Jazz is alive and well in the Soviet Union. This may not strike everyone as an earth-shattering statement. But many people are not aware of the popularity of jazz in the USSR and its long history in that country.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
I have just completed my second visit to Moscow and Leningrad, staying a week and playing concerts with my quartet. My initial encounter with the Russian jazz scene was as part of a celebration of the Fourth of July last year. On that occasion, Chick Corea and I were asked to play at the invitation of the US ambassador, Arthur Hartman, and Mrs. Hartman.
Arranging performances in the Soviet Union is awkward at the best of times, but since the ending of a joint cultural agreement at the end of the 70's, it had been virtually impossible. Thanks to Ambassador Hartman's commitment to the arts and the ingenuity of his staff, American artists are once again performing in the USSR.
In spite of several Soviet attempts to get rid of jazz over the years (the saxophone was even banned for a time), it persisted and developed. Today it has a level of acceptance that should guarantee its survival.
My own opinion is that Russian audiences feel an attraction to basic elements of jazz - freedom, spontaneity, excitement - similar to the attraction felt by American audiences and those in Europe as well. No amount of official opposition has been able to kill it. And I'm not talking about simply a fascination with things from the West but a real, instinctive love of the basic nature of the music.
A major step forward was achieved by the jazz community over a decade ago when the official musical arbiters, the Union of Soviet Composers, recognized jazz as an acceptable form of music. (One is tempted to say, ''That was big of them!'') However, the union has since worked diligently to further the acceptance of jazz in the Soviet cultural world, and it plays host to workshops and concerts for the local musicians when foreign performers come to Moscow.
This year, during my second visit to the Union of Composers Hall, I was welcomed back with almost amazing warmth and enthusiasm. One classical composer was so swept up in the occasion that he insisted on giving me his wristwatch as a gift, and then ran home to get some of his recordings for me to take back to America.
Meeting with Soviet jazz musicians is something else, as the slang phrase goes. What an intense, emotional group of people! I made friends in an incredibly short length of time (they don't have much time to waste as far as getting together with Westerners is concerned), whom I will remember for the rest of my life. Communication begins instantly and is very forthright.
Questions: How do you get jobs? How do you find new musicians? How do you travel? What about making records? How much do you get paid? When I was somewhat evasive about answering that particular question, it was repeated in the form of , ''Put it this way, then, how much do you bring home to the wife?''
They get very little direct information about us American musicians, and they fear that a lot of what they hear is misleading. Anyone who reads the often puffed-up or inaccurate liner notes on recordings and writings in the music press can understand the problem. So it is very important for them to talk directly with us to find out what our lives are really like.
We heard many wonderful players during our stay. This was a surprise only because we presumed, wrongly, that owing to their isolation from the rest of the world's jazz community they would have limitations or be behind the times. In most ways, they have very effectively overcome the handicaps they must struggle against.
You get an idea of what they are up against when you find out that there is only a handful of officially recognized jazz groups. Five, as of last count, with a total of 27 musicians. This, in a country of some 280 million people.
Instruments are very hard to acquire; things like reeds, strings, drumsticks, etc., are always in short supply. Records? Rarely available. There is a procedure of copying and recopying the recordings that do get around so that everyone can get a chance to hear them. Jazz programs on Voice of America broadcasts are the main opportunities for hearing American jazz.