36th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 12-16 October, 2022

Jazz in Lithuania (notes of an observer)

Oleg Molokoyedov

It is generally accepted view that Lithuanian jazz is 35 years old in 1996. The starting point of the chronology was suggested by the late musicologist Liudas Saltenis and has never been discussed. But what happened before 1961 ? Musical science in Lithuania has studied the art of academic music diligently and in depth; popular music has been described on a more modest scale and less professionally. The pre-war jazz map of Lithuania is entirely made of white spots. Records and newspapers of those times have been preserved in private archives. Musical documents allow us to conclude that the whole gentlemanly collection of European hits was performed on the Lithuanian stage of popular music, there is no evidence, however, that the same happened with the jazz 'evergreens', of the time. Magic words about jazz in newspapers without any proof of musical recordings just reflect the mentality of the then correspondents, but not musical reality. The ability to swing is the first and the most important feature of a jazz musician. Listening to the records of the pre-war popular music of Kaunas aroused in me a speculation that excellently trained musicians were performing in restaurants, variety shows, dance halls and cabarets of Kaunas in the thirties, but these were musicians of the academic school.

As for me, I recall the time when (already after the war) for a considerably long period musicians in Vilnius restaurants belonged to the symphony orchestras of the Philharmonic and theatres, which means they did not swing. Let not the reader be surprised that I provide the restaurant orchestras as an example. All throughout the world jazz emerged from restaurants. For the sake of ruthless precision, jazz emerged from public houses. According to one version, the world jazz itself is a slang word for a sex act. When public houses were abolished in puritanical America at the beginning of the 1920s, jazz started crawling throughout the country, evoking curses from the church, grumbling in high society and ... joy from some composers. The great Stravinsky wrote a special jazz concerto, which, nevertheless, did not stop him from comparing jazz with continuous masturbation leading to no result. A few popular singers of the pre-war period were sometimes accompanied by swinging musicians. According to one version, these musicians were from England, according to another from Kaunas. I hope that a clever, energetic study which might be carried out by young bachelors of the Academy of Music will solve this riddle. And who knows, maybe the date of the birth of jazz in Lithuania, which today stands as 1961, will be altered.

Satisfactorily swinging orchestras were heard in the palaces of culture, in restaurants, on the radio and later television, in the 1950s. However, there were no improvising musicians there. It was the performing jazz that was developing, while the genuine, improvisational jazz would mature later... And at the same time more precisely at the end of the fifties there existed in the republic a jazz group with excellent training. It was even carrying the title of the State Orchestra of the Lithuanian SSR, and consisted almost entirely of mercenaries, i.e. not local but visiting musicians. Orchestras of such wandering jazz musicians existed in the capitals of almost all the Soviet republics. The leader of the orchestra was Juozas Tiskus. Top musicians, true improvisers, many belonging to the elite circles of jazz musicians in the European region of the USSR, played in Tiskus' orchestra. The orchestra mostly performed popular music, but alongside the songs and dances in concerts, the tiny proportion of jazz in its repertoire was performed with an energetic swing. In spite of the rather cool manner in which local audiences accepted the orchestra, it was met with admiration when on tour (respect is greater at a distance ?). The reason the Tiskus orchestra did not influence the jazz movement in Lithuania to a greater extent could be its frequent and prolonged tours.

In my story I have decided to pay more attention to the developments in the Vilnius branch of jazz. Thanks to Vilnius jazz the title of the 'jazziest republic in the USSR' was awarded to Lithuania. It would be no mistake to assert that Lithuania preserved that title among the newly independent countries.

In the beginning of the 1960s, at the height of Khrushchev's thaw, youth cafes started opening throughout the major cities of the USSR. Vilnius was no exception with an institution called 'cafe-reading hall' situated in Vilniaus street. The cafe-reading hall became a cradle for music advocates that was to open the window to Europe and consolidate their positions there. However, twenty long years were to pass before it happened. In Lithuania jazz died and revived during that time.

