and creative triumphs come and go, and so do most musicians’ fortunes. In a career spanning more than four decades, Viennese guitar virtuoso Harri Stojka has found a way to stay relevant even as others around him fade away.
Meeting with the musical icon at the quirky Café Korb soon after a much-lauded performance at the Konzerthaus to celebrate his 60th birthday, Stojka could be forgiven for taking a moment to look back wistfully at his life. He’s headlined international jazz festivals from New York to New Delhi and shared the stage with greats like Van Morrison, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin. Yet Stojka isn’t one to yearn for past glory and bygone times. Maybe it’s because life has been good. Perhaps, he’s simply too busy.
Currently, the maestro is juggling five projects simultaneously – all of them labors of love, he emphasizes. There’s a heavy metal album he’s working on with his sister on vocals. A collaboration with Indian musicians, which evolved from a trip to Rajasthan exploring his Roma roots, which also resulted in the acclaimed documentary Gypsy Spirit. And naturally, further ventures into avantgarde jazz, Roma music and “gypsy” swing in the vein of Django Reinhardt – which is what he is best known and celebrated for. With these projects, Stojka chuckles, “I’m covering a huge market.”
He did it his way
Nominated for 2016’s Austrian of the Year Award in the “cultural heritage” category, Stojka has also released a book of poetry written in Viennese dialect, A Guada Tog (A Good Day), for which he continues to do readings. But if you want to catch him live this month, you’re most likely to see his inspired tribute to his childhood idols, The Beatles: He’ll be touring with his own takes on some of their classic songs, including a stop at Porgy & Bess on December 30.
Never one to bow to commercial pressure, Stojka credits his creative longevity and prolific output to instinctively shying away from popular trends. “Who wants to see a 75-year-old rapper?”, he quips. But, he believes, hearing a 75-year-old jazz musician is a different story. So, by design, Harri Stojka’s audience grows older with him, while a younger generation has begun flocking to his concerts.
While not prone to nostalgia, Stojka admits that there is one thing he misses: artists’ mastery of instruments in today’s music. The autodidact believes that technology can be a helpful tool – but not when it becomes a crutch seemingly supporting whole genres these days. To him, computer proficiency doesn’t make someone a musician; the true test is to hand “an artist” a real instrument and ask them to perform a song.
Stojka himself has always admired guitarists the most: He idolizes The Beatles’ George Harrison, and vividly recalls being mesmerized by Jethro Tull guitarist Ian Anderson at a Stadthalle gig in the 1970s. Back in those days, he remembers, mastering your tools mattered. He himself went down that hard road, believing that “music came to him” as a four-year-old when his dad brought back a four-string plastic guitar from a fair. Instead of eventually casting it aside like any old toy, he started to practice prodigiously and even took the guitar to bed.
His dad, an affluent carpet dealer and Frank Sinatra fan, taught him the importance of becoming good at something early on. Being a Roma in 1960s Vienna, he defied the worn-out “Zigeuner” (“gypsy”) stereotype, emulating Sinatra’s lavish lifestyle by owning a luxury apartment, driving the newest Cadillac and wearing expensive tailored suits. With success came envy, but father and son never put much stock in the opinion of others, preferring to go about life the Sinatra way.
Stojka has no regrets. There’s of course the much-publicized missed audition with Frank Zappa in 1977. When asked about skipping this potentially career-altering opportunity, Stojka simply says he “wasn’t ready”; it’s not his style to endlessly analyze and dissect the past. Four years later, Stojka received his well-deserved break on his own terms when he performed solo at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Dozens of albums and countless concerts would follow. At 60, there’s much to look back on, but the jazz and world music master only yearns for what’s to come.