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Piter Jazz: The Final Russian Adventure (for now…)

May 27, 2013

ImageAccording to the television monitor mounted into the seatback in front of me, I am writing this at 31,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and am still 2,487 miles from my destination.  Strange to think that two weeks ago I was flying this exact path with little to no idea of what lay ahead of me.

Yesterday was my final day of jazz in Russia, at least for the time being.  And it was an incredible day.  The day began in an un-jazzy fashion, but worth mentioning nevertheless.  A couple of my fellow Fellows accompanied by the always charming Anna (and her equally charming mother) went to see the production of ANTIBODIES at the Baltic House Theatre.  This production concerned the murder of an antifascist youth by a group of fascists and was as perplexing as it was compelling.  They used video in remarkable ways to create (or should I say re-create) the story from the perspective of the murdered boy’s mother and girlfriend, the murderer’s mother and friend, and a security guard and other people who played a role in the story.  The piece was written by a journalist and the whole team used theatre to make the story very present and


extremely poignant.  Our post show discussion was preempted by a deluge of rain and a sprint back to the Metro stop that looks like a UFO.  According to Daniel, one of my fellow Fellows, it is proof that aliens are responsible for Metro technology—and I can say that the efficiency and cleanliness of the Piter Metro belies a blessing from another planet.

After the show, I rendezvoused with Makbal for the coda to this adventure…a visit to the main hall of the Jazz Philharmonic (JPH) and a chance to see the Leningrad Dixieland Band on their home turf.  The three hour long performance delving into the heart of Russian Dixieland was an experience not to be missed.  The musicians were wonderful, playing tunes with both Russian and English lyrics, and wailing away on horns, clarinet, banjo, bass, drums, and piano; but the real surprise was the audience.  Again I found myself in a mixture of twenty-somethings out to dance and the older set in their fur-draped finery.  The Imageatmosphere Goloshchokin has created at the JPH is timeless and transports the audience into another time and place.  We sipped tea and snacked on pastry, all the while being entertained by the oldest band in Russia.  Founded in 1957, some of the members of the current lineup have been with the band since ’64.  These are musicians with a sense of history, not just of the music, but also of Russia and the ebbs and flows of the jazz scene.

As we exited the JPH around 10:00 p.m. the sun was shining and it wasn’t raining.  Ok, you may be saying, so what?!  Well, Makbal and I took it as a sign…a sign to go and find the trees that Gennady Golstein and others had planted in honor of American and Russian jazz musicians.  We took the Metro to an island in the Neva River and then began our walk…not a short walk…to a bridge that would take us to another island.  It was about 11:00 p.m. and Imagethe sunset was spectacular.  As we stepped onto the other island, we passed the old actor’s home (founded by a wealthy actress as a retirement center for aging actors), and proceeded to where Google and indicated the trees might be.  As we approached the guards at a gate protecting a dance club (it’s all we could surmise from the throbbing dance beats), no one knew what the heck we were talking about.  “Jazz trees?”  You could see the puzzlement cross their faces.  Defeated, we turned back and began walking back toward the old actor’s home.

ImageThe clock was ticking…it was 11:20 and the last Metro left at midnight.  A taxi couldn’t get us home because at 12:30 or 1 a.m. the bridges of the city are raised and we would be trapped on the island.  I would miss my plane!

True adventurers Makbal and I pressed on.  She remembered something Gennady mentioned earlier about the old actor’s home.  We swiftly walked past the home (away from the bridge!) and I began to see small signs underneath trees.  Could this be it?  A house party was happening inside the wrought-iron fence and Makbal and I stepped into the yard.  “Are these the jazz trees?”  Makbal inquired in Russian.  The men mumbled various non-committal denials, but we decided to check it out anyway, pushing on into their yard.  I must admit, it felt dangerous…darkness was encroaching and we were clearly trespassing on land with a big group of intoxicated locals and packs of wild dogs running in the street (I’m not kidding about this, they chased and attacked cyclists).

As I approached the first sign, it was in Cyrillic.  ImageWhat was it?  And then…a trombone etched into the metal.  I sound out the Cyrillic:  To-mee Dor-see.  TOMMY DORSEY!


We had found the Valley of Jazz.  A place where the Russian jazz great paid homage the all the great jazzmen of the world.  I whoop with glee and run from sign to sign, flashes as I take photos.  Suddenly a woman who was at the party Stella approaches Makbal and tells her that she will show us the real forest of jazz.  We journey back into the woods and there are literally dozens of signs.  Dozens of trees.  A forest in which the music lives in the earth, in the breeze.  As Stella showed us around, I had tears in my eyes.  This was the ground in which both of our traditions had literally taken root, and now here I stood at this nexus…




I take as many pictures as I can.  Oh crap!  The Metro!  We bid a hasty “Do-zvidanya” and “Spasiba-bolshoi” (apologies in advance to Russians for my American spelling of these words) and begin to trot back toward the Metro.  Could we catch a bus?  A cab?  No.  Nothing.

Makbal is nervous.  I can tell.  I am nervous.  I’m sure she can tell.  So we do what my mother always told me not to do…took a dark path through the woods where a bunch of cars were parked alongside the road with their hazards on.  What’s the worst that could happen?

Luck.  Luck happened. The path brought us out on the road where the Metro stop was located.  We made it to the Metro by 11:50…the nick of time.  As we sat on the Metro, smiles on our faces, we knew that we had earned our ending.  The journey was complete.  From Day One to Day Fourteen I had been immersed in jazz.  On nights when I was tempted to go out with my fellow Fellows, Makbal would remind me:  You are here for jazz.  And so I was.

We said good-bye on the train.  A quick hug and Makbal told me to “be a good boy.”  I said that I’d try.  My eyes were tearing up and as I stepped outside the Metro car I turned to wave good-bye.  Makbal smiled and I knew that my Virgil, my Beatrice, had released me.  Now I would have to find the jazz myself, inside myself.

And so I will….

There will be more blog posts as I continue to digest the copius CDs and books that I am bringing home, but this is the end of my adventure.  I am so grateful to the Likhachev Foundation, to Lena, and Makbal, and everyone involved for their generosity.  I am returning to the U.S. a changed human being, with a deeper understanding not just of Russia and jazz, but of my own country and myself.

My joy is in getting to know Russia through the people and music there.  I am thrilled to have met so many friends.  I hope to honor them all with the work ahead.

The End.


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