All That Soviet Jazz

Shadrin.netAlexander Kan writes about the little-known, avant-garde jazz scene in the U.S.S.R. in his new book "Until Jazz Began."
Its title, "Until Jazz Began," is a well-known line from a 1980s song by the rock band Akvarium. The book's cover photograph shows the band's lead singer, Boris Grebenshchikov, standing alongside the late jazz and rock musician Sergei Kuryokhin.

It's rather misleading, as this new book by Alexander Kan doesn't focus on the rock scene, but the Soviet underground avant-garde jazz scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Still, the reference to the early Soviet rock scene is not accidental: As the music critic Artemy Troitsky puts it in his cover note, Kan "was the man who connected Leningrad jazzmen and rock musicians." And, as the book demonstrates, the underground rock and jazz scenes in Leningrad of the late-Soviet times often crossed, and Grebenshchikov, for instance, took part in many of Kuryokhin's avant-garde musical experiments.

Kan is a jazz critic who organizes many jazz-related events. While the book is primarily about jazz, it contains some semi autobiographical details. Starting with a description of the evolution of Kan's own musical taste and interests, from his childhood in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson to his university years in Tula, southeast of Moscow, the writer gradually transports the reader to late-1970s Leningrad, which at that time was one of the centers of underground art in the Soviet Union.

At this point, Kan mainly steps out of the picture, focusing on a description of the Leningrad avant-garde jazz scene, using the story of the Contemporary Music Club, co-founded by the author, as the main plot line.


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While a lot has been written about Leningrad's rock-music scene, which some observers believe played a role in the perestroika reforms, the mainstream press has paid little attention to the city's jazz scene. This despite the fact that it achieved considerable international exposure a few years after the events described in the book. Kan's work, the idea of which he says dates back some 20 years, largely fills this gap.

He gives us an insider's view of the difficult, semi-underground existence of the Contemporary Music Club at a time when avant-garde jazz was not overtly banned but had no official recognition, either. In addition to a firsthand account of events on the Leningrad jazz scene, the writer devotes separate chapters to the scene's most outstanding artists, such as the Ganelin trio, the Gaivoronsky-Volkov duo and Kuryokhin.

Especially interesting are his accounts of the scene's operation and people's daily life under KGB surveillance. Kan describes being cornered by two KGB men for reading "anti-Soviet" literature. Looking for a solution, the author called the KGB's "curator" of the underground music scene, telling him, "I'm a member of a [musical] club, and everyone knows that all of us read literature of this kind. Why are they cracking down on me?" Surprisingly, the "curator" solved the problem and Kan was no longer hassled by the KGB.

There are also interesting tales of semi-official jazz concerts, a jam session with musicians from the German Democratic Republic that coincided with the death of Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev in November, 1982, and the first contacts between the Soviet and Western avant-garde jazz scenes.

The author ends the book around 1983, just a few years before the beginning of Gorbachev's reforms and the opening up of the country, which brought much more fame and international exposure to the jazz scene. "The narration ends as a new epoch approaches," he writes, adding that a book about the new epoch still has to be written.

Vladimir Kozlov is a Moscow-based journalist, novelist and filmmaker.