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.
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.
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.
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.