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Jazz In The Soviet Union During The 1930s

Info: 4128 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 3rd May 2017 in History

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There are a couple of interesting sources about jazz in the former Soviet Union and modern Russia. Frederick Starr’s “Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union” is a comprehensive overview of the history of jazz in Russia; Starr runs through the chronology of Red jazz, beginning with pre-revolutionary Americanism (it turns out that Rasputin, a famous scandalous character of Russian monarchy, was poisoned to the accompaniment of “Yankee Doodle” on the gramophone) and continuing up and down the roller-coaster that is Soviet official cultural policy. As a Soviet specialist, Starr is well- qualified to point out ways in which bureaucrats tried to shape, but ended up yielding to, popular music taste, even in Stalin’s days: “all transitions and changes are endlessly complicated… Overnight the system rushes to incorporate the very forms of popular culture which only yesterday it had vehemently resisted”. This hardly describes the monolithic Soviet bureaucratic machine presented by Western media. Many things have to be explained for Western readers: the bureaucrat’s inability to control jazz and popular music tastes stands in sharp relief to Soviet greater literary, theatrical and artistic control, and makes us think about music’s special role in the society. The author assumes that jazz has been a persistent factor of the Soviet culture which the communist party neither approved nor repressed. In dealing with jazz, successive governments have been inertial and ineffective, but not monolithic. Throughout his detailed research of jazz and popular music in Russia, based on available published sources and interviews with Russian jazzmen, the author describes a long and thorny way to recognition of the Soviet “dzhazz”. By focusing on a single aspect of popular culture in the Soviet Union, Starr is able to demonstrate the limits placed on Western understanding of the Soviet system by political models as well as communist party controls. Popular culture in the Soviet Union, in which jazz played very important role, was a very rich and diverse phenomenon; poorly reflected in the pages of either Pravda, a propaganda newspaper in Russia, or Western scholarly editions.

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Starr begins with a discussion of the “low sweet fever” under Nicolas II, the penetration of tangos, cakewalks, ragtime and other Americanisms into monarchist Russia before the 1917 Red October revolution via the novel invention of gramophone. It was an epoch of urban Russian popular culture and middle-class fashion, which has been largely influenced by European and American trends of that time. The years of revolution and civil war cut off such winds from the West; only during the years of New Economy and Politics (1921-1928) did jazz bring its first rhythms and notes into the Soviet Union.

In 1922, despite a national shortage of saxophones, Valentin Parnakh’s syncopated rhythm ensemble and Vsevolod Meyerkhold’s theatrical group organized a performance on the stage of a major Moscow Drama Theater and made the Russian audiences aware of what would become a major cultural phenomenon. Starr mentions that in spite of public awareness about jazz there was a considerable suspicion of this new musical form that symbolized the capitalist decadency. Russia’s “roaring” twenties arrived belatedly, launched by the visit in 1926 of Sam Wooding’s troupe of American black singers, dancers and jazz musicians known as The Chocolate Kiddies. In 1983, a famous Russian movie director Karen Shakhnazarov made a movie “We are from jazz” based on a true story of their visit. This is a musical about the origin and development of Soviet Jazz music in the early twenties. The main character is a young jazz enthusiast from the city of Odessa Kostya Ivanov who is expelled from the conservatory because of his passion for jazz. He is making a jazz band being deeply convinced that jazz, born by Negro folk music, represents a true proletarian art. The “free musicians” Stepan, Zhora and former Saxophonist of the Emperor’s court Ivan Bavurin do not get smitten with Kostya’s enthusiasm right away. They have many funny and sad adventures on their way to recognition and many times their friendship is about to be over, but it proves to be strong and long-standing. One of the most amusing episodes of the movie depicts the scene where Kostya and three other musicians pretend to be black musicians by putting make-up on their faces and play for an allegedly American jazz impresario in order to obtain management in the “civilized” countries. The story takes place in 1927.

