Communism vs. jazz

Jazz music in Russia took shape in the early 1920s, just as it did in the United States. The first Soviet jazz band was organised in 1922 by Valentin Parnakh, a poet, translator, dancer, and theater professional. The experimental band made its debut on October 1, and this day has since been marked as the birthday of Soviet jazz.

Another musician crucial to the development of jazz in the Soviet Union was Alexander Tsfasman. His AMA jazz band was the first to play jazz on the radio and to make an audio recording ("Hallelujah"). Both professionals and critics applauded the technical virtuosity of the band's musicians and especially of its leader, Tsfasman.

Jazz's popularity surged in Soviet Russia in the 1930s, thanks in no small measure to the charismatic talent of the actor and crooner Leonid Utyosov and of trumpet player Yakov Skomorovsky. The 1934 comedy "Vesyolyie Rebyata" ("The Jolly Fellows") serves as an illustration. It tells the life story of a jazz musician, portrayed by Utyosov. Utyosov's jazz band appears in the film — something that helped this musical become an instant hit with audiences. The score, composed by Isaac Dunayevsky, became incredibly popular too, and some of the songs remain so to this day.

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The foreign screenings of the movie, released under the title "Moscow Laughs," were also quite successful. The New York Times wrote of it as "a uniquely Russian blend of syncopated music and straightforward slapstick," which "bursts with vitality and is sometimes uproariously side-splitting."

The sheer fact that the comedy was allowed onto the big screen seems amazing — so out of tune was it with Soviet ideology. Its final scenes, showing the emergence of a jazz band, offered an unorthodox ending in the Socialist Realism-dominated cinema context. This comment in the Italian press came as no surprise: "It's incomprehensible just how Alexandrov managed to make his 'Moscow Laughs' in the USSR. This must have happened far into the night when all those in charge were sleeping securely. He presumably sneaked into the studio under the cover of night, only to finish shooting before daybreak."

Performing groups involved with dissident music usually faced persecution in the late 1940s. Those purges stopped with the end of the Stalin era, but Western music continued to be a target for harsh criticisms long afterward.

But why would the Soviet establishment find jazz music so disconcerting? Why would it punish jazz fans with public censure and dismissals? Primarily because of the spirit of freedom inherent in jazz — as simple as that. The regime's idea was to create a homogenous society where everyone would have the same manner of thinking and dressing and demonstrate the same music and film preferences. It's not surprising that individuals with idiosyncratic views and tastes, who did not blend in with the gray crowd, were seen as potentially subversive.

Valery Todorovsky's musical "Stilyagi" ("Hipsters") vividly depicts the Soviet ideologue crackdown on fans of anti-establishment music. All musical trends not in line with the Communist collectivist philosophy were to be eradicated.

Karen Shakhnazarov's 1983 film "My iz dzhaza" ("Jazzmen") creates quite an appealing image of a jazz fan. But oddly, here we find thieves among jazz music lovers, and those thieves invite a jazz band to play for them. Communist officials, meanwhile, ignored the band. The value of the film, giving jazz its due, can in no way be undermined by this incongruity however. Indeed, the score and its rendition are up to the mark. Vocalist Larissa Dolina's appearance as an Afro-American singer is particularly convincing.

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Jazz was never officially accepted in the Soviet era, but it enjoyed popularity with the public all the same.

Perestroika became a turning point not only in Russian history, but also in the development of music in this country. Specifically, it prompted the revival of jazz, dormant through the Brezhnev era. The free flow of that music and the many opportunities for self-expression it provided drew in many young people, seeking freedom and new emotional experiences, as well as members of the older generation, with their still fresh memories of Stalinist persecution.

Today Russia and other post-Soviet countries have a great variety of jazz projects, clubs, and festivals, where established jazz musicians share the stage with aspiring musicians.

The history of Soviet/Russian jazz has been a turbulent one, but this is what has shaped its distinctive character. A visit to Koktebel Jazz Party in September will make that distinctiveness all the more apparent.