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.
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.
And as Starr points out, ''In dealings with the Soviet officials who are charged with guiding and shaping public values, no American has failed to come away with the feeling - why is this person worrying so much about these things? And suddenly you understand for the first time the frustration and the feeling of weakness that exists among people who to our way of thinking aren't all-powerful.''
Starr, who plays the clarinet, visited the Soviet Union early this year with his own ''subversive and barbarous'' New Orleans jazz band, the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, which played to enthusiastic Soviet audiences.
To make the cultural exchange complete, Starr recently staged an evening of ''Soviet Jazz'' at the Public Theater here, which was just as much a political event as a musical one. The musicians involved were mostly emigres, who came from every part of the Soviet Union. Some left because of yet another crackdown on jazz in the early '70s, during which time musicians and jazz aficionados were forced to listen to the music in secret. Others left because of the rise of rock-and-roll - it looked as though jazz was on its way out.
The musicians who played here varied in ability, but basically sounded much like American jazz musicians. The tendency was to listen for something distinctively ''Soviet'' in their music, but nothing of the sort could be detected.
Says Starr, ''People expect it to be the 'Volga Boatman' with a jazz beat!''
He pointed out that when the Russians infuse folk music into their jazz, which they occasionally do, it is a self-conscious act, just as it is in classical music. But the pressure from above to create a distinctive Soviet music, even a Soviet ''jazz,'' has instead caused most jazz musicians to turn away from that to more American sound.
But Starr believes that jazz - and his book on the subject - have more political than musical significance, and that by examining jazz, along with myriad other forms of popular culture in the Soviet Union, the Soviet enigma can be penetrated.
''I think we're going to end up with an image of the Soviet Union that is neither hard nor soft; in which there are neither midgets nor giants; in which they are neither about to collapse nor about to take over the world. From this approach we will gain a sense of what we can do with them as well as what we can't do with them.
''This story of jazz, I think, shows something which we are blind to - and that is the immense impact of American life on the Russians. It became fashionable some years ago to deny that we have any influence over the Soviets, but that's nonsense. They still look to us as the one great power in the world that has something to teach them. Even our mistakes, as they frequently say, are more pertinent than other people's successes.
''We have neglected this. Until we appreciate the actual role of American civilization in the 20th century, we're not going to understand why we're able to call forth such visceral resentment and anger and bitterness and fear, even from our friends.''
And the resentment persists: Even today, only one or two Soviet jazz groups are allowed to travel abroad.
Starr says, ''It's a form of silly persecution not to let some of these musicians come here on tour.''