Starr describes that after 1928 the relative tolerance of the New Economic Policy gave way to the Cultural Revolution of the first Five Year Plan. As a Western elite phenomenon appealing to the urban audiences of Russia, jazz now became suspect to the new officers of proletarian culture. In 1929 it was an attempt to ban the saxophone, the best known instrument of the American culture. Jazz now became a symbol of degeneracy, unbridled sex, emancipation, all products of the bourgeois West. Jazz, Starr concludes, “appealed to the common man precisely because it’s driving rhythms carried a message of individual and physical liberation that was incompatible with the puritanical morality of communism.”

Murphy in “Red Hot With a Blue Note” claims that in the thirties jazz reemerged in Stalin’s Russia as a widespread urban phenomenon, especially among the newly promoted bureaucratic elite. Access to American jazz record albums was especially important to jazz bands which often lacked any sheet music. Stalin’s closest officers Kliment Voroshilov and Lazar Kaganovich became jazz fans and powerful protectors and patrons of jazz musicians such as Aleksander Tsfasman and Leonid Utesov. Even the most horrifying years of Stalin’s terror of 1936 to 1941 could not entirely mute the “epileptic music” of the new jazz idiom. The ideological Soviet government’s response to American musical fashions was to establish the State Jazz Orchestra of the USSR, a grandiosely named ensemble that could not be accused of ingratiating to “decadent” Western trends. Stalin personally ordered to support the musicians financially, whose salaries were twice as large as those of the best symphony orchestra members, and create a national Soviet kind of jazz. After few years of success, the State Jazz Orchestra satisfied no one. It was too Western for the nationalists and too narrowly Soviet for the cosmopolitans; too hot for the “legitimate” musicians and too sweet for the jazzmen. Izvestia , a newspaper patronized by Stalin attacked jazz orchestra, Pravda defended it ; and the Izvestia staff mysteriously disappeared. Jazz musicians, who often had traveled abroad or had Western musician friends, were killed. But jazz survived. Jazz bands reemerged in the camps of GULAG before the war. During World War II the swing and jazz bands of the American allies found many imitators among the Soviet ensembles who played for the Red Army at the front and for the audiences at home. The trumpeter Eddie Rosner, the “white Louise Armstrong” became a Russian national hero during the War years. Although, Stalin couldn’t tolerate anybody whose fame was bigger than his, and ordered to confiscate all the Rosner’s recordings and even announced playing saxophone illegal in 1949.

Friderick Starr claims that after Stalin’s death in 1953, jazz became a language of dissident Soviet youth, who found their own way to a new self- expression and individual release. In the seventies and eighties jazz revived in Russia and persisted as an unstoppable force in the Westernization of Russian culture.

The analytical theme of the book is the historic conflict of an official policy and popular taste. There are two serious issues involved here, and Starr has something really important to say about each of them. First, there is a question whether jazz was inevitably inimical to Soviet politicians, and if so why. Starr finds that Soviet authorities had their own reasons to mistrust this music. They found jazz incompatible with Soviet society, because, according to Starr, the music was linked with personal liberation, with the “spontaneity and physicality, sexuality and individualism of the twentieth century.” There were, of course, other reasons; jazz rivaled official popular culture; it was Western, or at least they thought so, and, therefore, they found it suspect, bourgeois, despite it’s African -American origins.

The second issue pertains to the success of jazz in the Soviet Union. According to Starr, the survival of jazz tells us something about the “dynamics of Soviet culture.” Even in the face of official repression, the genuine demand for the music assured its continued existence and eventual popularity. As he perceives it, the phenomenal energy, enthusiasm, and courage of the musicians, their promoters, and their audiences outweighed heavy-handed and erratic official attempts to prohibit jazz.

