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Somewhere Over Nine Minutes

Further reflections on jazz in Russia
By Cyril Moshkow

Published in Jazz Notes (the journal of Jazz Journalists Association) in early 2008; writers were required to develop further what they did not have enough time to say during their nine-minutes speeches at the Jazz in the Global Imagination: Music, Journalism, and Culture conference at the School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York City (presented by The Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University in partnership with the Jazz Journalists Association) on September 29, 2007.

How to discuss new artists if you haven’t told the story of the old ones?

At Columbia’s “Jazz in the Global Imagination” symposium on September 29, I had nine minutes to discuss “New Music, New Aesthetics” in my native Russia — definitely not much time for a detailed presentation. Especially if you’re from a country where the history of jazz differs so dramatically from what your Western counterparts are used to. And especially if you know that only a few of your country’s great jazz figures will be known to the audience.

How on earth to discuss new artists in your country if you haven’t even told the story of the old ones? Thanks to Eugene Marlow: it was an American, not a foreigner, who first said during this conference that the history of jazz in any given culture is inherently linked to the social and political history. America experienced a two-year recording ban, part of a union struggle against greedy record labels. In my country, there were two “recording bans” against jazz, each nearly 10 years long (1928-1937 and 1946-1956). These had nothing to do with musicians unions, but rather our government’s resenting jazz as “enemy music” during one decade and supporting it as “progressive proletarian culture” during the other.

The question for Russian jazz has always been not just “to be or not to be,” but first how to survive in a society that resents the music you like, and then, after the end of communist rule, how to survive in a society that has less and less tolerance for art forms that require any mental effort from the listener. A wildly growing capitalist economy proved even more efficient at eliminating bold creativity than had the stagnant communist ideology.

Every succeeding generation of musicians felt itself a totally new and unprecedented one. Every new generation had to decide whether or not to imitate American jazz or create Russian jazz. And for each new generation, this question has been left undecided. For some reason, few discovered that they could, in fact, do both.

The generation currently onstage is facing almost the same problems as the first two generations of jazz in Russia, those of the 1920s and 1930s, except that playing jazz is no more regarded as ideological treason, and you cannot be imprisoned simply for your interest in music that is originally American.

Back in the mid-1980s, the great follower of American jazz in Russia, saxophonist Igor Butman, had to marry an American woman in order to emigrate to the U.S. to study at Berklee. By that time, emigration was still a one-way ticket: if you were leaving the country, you were a traitor who gave up his identity. Now, if you go to the U.S. to play or study jazz, you are just another of several thousand Russian students who study something in America every year. The question is, are you going to return after a while, to bring what you’ve been taught to local soil, or will you stay in the U.S. to become just another immigrant musician struggling for survival in New York?

There is nothing new in this situation. For me as a jazz journalist, new aesthetics in jazz doesn’t only mean the importation of new ideas. Russia has a great tradition of music, not to mention music education. Why not export our own traditions? Why not blend the jazz we love with the traditions we possess?

I have to admit that, in the everyday struggle, with little or no support from either government or private funds, Russian musicians who try to find their own voice within the jazz idiom are a rare breed. But they do exist. From the tight and complex harmonies of ’70s great German Lukianov and the ’80s extravaganzas of the late Sergey Kuriokhin, to the sonic magic currently done by Andrey Kondakov/Slava Guyvoronsky/Vladimir Volkov trio, or the ethno/classical/jazz crossover projects by horn virtuoso Arkady Shilkloper, or the delicate soundscapes of the Second Approach trio in interaction with everyone from American trombonist Roswell Rudd to Ukrainian saxophonist Yuri Yaremchuk, or the overwhelming avant-garde shamanism of Siberia-based pianist Roman Stolyar… or the music of the brave youth, like multireedist Alexey Kruglov, pianist Alexey Chernakov and the latter’s 17-year-old sister Dasha Chernakova, one of the most promising acoustic bassists in the country: surely the efforts of these musicians are not worthless. But we need to make their voices heard, and not only inside Russia.

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 © Cyril Moshkow, 1999-2008
Any use of these texts (in print, on the Web etc.) is only possible upon the author's written permission.

© Cyril Moshkow, 1997-2008