Nearly everyone who visits Moscow comes away complaining about the grayness, the gloomy, melancholy mood that envelops the city like a fine mist--even on a sunny day. It has to do with the sullen mood of the Muscovites, I suppose, and the austere buildings that surround Red Square (yes, especially Red Square) and others that face the river.
It is indeed a cheerless city and it is for this reason, I suspect, that few Americans are driven by any desire to return. Moscow is not like Paris or London or Vienna where, even on a damp day, it is a joy merely to be alive, exploring unfamiliar streets with their marvelous little sidewalk cafes and pubs and coffeehouses.
Moscow is different, harsh, severe.
Still, reminiscing about Moscow the other day, a warm memory came out of nowhere, the recollection of an evening years ago that I spent with a group of Russians, listening to jazz in a cafe on Gorky Street.
The group of journalists I was with had gone to a performance of the Moscow Circus and I had stolen off alone to explore the city. On Gorky Street, not far from the shadows of Red Square, I chanced by a cafe that was crowded wall-to-wall with couples who were sipping coffee (the hard stuff, too), heads bobbing with the happy beat of music that flowed across the room like warm air on a bitter cold evening. This was going to be a night to remember.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: Earlier I'd checked into the old National Hotel where I had a window facing toward Red Square. This was my first trip to Russia and I was young and a trifle naive and it was like getting involved in a James Bond thriller. At night the red stars winked back from the Kremlin towers, and I could almost hear the clatter of soldiers' boots at the changing of the guard beside Lenin's tomb.
Outside the hotel one day, a lad of 16 asked me if I'd sell him my shirt with the button-down collar. I told him it wasn't for sale, but after this I could always say that I gave a Russian the shirt off my back . . . because I did.
During the next several days I explored Red Square and attended the Bolshoi; I visited the Kremlin and listened to the Red Army Chorus in the then-new Palace of Congresses, and I rode the Moscow Metro and marveled at the impressive stations with their chandeliers and marble facing.
Still, the austerity of the city got to me, and so I took off in search of another face of Moscow, which is when I found the cafe on Gorky Street and discovered all that jazz, as well as a handful of friendly souls.
Small Groups Keep Time
Dozens of couples, from teen-agers to young adults, huddled together in small groups, sipping coffee and wine, keeping time with the hot licks of the jazz. Through the doorway the bluesy moan of a trumpet floated out into the moonless Russian night, drifting off toward Red Square a mere mile away.
It could have been Bourbon Street instead of Gorky Street, a bistro in New Orleans rather than a cave in Moscow. The kids talked jazz, not politics. They revered cats like Miles Davis and the late Stan Kenton.
The place was known simply as the Youth Cafe, a bright spot on a quiet, after-dark boulevard . . . and only a sigh from the Kremlin itself. Inside, the place rocked. Outside, customers waited in line for a table to empty. I stood for nearly an hour. Whenever somebody left, someone entered. Finally my turn came.
As I strolled inside, the trumpet man was off on a solo, the foot-stomping kind. He was stubby, with red hair his face totally expressionless.
"Does anybody speak English?" I asked a waiter.
Table Near the Action
He led me to a table up near the jazz combo. A dark-haired Russian named Aleg rose and introduced himself.
"Please sit down," he said politely.
"That trumpet man," I said. "He's good."
Aleg smiled. "He keeps that trumpet with him wherever he goes. Even when he goes to the restroom or for coffee."
As it turned out, the trumpet player was the only professional. Everyone else was an amateur. The drummer was a physicist. So was the piano player, but let me tell you, he was good, pounding out progressive jazz like Stan Kenton used to. Only, s'help me, he looked more like a choir director out of Duluth. Or Des Moines, maybe.
"Who's the sax player?" I asked Aleg.
"His name is Vladimir. He's a student."
"And the bass player?"
"A building engineer--Yuri. He plays well, don't you think?"
Not on Official Tour
A hundred or so jazz buffs seated at small tables stirred their coffee in time with the music. This seldom-seen portrait of Moscow wasn't on the Intourist itinerary, although it should have been. It proved that some Soviets have their lighter side. More important, these cats were blowing pure, unadulterated American jazz.
Aleg said with a touch of pride, "Benny Goodman's band was here once. Not to play, just to listen."
"Who's your favorite musician?" I asked.
"I don't know, Teddy Wilson, maybe."