The Frederick Starr’s explanations for the place of jazz in the Soviet Union are reasonable enough, although, his attempts to link shifts in official policies to social change are sometimes unconvincing. For example, in the case of Stalin’s policy in the late twenties, the reader is left wondering whether authorities turned against jazz because it was an elitist art or because it was popular. Another source of difficulty is the fact that the author doesn’t clarify what he means by jazz, ragtime, or even rock music. Sometimes, his subject seems to be commercialized dance music, and other times it’s a hot jazz that appealed to more serious audiences. Some other questions may arise after reading a book, for example, why some musicians, jazz tunes, and record companies reached a Russian audience but others did not. Starr also overlooked the question of Western European influence on Soviet culture; parallels between two cultures, particularly in the case of opposition to jazz. For instance, after France opened its borders for immigrants from Africa, the society opposed to it fearing that African workers could threaten their jobs. The situation sparked racial debates and influenced public perception of jazz. It was sometimes perceived as danger to moral traditional values of conservative French.


Leonid Pereverzev, the founder of Russian jazz critique and jazz musicology, passed away in 2006 in Moscow. Pereverzev was the earliest Russian music writer to analyze jazz as a whole, in its both musical and social aspects, and to spread the word through the Soviet Union, the word that jazz was not “The Music of Fat People,” as an early Soviet writer pejoratively described it back in the twenties; jazz was a new branch of the global music culture, a branch that deserved a close study, a wide popularization, and not a fear of being infected by alien capitalist propaganda, but an appreciation of new and fresh music culture. Pereverzev could not publish too many articles on jazz in the late fifties and early sixties, when he started his jazz advocate activities, but he was able to hold lectures, interviews and public speeches on jazz. And he was really successful in that – so successful that a Young Communist League-controlled monthly magazine, Smena (The Shift,) even denounced him as the “ideology god of Moscow jazz maniacs,” who “translated the delirium of (Voice of America jazz host) Willis Conover.”

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Pereverzev’s public lectures on jazz at the Moscow House of Scientists and the Moscow House of International Friendship accompanied by slide projection and taped jazz playback, were the first steps into lifelong appreciation of jazz for thousands of Russians. He embarked on those lectures in 1958 and was able to go on for just about few years. In 1962 the lectures were announced illegal. Later in the seventies, he continued his lectures; at that time via the Knowledge Society, a strange reservation of “evening education” in the fields not totally covered by the Communist Party-controlled educational system that existed during the seventies and eighties.

His jazz writing had started in 1962, when he wrote an essay on Benny Goodman and the famous bandleader’s forthcoming visit to the Soviet Union for Moscow-based “Life of Music” magazine. It was “Life of Music” that published most of his early works, and when Pereverzev’s first book about the history of jazz was rejected by government-controlled publishers in the mid-sixties, it was only through “Life of Music” he could see his book printed, although only as series of articles in the magazine. When the Soviet authorities first allowed teaching jazz in Moscow in 1967, it was Leonid Pereverzev who taught the first several semesters of Jazz History course. Pereverzev’s music writing went on, regardless of how deep he dived into the ocean of jazz; he wrote a large essay, “From Jazz To Rock” and a popular book “The Way Into Music,” published by the Knowledge Society in 1981. His lectures at several jazz musicology seminars in the seventies and eighties turned into brilliant musicology and culture studies articles, which were not published until the era of internet. Since 1999, his massive works on his musical idol Duke Ellington (“The Offering To Duke”,) jazz musicology (“Provocative Jazzology” and “Jazz Is The Problem”,) jazz in European literatures (“Mozart And Foxtrot”) and on many other subjects are highly regarded and popular among the students and scholars in Russia.