Khrushchev's red-tape officials authorised the Komsomol to take jazz in charge. Komsomol backed by the party opened the youth jazz cafe, five years later it was closed by a different organization the KGB. Rumours spread that the cafe had been closed because it was a shelter for profiteers and homosexuals. It should be noted that there were people in the Komsomols at that time who deeply loved jazz. Some of them managed to build their careers on jazz only to quickly renounce it. The slow and conscientious became friends of jazz and spoiled their careers shortly after the start of Brezhnev's frosts which restored ideological socialism, exhibiting a firm idiosyncrasy towards jazz, in Lithuania. In the USSR in general, the conflict between jazz and authorities was more of an ideological nature, whereas in Lithuania it was a moral conflict, and thus remotely resembled the American conflict. In Lithuania local communists were scared of jazz, their attitude towards it was one of indifference not persecution. Lithuanian jazz found itself in an atmosphere of ideological indifference from the authorities and, unsupported in any way by them (bearing in mind the endless financial injections into the academic genres of music) led a poor existence. Much more painful for jazz was the arrogance of the academic musical circles. It should be admitted that to a great extent the academic colleagues of the jazzmen were right jazz in these years was more a civil movement of self-taught musicians than an art. But let us return to the cafe-reading hall. Despite all its shortcomings the institution possessed genuine features making it a jazz club. There was no dancing or singing here, only concert music under quasi-concert, i.e. club, conditions. The few groups that performed at the first jazz concert of the Academy of Music of Lithuania (the date of which is considered the start of Lithuanian jazz) were formed here. It was here, on a small stage with broken parquet, that the trio of Vyacheslav Ganelin, the founder of the Vilnius Jazz School (VJS), came together. In 1965 Ganelin's trio participated at the Tallinn international jazz festival and became its laureates. This was a powerful leap from a club onto the concert stage. One year later, two groups went to Tallinn, the same Ganelin and a quartet led by the author of these notes...

In 1967 the Estonians organized a jazz festival, the scale of which was grand even by present standards (the hall had a seating capacity of 5 000 places). Charles Lloyd's quartet, young Keith Jarrett and other famous jazz musicians took part. Two groups from Lithuania participated at this major prestigious festival, Ganelin's trio and my own quintet. Ganelin was made the laureate, I was awarded a diploma for the best jazz arrangement of a folk melody. The festival, however, was closed. In 1968, the first jazz festival in the history of Lithuanian, Youth-68 took place in the small town of Elektrenai. It lasted two days, was relayed by Lithuanian radio and a record was apparently released. Music performed at the festival became part of the radio archives and was frequently broadcast together with recordings from the Tallinn festivals.

The obscure decade of the beginning of the end was approaching. Jazz,hardened by long ideological opposition to the totalitarian state, would have endured Brezhnev's restoration without considerable effort and losses. But there appeared a new enemy, very successful and powerful. It was music close to jazz, music which developed from jazz, it was rock. And jazz practically died in Lithuania. The weaker musicians started playing at weddings, the stronger found places in restaurants and popular music orchestras. Dance halls were occupied by beat groups. Quite a few musicians gradually became alcoholics and dropped from the cultural process altogether. In Vilnius there remained only one group which regularly performed jazz programmes. It was a new trio of the same Vyacheslav Ganelin, now with Vladimir Chekasin and Vladimir Tarasov, which would later be found in jazz encyclopaedias of America and Europe. The group, however, played only on tour, giving just one concert a year in the capital. In the background of the total collapse of jazz the trio augmented its success in fairly egoistic manner. It changed its whereabouts by receiving the status of a philharmonic ensemble of modern chamber jazz music. It was the first in the history of not only Lithuanian jazz, but also Soviet jazz, to perform on tours of Western European countries. It is worth noting that these tours were not based on the ideological line or the line of friendly contacts; these were tours of professional jazz with personal invitations. That is why jazz musicologists are of the opinion that Ganelin opened the jazz window to Europe...

