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'Red and Hot': how jazz proved irrepressible -- even in Russia

By Amy Duncan / June 27, 1983



New York

When an American named S. Frederick Starr began a lighthearted study of jazz in the Soviet Union, he had no idea of the complexities he was about to uncover. Nor did he realize how much he would learn about Soviet life from a grass-roots point of view, or what far-reaching implications his findings would have.

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Starr is a jazz musician himself and incoming resident at Oberlin College, as well as a Russian scholar. He has long been chided by friends about his two passions, jazz and Russia: What could they possibly have to do with each other?

His own curiosity piqued, Starr originally intended to do a ''vaguely humorous essay'' on the subject of Russian jazz. But as he wrote, it gradually occurred to him that he was dealing with an extremely important topic - a view of the Soviet Union ''from below'' - that is, from the people's standpoint rather than the government's. Starr says this ''raised the question of the limits of absolute authority in an authoritarian state.''

His essay grew into a book appropriately titled ''Red & Hot - The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union'' (Oxford University Press, New York). In a scholarly yet thoroughly entertaining manner, he describes the repeated and abortive attempts of the Soviet government from as early as 1917 and continuing to the present to stifle what is viewed as ''subversive'' and ''barbarous'' American music. When Starr first visited the Soviet Union in 1964, he was not aware of the jazz scene at that time. His other books have had nothing to do with music at all - they were about architecture, Soviet-German relations, 19th-century governmental reforms.

About his current efforts he says, ''I wanted people to approach the book casually, but after reading it think, 'This doesn't conform to my previous image of Soviet society at all.' We have the tendency, when speaking or writing about the Soviet Union, that it is a riddle wrapped in an enigma. There is a presumption that one can't find out what goes on there - that somehow most of Soviet life is obscured by censorship, by lack of access, by lack of freedom of movement for our reporters and diplomats, and so on.''

Starr discovered that an exploration of the history of jazz in the Soviet Union was one good way to help clear up this enigma, but he admits that he could just as well have chosen some other area of Soviet life, ''no matter how small.'' He used every source at his disposal - obscure published sources and as many oral interviews as possible with people living in the USSR as well as emigres.

''My conclusion,'' says Starr, ''is that the Soviet Union is not completely transparent to the outside observer today, but it is infinitely more accessible to someone who is determined and tenacious. . . . One can get the story.''

Starr feeds the reader with such juicy facts as the condemnation of jazz by Maxim Gorki in his 1928 essay ''On the Music of the Gross,'' imprisonment and even execution of jazz musicians during the purges from 1936 to 1941, the government confiscation of saxophones (symbol of the decadent American music) in 1949, and verbal attacks during the cold war labeling it as being a ''capitalistic plot.'' He also tells of periods of relative respite - when it seemed that jazz might be accepted after all, and even received patronage from the government. One of these times was 1932-36, which Starr refers to in his book as ''The Red Jazz Age.'' But this back-and-forth attitude toward jazz points up the fact that the authorities have had to admit to themselves, at least from time to time, that it is ultimately fruitless to try to shape popular taste by government mandate.