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Is There Jazz In Russia, Really? A Short Jazz History of Moscow

The answer is “YES". The first jazz concert in Russia took place in Moscow on October 1, 1922. The band was local, called no less than The First Jazz Band of the Republic, led by not a musician, but a dancer, one Valentin Parnakh (1891-1951), who also was a gifted poet, poetry translator, and literature historian, and spend seven years (from 1915 to 1922) in Western Europe. That band was later employed by the great 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. One of the musicians known to be a part of this band was pianist Yevgeny Gabrilovich (1899-1993), later a successful playwright and movie screenplay writer.

The first American jazz bands to perform in Russia were drummer Benny Payton's Jazz Kings in 1926, with the great Sidney Bechet (then clarinet, not yet soprano sax) on board. The hot New Orleans-style band spent several months performing in theatres and ballrooms in Moscow, Kharkov, Odessa and Kiev; 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 (Moscow and Leningrad) as part of European musical revue Chocolate Kiddies. The band also consisted of African-American musicians, but, according to historical sources, sounded less hot than the Jazz Kings. The first Russian jazz band to be recorded was pianist Alexander Tsfasman's Moscow-based AMA Jazz, in 1928 (the band could be heard in one of Russian Jazz Podcast series.)

The most interesting recordings of early Russian jazz were made in the late 1930, the most notably by Tsfasman, Alexander Varlamov, and the fresh migr from Poland, which was captured by Nazi Germany, trumpet virtuoso Eddie Rozner.

During the World War Two, 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 authorities' attitude towards jazz changed. After that, the first significant recordings of Russian jazz were made only in late 1950s.

Benny Goodman's Big Band performed in Moscow in 1962 at the Soviet Army Sport Palace. At the height of U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. 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. The concert was recorded, and released by RCA in 1962 (never reissued on CD, though.)

Louis Armstrong never performed in the U.S.S.R, though producer George Avakian tried hard to arrange his Soviet Union tour. Ekaterina Furtseva, Soviet Union's culture minister, refused because she felt 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 U.S.S.R's 1957 #1 hit, “Five Minutes" (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.) The recording of this “double overdub" exists, and is released by Russian label SoLyd Records in 2006 (as a bonus track on “The Liberty of Jazz" CD, SLR 0363).

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