Mainstream merges some of the styles of traditional American jazz into one trend. As far as I can judge, mainstream did not take root in Lithuania either in pre-war times, or in the Communist era. With the appearance of the Ganelin trio Vilnius' branch of jazz became famous. Its representatives derived their aesthetic views more from academic musical culture, since they were musicians of orthodox academic rather than American training. The level of academic education has always been very high in Lithuania. However, the most surprising thing was that all three from the Ganelin trio played wonderful mainstream which they studied on their own initiative. Thus, international jazz success in Lithuania was first achieved by academic musicians with higher instrumental or compositional education.

A note: mainstream jazz only started its stormy development in Lithuania after the re-establishment of independence, together with the first rudiments of capitalism. Swing was additionally studied, became deeper and had almost caught up with the European level by the jubilee year of 1996.

Ganelin's trio did not perform on tour, but also locally, at the Neringa cafe, and exerted direct influence on the cultural-jazz life of Vilnius. However, they actually only took root at the start of the crisis of the trio which led to the separation of the union of the three musicians at the end of the seventies. Everything is not as bad as it looks , the break-up of the trio was a reason for teaching their individual artistic skills to others. In other words, the trio matured for teaching activities. Just at that time an essential change took place in the education system which existed in the USSR, and hence in Lithuania. Before then, the only teacher for a Soviet jazz musician was his or her own ear. It finally dawned on cultural officials that jazz too had to be taught. And thus Moscow founded departments of popular music in the middle stage of the system of musical education. Lithuania exceeded Moscow immediately by founding departments of popular music in not only the middle, but all three stages. And at once jazz was taught everywhere. The participants of Ganelin's trio were invited to the Dvarionas Children's music school. Thus was laid the first foundation stone in the construction of the Vilnius school of jazz.

Vladimir Chekasin, during some five years, managed to create at the Academy of Music a big band which had a stunning career from an ordinary student orchestra it became the foremost orchestra in the USSR. This title was confirmed by almost all jazz critics who participated in the annual Soviet jazz pools.

There was one more favourable condition for jazz. Out of all fifteen Soviet republics, only in Lithuania and, as far as I know, in Kirgizstan, was musical education supervised by the Ministry of Education. In other republics the Ministry of Culture was in charge of musical education. I am not quite sure when and why this came about. What did it really mean though? Education received much larger state subsidies than culture, and Lithuanian schoolchildren paid five times less for their studies at music schools than their contemporaries in other republics. Available and cheap musical education led to a state in which the excellent musical environment in Lithuania formed a wide circle of recipients at the moment of the jazz boom, mainly students of higher educational institutions.

The status of jazz changed. If earlier a musicians specialization in jazz was perceived by the academic musical environment more as the lily brand than a certificate of qualification, the situation is no longer so. Merited voices started speaking about jazz in quite favourable terms. It was becoming a matter of prestige to be a jazz musician and play jazz.

Thus, at the start of the eighties everything was ready in Lithuania for the revival of the jazz movement. Its rebirth was swift and stormy, its result was the ascension of the excellent saxophone trio from Vilnius, and the whole big band of the Conservatoire, to the Olympus of jazz. The three saxophonists received permanent jazz engagements in the countries of Western Europe and entered the elite circles of European musicians. The first of them is Vladimir Chekasin, the third his disciple and colleague Vytautas Labutis. And Petras Vysniauskas.

The thirtieth anniversary of jazz coincided with the year of the reestablishment of the independent state of Lithuania. The main trends of stylistic independence crystallized the art of Lithuanian jazz. Holding the lead in Soviet jazz pools lost its attractiveness when Lithuanian jazz groups increased their popularity in Europe. After participating in a prestigious programme on BBC Radio 4 and the famous JVC festival in New York, the Ganelin trio (which had temporarily reassembled) took a stable place in the jazz encyclopaedias of the Old and New worlds, The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Jazz, published in America is one example. During the period of glasnost and perestroika, four musicians became champions of the long touring circuit, with Vladimir Chekasin as the leader. The quartet continued the line of Ganelin-Tarasov-Chekasin, so confirming the emergence of a tradition. Tradition in the presence of training and education is the first feature of a school. The third 'generation' of jazz performers, educated at Vilnius Jazz School, have embarked upon their careers. Here are some features which can illustrate the style of Vilnius Jazz School:

Polystylistics. Although it is called Vilnius Jazz School, jazz is optional here. It is one of many musical languages, it exists alongside rock, folk music of various regions, different styles of classical music, etc.

