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Good vibes

(Page 2 of 2)

Communication among musicians is difficult here, but their grapevine (carried to incredible lengths) keeps them in touch about events across their far-flung country without the benefit of press, radio coverage, or freedom to travel. The word about our unofficial concerts in Moscow, which were not advertised or reported in the press in any way, was spread so effectively that over a dozen cities were represented in the audience on one of the nights. It included people from two cities in Siberia (seven time zones away), and some from the most northern city in the Soviet Union up near the Arctic Circle. They managed to travel thousands of miles on short notice to make the concerts, no easy feat in the USSR.

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It was particularly important for an American jazz musician to make a return visit to the Soviet Union. For one of us to return just a year after the first tour was unheard of, and the effect was to create a sense of continuity and rapport. I was immediately aware of it when I walked onto the stage at Spasso House (the official residence of the American ambassador and the site of some of the concerts) and saw 400-plus musicians waiting for us, most of whom I remembered from last year . . . everyone smiling and waving hello.

We reached a further breakthrough this year by playing in an unofficial jam session at a local club. It was touch and go with the local militia as to whether this could take place, but it finally proceeded. The militia appeared in a couple of trucks to stop it; then they watched for a while, decided merely to harass people going in and out of the club, and ended up cooling their heels across the street until it was over. Such is life in the Soviet jazz world. But it was a great session.

Another highlight was the opportunity to do a couple of workshops with the local musicians and particularly with some students at a music high school where there is a jazz study program. We had a spirited couple of hours with the students, then two students were chosen to perform for us.

Was I ever astounded when a pianist and vibraphonist played two duet pieces originally performed by Chick Corea and me on one of our recordings. They chose the two most difficult pieces, transcribed them from the record without benefit of the written music, and proceeded to play them extremely well.

It was equally shocking to discover that the vibist had no instrument of his own. When I asked him about this, he said that he could occasionally borrow a vibraphone but mostly practiced with a wooden mock instrument he had built at home so he could go through the motions of playing, even if he couldn't hear the sound.

There is a temptation to focus on the hardships the local players have to overcome. The feeling of persecution in that place is impossible to describe, and its effects are everywhere apparent.

But this would overlook the most important observation about these dedicated jazz players: They have a deep love for the music and understand it well, and have succeeded against great odds in getting it established and accepted. There are many musicians, fans, and officials, too, who work constantly, in whatever ways they can, to further jazz.

Many darkly humorous experiences occur in the Russian music community. All the more so when an American visitor appears on the scene. There was, for instance, the mystery newspaper interview. After my trip last year, a piece appeared in one of the local papers quoting me extensively on the subject of racial discrimination in South Africa and the deplorable role of the US government in the situation. I gave no interviews during the trip, of course; the irony is that, had they asked me about that subject I would probably have answered in a way similar to what they concocted for me to say. This sort of shenanigan is common, and the heavy hand of authority unfortunately leaves its scars.

I deeply regret that the Soviet musicians can't come to visit us. That they can't perform in the West, so that more people could hear and appreciate their talents. They love their homeland very much and don't really want to leave permanently, in spite of the problems there. But they really would like to be able to come and see and experience for themselves, and return to their country. They just need more contact with the rest of the jazz world.

Musician to musician, we are people who passionately love the same things, and have much to say to each other. Our visit there directly confronted misinformation and misunderstanding with actuality, and with the strong bond of friendship.