AKADEMGORODOK, U.S.S.R. - When Pat Metheny toured the
Soviet Union in 1987, he said he went where he liked and saw and
talked to who he wanted. He was "almost disappointed with the
absence of the 'intrigue factor.'"
One year later,
arriving in Moscow international airport with a journalist's visa and
carrying a trombone case the size of a small coffin, I felt like a
walking intrigue factor. It turned out, however, that, despite being
registered with no tourist group and speaking no Russian, I was as
ignored as anybody arriving in an airport in any foreign country with
nobody to meet them. It was, as Metheny said, almost disappointing.
In fact I could have used an intriguer to help me deal with
the hard horde of taxi drivers trying to hustle $40 for the drive to
Vnukovo airport, where I had a flight to Novosibirsk for a "Symposium
of New Jazz Music" a/k/a the Second Siberian Jazz Festival.
Around midnight, Vnukovo's small canteen was empty except
for Alluring Alissa, Mel, me and a stewardess or two. I knew it was
Mel because he had a T-shirt with "MEL" on it. A member of a
church choir traveling around singing for peace. Mel was on his way
from Seattle to catch up with his choir in Volgograd. His church had a
long name I did not recognize and from what he told me it was a bit
bizarre. He did not believe in an after-life of Heaven and Hell, which
their doctrine holds is what we are living in right here and now. And
it is up to us right here and now to decide which we prefer. If you
understand what that means, please tell me. Even at birth, perestroika
Alluring Alissa was gracefully gliding
and dancing with her Walkman in the corners and the corridor, smiling
as though Heaven was indeed here and now. She resembled Julie
Christie, only, you know, not really, and she was listening to Ahmad
Jamal. If you think that's strange, you should know that she was on
her way to Lvov to visit her parents, she is Russian, lives in
Brasilia and her Brazilian husband was in Beirut. She spoke Arabic but
not Portuguese. I think that's what she said. It doesn't quite read
right, does it? At the very least, it was confusing. Then, in line to
board my flight, I watched Alluring Alissa engage Mel in close
eye-contact conversation. The "intrigue factor" suddenly
We flew east over four time zones and landed
in Novosibirsk at 8 A.M. local time. I was greeted by Sergei
Belichenko; gynecologist, drummer, promoter and genial host, otherwise
known as the Siberian Norman Granz. "I dream someday of forming a
Siberian Jazz Association," he had told the Polish magazine Jazz
Forum some months earlier. "And then maybe an Asian Association."
Tomorrow the world.
If you think he was under delusions of
grandeur, bear in mind that here he was responsible for bringing 200
musicians, critics and miscellaneous experts and KGB operatives from
as far away as Paris and East Berlin to Akademgorodok, this scientific
think tank in the exurbs of Novosibirsk, the so-called "capital
of Siberia," for a five-day jazz festival. An Armenian reedman of
my acquaintance described this caper, in English, as "mind-blowing."
within the parameters of perestroika, Belichenko picked up a newly "private"
sponsor, Vega, a "State" manufacturer of sound reproduction
equipment, which displayed its wares in the lobby of Akademgorodok's
modern concert hall. One of their models featured twin cassette decks.
Having been told that you have to get a key from a party official to
make a photocopy, I asked a dumb question: "How come you can copy
spoken words but not printed words?" Belichenko's jaw dropped. "I
never thought of that," he said. A colorful painting of a
friendly bear on a banner hung over the stage, along with the slogan
(also in English): "Peace, Love and Jazz Supreme."
a trio from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) played in front of a slide
projection of a man proudly displaying a portrait of Stalin tattooed
on his chest. They played with something close to desperation. I was
told that Volgograd is a "militaristic" and "patriotic"
city, still clinging to the glory of the World War II victory. The
Orchestrion players are not exactly hometown heroes. The music was far
What they called New Jazz in the Soviet Union
was comparable to American Free Jazz. Explosive music with minimum
rules in which emotion and symbolism take precedence over technique
and tradition. Like Free Jazz with black power in the '60s. New Jazz
could not be separated from politics. Its audience was small but
enthusiastic and intellectual. In addition to socio-cultural
relevance, Soviet avant-garde jazz was closely linked to the plastic
arts, like '60s New York jazz was linked with Abstract Impressionism.