Suite-quality. Talking different tonic and atonic languages of music, the advocates of Vilnius Jazz School place their utterances in the framework of the traditional symphonic musical thinking of Europe. More often than not the musicians of VJS play in the form of a suite.

Simultaneous multi-instrumentalism. The use of a great number of traditional and exotic instruments became a permanent part of the concert practice of the VJS style. Musicians often play several instruments interchangeably. If you happen to see a sax player playing two or even three instruments, you will not be mistaken in thinking that he comes from Vilnius.

So far I have been talking of Vilnius Jazz School as of an original artistic concept. There exists the pedagogical concept as well. Musicians, deploying the VJS ideas in their art, teach their like-minded pupils in a rational and suggestive way. The rational part of the method was formed by Vladimir Chekasin and bears the title 'Fundamentals of operative composition and structurization'. In November 1995 the 4th international congress on the problems of jazz pedagogy and improvisational music took place in Munchengladbach, Germany. A special invitation was sent to a Lithuanian delegation consisting of teachers and pupils of the B.Dvarionas Music School for Children. As the architect of the above method, Vladimir Chekasin made a report on the approaches to teaching the fundamentals of jazz improvisation and operative composition at the Dvarionas school (B.Dvarionas Music School for Children is the main material basis for the existence of VJS). I presented a short talk on the history of jazz education in the former Soviet Union and Lithuania. Teachers from Vilnius conducted master classes with German children and gave a big three-hour concert where all three VJS generations performed. It should be added that the work of the musicians and teachers of VJS has for a long time attracted the attention of their German colleagues. The young saxophonist Liudas Mockunas, a pupil of Chekasin, received a special scholarship for his participation at the American Berkley jazz school organized in Germany. Mr.Horst Couson, one of the organizers of the congress, applies the VJS method in his pedagogical work and is collecting data for a thesis.

During recent years the cultural jazz environment in Lithuania has undergone considerable changes. A fairly strong middle class of jazz musicians emerged at the beginning of the nineties. Groups appeared playing in traditional jazz styles boogie-woogie,dixieland, bebop, fusion, swing, folk-jazz, etc. Jazz clubs opened in the larger cities, and the owners of some cafes and restaurants started inviting jazz performers hoping to raise their prestige. Jazz was heard in the streets during municipal events, and on TV during elections. Jazz musicians have become an indispensable element in the presentations of various firms and banks. At present the inner jazz market is overcrowded, there exists competition and, in consequence, the level of performance is improving.

However, jazz festivals remain the most important force in the functioning of the jazz mechanism. There are about ten of these every year, the most prestigious being 'Vilnius Jazz'. Antanas Gustys has been its permanent producer for nine years already. As a result of his energetic activities over a fairly short period, such stars of new European jazz as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Courtney Pine and Steve Lacy have visited the festival. The festival has permanently entered such world jazz catalogues as: Eurofile Music Industry Directory. Music & Media. Amsterdam, Jazz Times 1st Annual Festival Directory USA, etc.

Not so long ago expensive American jazz stars considered Lithuania as a hopeless provincial corner. But everything comes to an end sooner or later. In 1994 Chick Corea, and later, Joe Zawinul came to Lithuania. Last year jazz fans of Vilnius listened to the living legend of jazz, Billy Cobham. In its style, the Vilnius festival follows European new jazz. It is similar to the festivals usually organized in German-speaking countries. Many projects are created during concerts at which local and visiting musicians take part...

