29th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 13-16 October, 2016

The Free Jazz Scene In The Former USSR: Between Vilnius And Arkhangelsk

Teruto SOEJIMA, Translated by Yoshiyuki SUZUKI and Cathy FISHMAN

A Shortage Of Information On Jazz In The Former USSR

The shortage of information on contemporary jazz in the countries of the former USSR makes it difficult for us to discuss this music.

It was only several years ago that people in Western countries had their first opportunities to hear actual performances of jazz from this region. In fact, no former - USSR jazz album was released in the West until 1980, when London's Leo Records released an album which became the object of a great deal of interest and curiosity. Until then, many Western people doubted that standard jazz even existed in the former USSR.

Today, the former USSR is experiencing such a severe paper shortage that only an extremely small number of music magazines and books are being published. Nikolai Dmitriev, editor-in-chief of "Jazz" - the only jazz magazine in the former USSR - laments, "We can only obtain enough paper to publish one issue a year." Because of this situation, we in the West have less and less information about music in this region.

Another difficulty is the fact that many areas of the former USSR broke away and became independent states. Since the Soviet era, each area and ethnic group has incorporated its own folklore into jazz to create its own jazz mood and style. But the separation and independence of these areas has made it nearly impossible to gather comprehensive information on this music.

To best of my knowledge, the starting points of free jazz in the USSR were Vilnius, Lithuania, and Arkhangelsk, in north Russia. The free jazz scene in these cities began to emerge about 1970. Before discussing the reasons why this happened in places so far from political and geographical center of the USSR, and describing the musicians who played then, I want to talk about history of Russian jazz and its situation at that time. This background information will clarify the distinctive characteristics of the Vilnius and Arkhangelsk jazz schools.

A Brief History Of Soviet Jazz

The first Soviet jazz musician was Valentin Parnov, who returned to the USSR from Paris with his own jazz band in 1922. At that time in the U.S. , Chicago jazz, with musicians like trumpeter King Oliver and pianist Jelly Roll Morton, was at this peak. Jazz quickly took hold in the USSR and spread throughout the country. There are, however, two contradictory accounts of how jazz was received thereafter in the communist nation.

"Because jazz was considered to be third-rate entertainment, it was not an object to be criticized as literature and classical music were."(Jazz critic Alexey Batashev)

"Jazz was first attacked in 1928 and was regarded as a style of expression only to spread cheap illusions."(Musician Alexey S. Kozlov)

Batashev, the first person to write about Soviet jazz history, is a veteran jazz critic and a central figure in Soviet jazz. Since the time of Stalin, Kozlov has been famous as anti-establishment musician. In addition to his musical activity, he is now writing a book entitled "The Musical Underground in the USSR".

The two somewhat paradoxical comments quoted above show that the former Soviet Critics' Union was at that time entirely under the influence of the bureaucracy. The outline of Kozlov's book, which he was kind enough to show me, indicates that in 1936 such newspapers as Pravda and Izvestiya ran articles which debated the validity of jazz.

Interestingly, in spite of the fact that jazz was in a sense rejected, it was also used occasionally as a tool - and even broadcast over the radio - to whip up the working or fighting spirit among the people. Thus jazz managed to survive, although barely, until the period just after World War II. In his comment quoted above, Batashev may have been subtly referring to this situation. During the long period of strict cultural control, jazz was tacitly tolerated to some extent, and even exploited.

The Cold War began soon after World War II ended. In 1948, under the notorious directive of Zhdanov, all new cultural forms were banned in the USSR. Jazz was severely condemned as "the people's enemy because it is a bourgeois music born in the USA." Many mass media organizations carried out anti-jazz campaigns, saying things like "today's jazz musician will betray our country tomorrow" and "it's just a small step from saxophone to knife" (the saxophone is a typical jazz instrument). Jazz musicians were forced underground, and people had to listen to jazz records in secret.

The control of the central government did not necessarily extend over the entire USSR, however. Strangely enough, the first jazz festival in the Soviet Union was held in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1949. Reactions to jazz swung back and forth like a pendulum: in 1956 open criticism of Stalin began to be heard, and the following year the first authorized jazz club was founded in Moscow. An international exchange of musicians began: in 1962 several jazz bands, including the Benny Goodman Orchestra and Hiroshi Watanabe and the Stardusters, visited the USSR; and in turn Soviet musicians went abroad to play at the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree. In the same year Moscow held its first jazz festival, and a jazz fan magazine came out.

Eventually there appeared an officially authorized professional jazz musician: pianist Leonid Chizik became a government employee who was paid to play in concerts. At around the same time, new jazz burst out like flame in Vilnius and Arkhangelsk.

