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Red Hot With a Blue Note

Russia's answer to Count Basie celebrates 70 years of performing music that the Soviet Union couldn't repress: Amerikansky dzhazz.

March 03, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Nikita Khrushchev's eloquent 1950s critique of jazz pretty much summed up the status of that "bourgeois" music in the Soviet Union: He remarked that listening to it gave him gas.

The early Russian jazz scene is most memorably explained by the night in 1941 when Eddie Rosner, known for his take-no-prisoners version of "St. Louis Blues" and for being able to play two trumpets at the same time, was called on to perform for Josef Stalin in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. For two hours, the band swung and grooved and played its heart out, and when it was over, the house lights went up on an empty theater.

Had he heard? Was he pleased? Did Stalin have a boogie soul? A phone call came from the Kremlin the next morning: The Soviet leader had enjoyed the performance. Rosner was able to play for five more years before being banished, with a good number of other artists -- especially artists who played counterrevolutionary Amerikansky dzhazz -- to a Soviet penal camp.

Then during the years after World War II, when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were jamming a new path to bebop in smoky, after-hours New York, saxophones were confiscated in some quarters of Moscow and songs like "Take the A Train" were scratched off concert playlists by the Ministry of Culture.

Even 20 years later, when Moscow's first jazz clubs had opened, Benny Goodman had toured five Soviet cities and the jazz festival scene in Estonia was thriving, there was a parable familiar to every Soviet citizen: "Today he's playing jazz. And tomorrow, he will sell the Motherland."

Against this backdrop stands the Russian State Chamber Orchestra of Jazz Music, popularly known as the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra. Thanks to Lundstrem, an 87-year-old pianist, bandleader, composer and all-around jazzman, the orchestra can make a claim to being the oldest jazz band in the world.

Lundstrem is Russia's answer to Count Basie.

Basie has passed away and only his name presides over his band today, but Lundstrem is still on the scene, overseeing the artistic direction of his orchestra, and still, when his health is good enough that he can drive in from his dacha north of Moscow, tipping his baton.

Before a sold-out house of 1,900 at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on Feb. 2, Lundstrem celebrated receiving one of Russia's most prestigious artistic recognitions, the Triumph Prize, and led the band in the first of a series of 70-year anniversary performances with a swinging rendition of Duke Ellington's decidedly Amerikansky "Old Circus Train Turn-Around Blues."

Lundstrem has never felt the need to apologize for his embrace of an American art form. Clad during his increasingly rare performances in an elegant tuxedo, with a shock of white hair and a debonair mustache, Lundstrem has an easy banter with audiences and, one suspects, would have been as comfortable in the Waldorf-Astoria as the sprawling old Rossia Hotel.

"Americans recognize three musicians as great American musicians: Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Stan Kenton. And I think they're absolutely right," Lundstrem said recently. "Those three made me one of the biggest bands in the world. I've always been aware of the fact that jazz was born in the United States."

The Soviet Politburo also was aware. But even though jazz took its share of hits during the 1930s and 1940s -- the Soviet cultural revolutionaries went so far as to ban American jazz standards and other compositions built on flatted fifths and "blue notes," characteristic of the genre -- it has always been irrepressible. Soviet army officers smuggled in records from West Berlin, and the Russian public took to the music enthusiastically.

Soviet jazz bands played to packed houses through the late 1950s, '60s and '70s, and Leningrad and Arkhangelsk, in the far north, became important intellectual centers of improvisational jazz. The music of Rosner, Alexander Tsfasman and Leonid Utesov still have devoted followings among the old babushka set, and today, Russian jazz musicians such as Igor Butman, Alexei Kozlov and Oleg Kireyev have international reputations and a domestic following large enough to pack Moscow nightclubs Le Club and the old Bluebird.

One night last month, people were turned away at the door for a standing-room-only tribute to Rosner at the Central House of Artists.

"I still have all the records recorded by our Soviet jazzmen, even though the Soviet leaders were saying things like jazz being the music of the fat people," Vladimir Tsoglin, a 79-year-old retired architect, said after the show.

"We recognized this as total stupidity. The literate people who love music -- and we have to say people do love music in this country, all sorts -- they loved jazz too.... Jazz is a joyful music."

Modern-day jazz fans often see Lundstrem as a dinosaur of the Soviet era whose easy-listening arrangements survived because they were less threatening -- and less interesting -- than the late Soviet era's jazz avant-garde.

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