Jazz is alive and well in the Soviet Union. This may not strike everyone as an earth-shattering statement. But many people are not aware of the popularity of jazz in the USSR and its long history in that country.
I have just completed my second visit to Moscow and Leningrad, staying a week and playing concerts with my quartet. My initial encounter with the Russian jazz scene was as part of a celebration of the Fourth of July last year. On that occasion, Chick Corea and I were asked to play at the invitation of the US ambassador, Arthur Hartman, and Mrs. Hartman.
Arranging performances in the Soviet Union is awkward at the best of times, but since the ending of a joint cultural agreement at the end of the 70's, it had been virtually impossible. Thanks to Ambassador Hartman's commitment to the arts and the ingenuity of his staff, American artists are once again performing in the USSR.
In spite of several Soviet attempts to get rid of jazz over the years (the saxophone was even banned for a time), it persisted and developed. Today it has a level of acceptance that should guarantee its survival.
My own opinion is that Russian audiences feel an attraction to basic elements of jazz - freedom, spontaneity, excitement - similar to the attraction felt by American audiences and those in Europe as well. No amount of official opposition has been able to kill it. And I'm not talking about simply a fascination with things from the West but a real, instinctive love of the basic nature of the music.
A major step forward was achieved by the jazz community over a decade ago when the official musical arbiters, the Union of Soviet Composers, recognized jazz as an acceptable form of music. (One is tempted to say, ''That was big of them!'') However, the union has since worked diligently to further the acceptance of jazz in the Soviet cultural world, and it plays host to workshops and concerts for the local musicians when foreign performers come to Moscow.
This year, during my second visit to the Union of Composers Hall, I was welcomed back with almost amazing warmth and enthusiasm. One classical composer was so swept up in the occasion that he insisted on giving me his wristwatch as a gift, and then ran home to get some of his recordings for me to take back to America.
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