Soviet Jazz
June 9, 2008 10:54 AM   Subscribe

When people think of Soviet culture in the Stalin era, jazz usually isn't the first music to come to mind. But it was there, and some of it was pretty good, whether adapting Western standards, partying with a Russian twist, or just being adventurous. If that's a little too old-school for you, try some Soviet funk.
posted by StrikeTheViol (14 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Neat post, thanks.
posted by Snyder at 11:01 AM on June 9, 2008

That "Soviet funk" link is fantastic...thanks for posting it.

A while back I took a chance on a mid-'80s Russian aerobics instructional LP, and it turned out to be really damn good.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:06 AM on June 9, 2008

oh man, which movie had those russians singing "We got the Red Blues" in it? was it Singin' in the Rain?
posted by shmegegge at 11:11 AM on June 9, 2008

Wow, cool.
posted by absalom at 11:11 AM on June 9, 2008

This is awesome, thanks!
posted by pravit at 11:21 AM on June 9, 2008

posted by ORthey at 12:25 PM on June 9, 2008

Very nice post! Anyone intrigued by this music should find a copy of S. Frederick Starr's Red & Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union, which discusses all the musicians and trends prior to its publication in the early '80s. Alexander Varlamov ("adapting Western standards" link) was something of a dilettante (though for a while he had an actual African American singer with his band, Celestina Cole), but Alexander Tsfasman ("partying with a Russian twist") was the real thing, one of the two great Soviet bandleaders of the '30s (the other being the brilliant but opportunistic Odessan Leonid Utyosov or Utësov: "Fall in Love with Me").
No figure in the history of Soviet jazz can claim more firsts than Tsfasman. He was the first soloist in Soviet jazz and the first Russian to make a profession in the new music. His well-known AMA Jazz band... was the first in the USSR to record, the first to perform live on radio, the first to appear in a sound film, and—significantly—the first to engage in informal jam sessions... Beyond this, he was the first... to earn sincere praise from a Western European or American jazzman... Throughout his life Tsfasman called on Soviet jazz musicians to strive to attain the level of the best foreign bands....

There was a pathos in this man's infatuation with America. He was never permitted to travel to the United States and, in fact, spoke English poorly. Yet in the depths of the Cultural Revolution in 1930 he defiantly engaged an American Negro tap dancer... and in 1936 he even found an American wife, a xylophonist named Gertrude Grandel. The marriage soon fell victim to the purges, and Gertrude was asked to leave the country. Undaunted, Tsfasman continued as before to pack his band's repertoire with American hit tunes like "Some of These Days" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."...

A saxophonist with the group judged Tsfasman "unquestionably one of the best dressed men in the Soviet Union. Short and of trim build, Tsfasman had a vast wardrobe of custom-tailored suits in bright colors, especially blues, greens, and maroons. In the summertime he favored whites and light tans, all quite extraordinary in Stalin's Russia...

Tsfasman's meticulous concern for style, musical as well as personal, also shielded him from the persistent charge that jazz was vulgar. In the very years when Soviet citizens were being told that the worst sin was to be "uncultured" (nekulturnyi) and when claims concerning the proletarian and earthy nature of jazz still lingered, Tsfasman archly turned his back on the entire debate and continued to play as he liked.

—Starr, Red & Hot, pp. 134ff.
The men celebrated in Starr's book are some of the forgotten heroes of that era; it's good to remember that the human spirit survived and celebrated itself in that horrible purge year of 1937.

A group that came along too late to get more than a passing mention in Starr was the Ganelin Trio; you can read a nice appreciation of them here ("What we have in the Ganelin Trio is not a free jazz hybrid: it is highly structured, new music. ... It is played with intensity and gravity, which is not necessarily what makes it different, though its humour and teetering-on-the-edge quality might"). I don't know how easy their classic records are to come by, but I highly recommend them, particularly 1979's Catalogue: Live in East Germany and 1980's Ancora Da Capo. There's really nothing else like them.

And now, let's sing along with Varlamov's "Blue Moon":

Луна, плыви в ночном просторе,
Лучи купая в море,
Жемчужная Луна…
Луна, твой свет дрожит в тумане.
Он вдаль лучами манит,
Твой бледный свет, Луна…
posted by languagehat at 12:28 PM on June 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

posted by dawson at 12:30 PM on June 9, 2008

There are a few more good ones by the same uploaders, like the amazing guitar swing of Minh, Utyosov's sweet "Fall in Love with Me", and Skomorovsky's "Dinah".
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:31 PM on June 9, 2008

On preview: thanks languagehat!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:33 PM on June 9, 2008

Excellent post and even better comment by languagehat.
posted by three blind mice at 2:20 PM on June 9, 2008

I'm not sure how widespread this practice was, but some Soviet jazz fans purchased roentgenizdat - bootleg recordings on pressed x-ray films - in order to get the music they wanted.
posted by suckerpunch at 5:01 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wikipedia appears to have nothing on Soviet jazz aside from a brief article on Slava Ganelin, which makes the ridiculous claim that he was "one of the jazz pioneers in the Soviet Union." Somebody should do something about that.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on June 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anyone have any links to downloads of these? The "Soviet Funk" piece was fantastic, as was the Nikolai Minh Orchestra - Together one.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:47 PM on June 9, 2008

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