A jazz festival has been organized in Kaunas for six years in succession. Its concept is broader and more universal, thus there is no reason for competition with the festival in Vilnius. The producer of the Kaunas festival is Jonas Jucas. He usually conducts the festival in the full swing of spring, and the weather often allows him to organize concerts in the open air. This year guests listened to a duo of church bells and saxophone performed by Petras Vysniauskas and the composer Giedrius Kuprevicius. Concerts of sacral jazz which take place in church are tradition in Kaunas. As for the stars of American mainstream, John Scofield and the great Elvin Jones together with the youngest of the Marsalis family came to Kaunas.

The oldest jazz festival in Lithuania in Birstonas is a review of the Lithuanian jazz forces. Famous musicians like the trombonist and singer Skirmantas Sasnauskas, the pianist Gintautas Abarius, the pianist and composer Kestutis Lusas, and the head of jazz departments in Klaipeda, pianist Saulius Siauciulis started their jazz career at this festival. At present they are jazz professionals giving frequent tours in the countries of Western and Eastern Europe.

Lithuanian children and teenagers also have their jazz festival. That is what it is called 'Baby Jazz'. Jazz singers gather at their festival in Panevezys once a year.

Postmodernism was mastered by Vilnius Jazz School without too much effort and was cultivated as a style element alongside rap and break-dance. An interesting trend, like new syncretism, expressed in slightly overtheatricalized concerts of such groups as Ganelin's trio, Chekasin's quartet, and Vilnius Jazz Quartet, led to the festival Music and Action, which is very popular and is organized in Vilnius every autumn. Edmondas Babenskas is the founder of the festival, the idea of which is purely syncretic, the music being mainly in the new jazz style.

Approximately every three years a new star appears in the sky of Lithuanian jazz. By number of saxophone playing stars per capita, Lithuania probably leads the world. Saxophone players of VJS play any music with any musicians from any country. Earlier, when creating a group, musicians lived as one family for a long time. Those were times for the development of individual style and the creation of musical image. At present Vilnius musicians resemble one-day butterflies they travel around the world, creating one-day, one-tour concerts, and play on the stage unrehearsed. No doubt, such a lifestyle is brought about by the character of free improvisational music and the mastery of the performers.

Such is the life of those musicians who have already been mentioned, and those who haven't yet. Among the latter is the young pianist from Vilnius, Tomas Kutavicius, sometimes called the new Ganelin. He brilliantly plays mainstream in manner of Chick Corea and the late Keith Jarrett, however, he dislikes doing it. Tomas is musical jeweller, he is the master of a new jazz miniature.

The alto-saxophonist Danielius Praspaliauskis, Petras Vysniauskas' pupil, inherited not only technique from his teacher, but also an inclination towards adventurous escapades. Petras did that quite often he searched for new sensations in sound reflected on the surface of water, while flying above a lake in a hot-air balloon. Fantasist Praspaliauskis is at present working hard on Bulgarian and Moldavian folklore. Obviously he is going to play saxophone while running on burning coal, as do Bulgarian folk singers and sorcerers.

And what about the metres of Lithuanian jazz, the founders of its Vilnius branch? The drummer and percussionist Vladimir Tarasov teaches music in Stuttgart and participates in American performances at Carnegie Hall, which are organized on the American stage by Russian avantgarde artist Ilya Kabakov and Co. Chekasin is engaged in cinematography as a musician, composer and director. Petras Vysniauskas plays in a trio with Vyacheslav Ganelin in Israel, as well as with the famous folk singer Veronika Povilioniene, Vytautas Labutis, Tomas Kutavicius, the talented base player Eugenijus Kanevicius, and the unbelievably creative drummer Dalius Naujokaitis. Petras has visited Australia and taken part in a jazz festival in Detroit (USA).

In my notes I was trying to pay more attention to the conceptual essence of the emergence, development and rise of jazz in Lithuania. This is most likely the reason for names of musicians and public figures being omitted from the story. For instance, the work of one of the most interesting masters of the saxophone Vytautas Labutis has not been analyzed at all, and his name appears only once or twice. The excellent guitar player Juozas Milasius has not been mentioned either. Neda Malunaviciute was awarded the Lithuanian 'Grammy' last year, but she has not been mentioned here. This is far from a full list of names. They could appear, but then it will have to be in another article. Maybe, the next one...