Flames From Outer Regions

Drummer Vladimir Tarasov and alto sax player Vladimir Rezitsky were playing new, experimental jazz in Arkhangelsk, a city on the White Sea coast. In fall of 1968 they went to Vilnius to visit pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, who had had the same idea. Thus the precursor of the now-famous GTC (Ganelin, Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin) was GTR. Six months later, however, Rezitsky parted ways with Tarasov to return to Arkhangelsk, and then formed his own group. He named the band Arkhangelsk after his home town, emphasizing "the need for a unit made up of people with fresh ideas - rather than musicians who simply continued in the old styles and followed a leader's direction." This was the start of the Arkhangelsk school. Since 1983, Rezitsky has been the organizer of the Arkhangelsk Jazz Festival.

In Vilnius, GTC carried on in a dynamic way. In 1975 and '76 they traveled to Poland, and in 1979 they appeared at "das Bune," one of the biggest international jazz festivals in the former East Germany. As I mentioned at the start of this essay, their performance at this festival was recorded, and released in London. This recording made the world aware that top-level free jazz in a unique style existed in the USSR.

GTC not only developed their own music; they also made efforts to start a new jazz movement in Vilnius. In 1990 Oleg Molokoyedov, an intelligent keyboard and trumpet player who worked with GTC and played a role in this movement, wrote a long and dignified essay about the movement for "Jazz" magazine. Referring to the summary of this essay, and to a conversation I had with Antanas Gustys when I was invited to the Vilnius Jazz Festival two years ago, I would like to describe the situation at that time.

First of all, Molokoyedov expresses intense anger in regard to the outdated cultural situation in Vilnius. "In Moscow and Riga, the authoritarian critics have power, and their taste and way of thinking is out of date. They're the ones who carry out critical polls, who decide on the criteria for judging the quality of musical performance and direction and rank them. But their biases are awful. The results of jazz questionnaires are presented in a distorted way, and are completely different from the ideas of people who go to jazz festivals. The authorities' dogma on jazz culture not only smacks of conspiracy; it also seems very provocative. If you believe what their articles say, then you're forced to remain blind to new developments in current jazz."

Molokoyedov theorizes that there was no real jazz culture in Lithuania because of the pressure coming from two sources: the authorities' dogmatist policy toward jazz culture, and the association of critics, which was under government control. In fact, it is said that until around 1962 jazz did poorly in Lithuania, and many of the concerts there were arranged by the central authorities. Musicians may also have been hampered by the fact that there was no long jazz tradition in Lithuania, as there was in Moscow or the Ukraine. On the other hand, this also meant that faulty academism did not develop there. Musicians in Lithuania did not fully absorb basic jazz concepts such as beat and swing. Molokoyedov says,"When the jazz was in the old style, local musicians did not know enough about the sound to discuss it with music school students in Moscow and St.Petersburg."

In the midst of this situation in Lithuania, GTC founded a jazz school in Vilnius in the early seventies. Molokoyedov says,"The jazz school appeared in Vilnius out of nowhere, like a UFO - in a place where the only jazz culture was the dogma spread through pamphlets. This was like a wave of immigration. There was the jazz of the pamphlets, and the jazz that was actually performed. A situation of confrontation between the two jazz cultures emerged."

The title of Molokoyedov's essay is "Two Cultures". He himself became a teacher at the school founded by GTC; actually, though, he was more like a leader of an experimental group than a teacher. The school was a jazz research institute where teachers and students worked together to open up new directions in jazz. Although it seems to contradict the concept of improvisation, the key aspect of the education provided by GTC and Molokoyedov was to teach the basics of rhythm and foster compositional skill. More specifically, the main points of the school's educational philosophy were:

1. to boldly break musical rules while also studying, discovering, and changing them
2. to research and understand the ideas of composers, and then to create simple compositions or think about compositional structure
3. to liberate rhythm in an abstract space
4. to learn about silence and use it for rest and improvisation

After the emergence of GTC, other contemporary jazz musicians came out of the Vilnius music school. Although the school had only eight students when it began, it has up to the present produced 30 professional musicians. The most well known among them are Petras Vysniauskas (reeds), Vytautas Labutis (alto sax), and Skirmantas Sasnauskas (trombone). Vysniauskas is especially well admired, and compared to his teacher Chekasin as a composer with unique concept of Lithuanian ethnic jazz.

Music associations and bureaucratic music organizations in Vilnius were at first critical of GTC's music and the school's educational methods. But their attitude toward the school is said to have become more positive since they saw how successful it was. The Vilnius school is now well known the world over.

After Perestroika

In spring of 1989, Tarasov and Chekasin visited Japan for the "Open Horizon" concert (in which Sergey Kuryokhin and Valentina Ponomareva of Russia also performed). In June of the same year, ten musicians of the Vilnius school appeared at the Vienna "Soviet Avant-Garde Jazz" festival; the Vilnius school, in fact, represented avant-garde jazz of the former Soviet Union.

About six months after that festival, Ganelin left Lithuania and emigrated to Israel, the main reason being that Jewish emigration to Israel was allowed at that time by the government of the former USSR. Actually, GTC had reached a deadlock as an improvisational trio and was close to disbanding. I heard that Ganelin was planning a European tour, mainly as a soloist, but recently I have not heard much news about his activities.