In his interview to Radio Freedom in 2005 he recalls the years of his childhood; in 1937, the most terrifying year of Stalin’s tyranny, his parents were arrested and he has never seen them again. Young boy left alone on the streets of Moscow stopped by at the movie theater, where he first watched a jazz band rehearsal. According to Pereverzev, it was a feeling of magic, happiness and joy; he perceived it like “if somebody took me to a wonder land of Oz.” After the rehearsal he asked an old lady about the foreign word he just learned “what is blues?” “Blues? It’s a blouse, French workers like to wear.” Apparently, she didn’t know what blues was, but a ten-year old boy started to search for the answer. There were no recordings or music sheets of jazz or blues available at that time; however, he was able to make a little radio receptor and catch the radio broadcasts from France and England illegally. This is how he first found out about his future idol Duke Ellington. Few years later, during the World War II, jazz music was regarded as the music of the allies (U.S. and Soviet Union were allies against Hitler) and thus widely spread. When the Cold War began, Soviet authority’s attitude towards jazz changed. Communist Party leaders or officials weren’t absolutely opposed to jazz; sometimes even emphasized the importance of this form of art, which was created by an oppressed class of African-Americans in the United States. However, depending on political situation in the world, Soviet leaders intended to manipulate with jazz as a weapon against Soviet people. For example, Russian jazz musicians could have been accused in participating in American propaganda by playing jazz or even announced American spies. In his interview, Perverzev described a former Soviet Union’s Minister of Culture Ekaterina Furtzeva; she rejected Louis Armstrong’s visa, because she felt that that “he was going to be too popular.” In 1958, Louis Armstrong addressed to his Russian fans a few words in Russian through the Radio Liberty airwaves, and played his trumpet along with the recording of USSR’s 1957 music hit, “Five Minutes” (a song from the Carnival Night movie), which was, coincidentally, the first Soviet recording that involved overdubbing technique (singer Lyudmila Gurchenko sang in an empty studio, listening in earphones to previously recorded Eddie Rosner Big Band.) Benny Goodman’s Big Band performed in Moscow in 1962 at the Soviet Army Sport Palace. At the height of USA vs. USSR spy scandal (American U2 spy plane was just shot off the Russian sky), the KGB was suspicious of “capitalist provocations,” so only a handful of tickets went into Moscow’s jazz fans hands; several thousand tickets were distributed among “ideologically tested” blue collars through the Party committees at Moscow’s industrial facilities. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was present at the concert, but soon got bored by the alien music that he hated, and left during the intermission. In spite of the hostility and inimical atmosphere jazz in Soviet Union survived. In fact, Russian jazz has its own biography of struggle and way to recognition. Wilson in his “Music: Jazz in U.S.S.R.” mentions that the first jazz concert in Russia took place in Moscow in 1922. The band was local, called no less than The First Jazz Band of the Republic, led by not a musician, but a dancer Valentin Parnakh who also was a gifted poet, poetry translator, and literature historian, and spent seven years in Western Europe. That band was later employed by the outstanding theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold, in one of his plays where the sounds of live jazz should represent the “Western reality.” The band included piano, saxophone, clarinet, trombone and a trap set. The first American jazz bands to perform in Russia were drummer Benny Payton’s Jazz Kings in 1926. The hot New Orleans-style band spent several months performing in theatres and ballrooms in Moscow, Kharkov, Odessa and Kiev; a percussionist Sidney Bechet reportedly had to extend his Soviet visa for a while, because he needed a few weeks in a hospital to recuperate after too close acquaintance with Russian vodka. That same year, London-based Sam Wooding Orchestra toured Russia as a part of European musical tour Chocolate Kiddies. The band also consisted of African-American musicians, but, according to Leonid Perverzev, sounded less hot than the Jazz Kings. The first Russian jazz band to be recorded was pianist Alexander Tsfasman’s Moscow-based AMA Jazz band in 1928. The most interesting recordings of early Russian jazz were made in the late 1930, the most notably by Tsfasman, Alexander Varlamov, and the newly immigrated from Poland in order to escape Nazi occupation, trumpet virtuoso Eddie Rozner. This band was strongly supported and protected by Soviet officials, such as Voroshilov and Kaganovich. Some other bands and ensembles emerged during the thirties; Oleg Lundstrem’s jazz orchestra was formed in 1936 in Shanghai, China, during the World War he returned to the Soviet Union and settled in Kazan. In 1994, the Guinness Book of Records recognized the Lundstrem band as the oldest continuously existing jazz band in the world. The band was constantly performing since 1936 until Lundstrem’s death in 2005 at the age of 89.