Tarasov, a Lithuanian, the best known (and probably best)
percussionist in the country, was also known for his collection of
contemporary Soviet painting. It had been recently on public display
at a gallery in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. He wrote art, as
well as jazz, criticism. The following Sunday he would perform a solo
percussion piece at the Kunstmuseum in Bern as part of an exhibition
called "Moscow Artists of the '80s." Tarasov works more in
New York than Siberia.
He had recently toured the Soviet
Union with the African-American percussionist Andrew Cyrille (known
for his collaborations with Cecil Taylor). He lived in a large wooden
house on two hectares of forest land 70 kilometers from Vilnius. He
owned two boats and a car. His solo performance in Akademgorodok began
with a tape playing militant Socialist songs from the '30s. Then he
switched on a rhythm box programmed to parody military marches.
Joining in on his drum kit, Tarasov moved from melodic to rhythmic
accents and back again, weaving in and out of the revolutionary songs
with an irony that provoked laughter from the enthralled audience. It
was an aural equivalent of the Stalin tattoo.
festival's opening night, he had played in duo with the saxophonist
Vladimir Chekasin, who also lived in Vilnius (I arrived the next day
and missed them). In a recent poll conducted by a youth magazine,
Chekasin had been voted the most popular jazz musician in the Soviet
Union. (He is still active, creative and popular.) He and Tarasov
became known through their work with the Vyacheslav Ganelin trio.
Before Ganelin, a keyboardist and composer, emigrated to Israel the
previous year, the trio enjoyed the strongest international reputation
of any Soviet jazz group. Ganelin described their style as "closer
to contemporary chamber music than Free Jazz." The West German
critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt called it the "wildest and yet best
organized and most professional Free Jazz I've heard in years."
album "Is This Possible" (Melodya) was one of the more
ambitious, eclectic and original jazz records of the decade. Closing
the festival, he played the leading role in a ballet he helped
conceive and direct. The Guardian called him the "Jacques Tati of
jazz." A compact, volatile, enigmatic figure with brooding eyes,
he moved his face and body like a mime, jerked like a robot on wires,
posed as a dixieland clarinetist, raced through chords like Cannonball
Adderley, imitated a breathy Coleman Hawkins and played two saxophones
at the same time like Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
The critic Efim
Barban, who now lived in London, wrote of Chekasin: "Reality
sometimes appears in his music as a distorted caricature reflection of
the fictitious, as a sham, so that what it excludes as fictitious
becomes the true, authentic, reality."
On final Sunday,
walking form the hotel to the auditorium, a companion and I joined the
crowd of people reading tracts signed "Memory" posted
outside the cinema. It was a bright, sunny spring day and these people
did not seem in the least threatening. They were people who had not
had much opportunity to decide what they thought about anything like
this for themselves before. Now they were getting used to the process
of learning how to make up their own minds.
was an organization of xenophobic Russians who objected to the "Sovietization"
of their Republic. Having come out of the closet on the coattails of
glasnost, they complained that the Moscow metro is designed in the
shape of the Star of David, and that Jews and Moslems are "polluting"
the Russian race. The small crowd of people reading the reactionary
and racist manifestos on the bulletin board were respectful, but more
than a bit puzzled. As they walked away they entered into heated
discussions. Is this how democracy is born?
most reactionary event at the festival was my own set. I was in dire
need of a straight-ahead 4/4 blues after listening to music without
key signatures or barlines for four days. Belichenko had chosen a
student of Chekasin's to play with me. The only blues line he knew was
Charlie Parker's "Buzzy" so we played that. Judging from our
rhythm section, which shall remain nameless, the blues are anything
but alive and well in Siberia.
Taking the tune out - or,
more accurately, being taken out by the lack of one - I remembered a
mad Russian of my acquaintance who told me that jazz was invented in
Odessa by Jelly Roll Menshikov.