As I mentioned earlier, the explosive emergence of the avant-garde jazz movement in Vilnius must be partly due to the fact that, surprisingly, the central government was not able to maintain complete control over the local areas. It was thought in particular that a lack of total control over the Baltic states, which are close to Western countries, was unavoidable. The population of Lithuania, moreover, has the smallest proportion of Russians of all the Baltic countries, and was regarded as a burden by the former USSR. To some extent this may have been an advantage. Arkhangelsk, too, is very far from the seat of the central government: it is a port town on the northern sea. A short time after the coup attempt in 1991, I heard that the mayor and lower-ranking officials of Arkhangelsk never lost their composure at the time of the event. It would seem that, in addition to the musicians' ambitious activities, an important factor contributing to the new jazz explosion was the areas' geographical locations, where the grip of the central government was more relaxed.

The pioneer trio GTC devoted themselves completely to free improvisation, to the search for and unhampered development of improvisational elements in jazz. They pursued a new method whose underlying concept was the idea of freedom - a desire to be free. Antanas Gustys said, "The most important word to us Lithuanians - our identity, in a sense - is 'freedom'. That's why I'll continue producing the free jazz festival. I believe that free jazz is an art that opens the door to the future." GTC strove for freedom not only as artists, but also as human beings. Said Gustys,"When you play something that is given to you, even if you play it well, what does that do for you?" The vibrant spirits of these musicians set the new jazz of the former USSR on fire.

The Tian Shan And Mississippi Sound

Next I'd like to discuss some contemporary jazz musicians other than GTC. Sergey Kuryokhin of St.Petersburg quit music school, possibly because of differences between the direction of the music taught at the school and that of his own musical vision. His quitting school was surely a fortunate thing. He played in the rock scene at first, but quickly came to be regarded as a representative of the new improvisational sound. He stages his performances like magnificent spectacles, including jazz, rock, classical music, and even theatrical performance. The sound is created (with suite-like ideas), using a variety of musical materials. Because all the materials are urbane and contemporary, however, his music has a post-modernist aesthetic which is unusual among present-day jazz musicians of the former USSR.

In the current jazz scene of the former USSR, the St.Petersburg duo made up of trumpeter Vyacheslav Gayvoronsky and bassist Vladimir Volkov are among the most outstanding musicians in terms of musicality. Still calling themselves the Leningrad Duo, they use no electrical equipment but a bass amplifier and microphones; but they incorporate motifs from a wide range of musical forms, from Indian raga to jazz bebop to chance operation. They present fresh ideas in every concert, sublimating these motifs in their sophisticated improvisation. Like Kuryokhin, the duo emerged on the scene in the early eighties.

The French horn player Arkady Shilkloper and the reed player Sergey Letov are based in Moscow. The former used to be a member of the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra; the latter worked with Sofia Gubaidulina, and was well known as a performer of contemporary music. They both became fascinated by improvisation and moved to avant-garde jazz. At one point they formed a trio called Three-O with trumpeter Arkady Kirichenko. The two musicians have very different performance styles: while Shilkloper's improvisational style, based on his superlative technique, is relatively cool, Letov burns his emotions into his reed playing.

The young pianist Igor Nazaruk also came out of the world of classical music. Nazaruk plays mainly solo, combining phrases from various jazz and classical compositions with his own unique improvisation, which has a razorline sharpness and delicacy.

In the jazz world of the former USSR, musicians tend to pursue a unique original style, incorporating folklore and using traditional ethnic instruments. Both Kozlov and a Tashkent trio led by Pushena produce sound with a Silk Road atmosphere. Boomerang, a septet in Alma Ata led by drummer Takhir Ibraguimov, is even more unique: their jazz style melds Central Asian folk songs with Dixieland jazz. It is a sound that calls to mind mixed images of Tian Shan and the Mississippi River. This strange soundview represents stateless music in a positive way.

Finally I would like to profile the Arkhangelsk musician Rezitsky, whose music incorporates a great deal of northern Russian folklore. Each musician in his theatrical band, in addition to playing his instrument, occasionally runs around the stage with a bucket on his head-taking a cue from Brueghel's painting. Rezitsky also plays in concerts with dancers, opera singers, and a string quartet. These stagings show the same spirit as Kuryokhin's spectacles do, and they also have the same suite-like sound structure, in which various elements are introduced one after another. While Kuryokhin's music has an urban feeling, though, Rezitsky stays with local sounds: for example, he plays a tape on which an old woman simply recites songs sung on formal occasions in northern Russia. He has also produced music with motifs from the songs and sounds of street performers. Rezitsky plays short fragments of various jazz phrases, from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane, in rapid succession, ignoring historical order - as if holding and then rearranging all the leaves of a calendar pad.

When he created this musical structure, Rezitsky may have been recalling his youth, when he was not allowed to play jazz publicly and earned his livelihood playing in beer halls. Or rather, he may through his performances be savoring the history of jazz in the former USSR, and the people and culture of northern Russia. It is from ideas like these that today's avant-garde jazz is born.

(For more information about jazz in the former USSR, see my work "The Stream of Contemporary Jazz")