An issue which divided many people at the time concerned the best way for the USSR to avail itself on the latest developments abroad. Two schools of thought existed. On one side were those who wanted the Soviet Union to borrow wholesale products necessary to its progress. Such people were convinced that many aspects of Western life would be suitable for Communist Russia with little or no modification. On the other side was a much larger group who agreed that Russia must borrow from abroad but insisted that whatever was taken from the West should first be adapted and transformed to render it suitable to the unique conditions of the Soviet Union. Tsfasman and Utesov would probably have felt uncomfortable with such philosophizing. Yet through their music and by their actions each of them took a clear stand: Tsfasman was the adopter and the cosmopolitan, Utesov the adapter and the nationalist. Such polarities were new to Russia in the 1930-es. Early in the nineteenth century the terms ” Westernizer” and “Slavophile” had been employed to describe the contrasting positions. These traditional characterization , however, fail to capture the subtle compound of artistic and human elements that combined in the Stalin era to make these men the Soviet Union’s first national stars of jazz. Sociologists would certainly classify Tsfasman and his musicians as deviants. To the Soviet high class they were free spirits, whose nonconformity was the more alluring because they seemed to get by with it. Let the government introduce prison sentences for violators of labor discipline, as it did in January 1931, or threaten anyone absent from work for even a day of dismissal, as it did in December 1932. These jazzmen stood above it all, wild and free, as long as they survived. Tsfasman’s huge popularity was fed by many sources: his personality, his disdain for Soviet bureaucracy, and his bandsmen’s obstreperous life-styles. In addition, his greatest successes were achieved not as a colorful personality but as a brilliant pianist and arranger. Surviving recordings make it possible to evaluate the quality of Tsfasman’s musicianship. Because the records are mostly ensemble performances, however, they give only few glimpses of his skill at improvisation. Yet they do show that he achieved what no Soviet band before him had attempted: he could swing! In his 30-es recordings, a polka-like beat predominates during the vocals, but then, suddenly, a much hotter rhythm breaks out, definitely swinging. Tsfasman’s musical success far surpassed all other Soviet jazzmen until the 1960-es. In 1957 a rising Soviet jazzman of the next generation encountered him at the All-Union Theatrical Society and asked if the intended to start a new orchestra, Tsfasman replied: “I am too old, I have a good salary, a house in the country, a wife, and a car. The Union of Composers asks only that I submit to it each month a march, a polka and a waltz… No hassles.”

Leonid Utesov, a Russina Jew from Odessa, approached American jazz through Ted Lewis, a Polish Jew from Circleville, Ohio. Utesov began his jazz band in Leningrad in 1927. Critical reaction was mixed. The journal The Life of Art judged a performance a triumph, but applauded Utesov’s cheerful humor more than his music. The Association of Proletarian Musicians described Utesov’s music as “musical rubbish” and “music from the era of the New Economic Policy”. Reviewing Utesov’s maneuvers during the Cultural Revolution, one might readily conclude that he was an opportunist ready to compromise his interest in jazz the moment he felt the political winds shifting against him. There is much to support this view. During the Civil War Utesov had entertained the West-oriented White Army officers one week and then signed up to entertain Red Army troops the moment they appeared to be ascendant. When it was convenient to attack Duke Ellington in 1939, Utesov did so savagely. But when Ellington visited Moscow in 1971, he sang his praises and had himself photographed with the man he had denounced as a “bourgeois formalist”. Utesov publicly supported attacks on jazz, and several times in his career used jazz to mount entire evenings of anti- American propaganda.

A paradoxical situation was developing. Jazz, having been cleared of the earlier charges against it, by 1934 had become the musical emblem of the generation of youth designated to become the Builders of Communism. Although Utesov was on the verge of becoming a purveyor of kitsch, for the time being, he was after Stalin, probably the best known man in the country. There was scarcely a classical artist in any field who could boast of a following equal to that of any one of Utesov’s sidemen. If Tsfasman had conquered the high class of the Soviet people, Utesov and all he represented had conquered the masses. It was inevitable, given the situation in Russia in the 30-es, that their dual victory would eventually call forth a strong reaction in the future.


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