"Look at 'Rhapsody in Blue,' " Moscow jazz concert promoter Maya Kochubeyeva said of the George Gershwin composition. "I caught myself thinking it was much more pleasant for me to listen to when Lundstrem was conducting it as opposed to when ... an American was conducting.
For the last year, the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra has been conducted by Russian saxophonist and band leader Georgy Garanian. He is preparing the ensemble for a Count Basie retrospective in honor of the 100th anniversary of Basie's birth, and the Oleg Lundstrem band's 70th year, on March 23 at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall.
Garanian sees the band's closest musical equivalent as Duke Ellington, saying, "Oleg had his own style, but it was clearly noticeable as soon as you heard Oleg Lundstrem that he adored Duke Ellington."
In fact, it was Ellington who changed the course of Lundstrem's life and diverted him from his plan to be a railroad engineer, like his father, who had moved the family to the Manchurian city of Harbin to work on the Great Chinese Railroad.
Sitting in his small, rustic dacha one recent afternoon -- an old burgundy satin smoking jacket keeping off the winter chill, a biography of friend and idol Dmitri Shostakovich on his side table -- Lundstrem remembered going to the record store in Harbin one day in 1929 to pick up some new foxtrot tunes for a dance party.
He took one into the listening booth, and, as he tells it, "it was love at first sight." The record was Ellington's "Dear Old Southland."
"I was really staggered. And dumbfounded. I rushed out of the booth like a bullet out of a barrel.... We all gathered around the Victrola and put it on. And every single person had their jaw drop on the floor. My friends said, 'What is this?' It was 42 years between that moment and when Duke Ellington came to Russia."
Lundstrem, his brother Igor, a saxophonist, and several friends started up the jazz band in 1934, with Oleg as piano man and bandleader. Two years later they moved to Shanghai, signed on as the house band at the prestigious Paramount Ballroom and became the most popular swing band in that wartime city. After the war, they boarded a steamship bound for Russia, looking for a place to settle in their homeland.
S. Frederick Starr, in his book "Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union," says Lundstrem's band headed straight to the Metropol Restaurant in Moscow and put on a jazz show. This was 1948, in the heat of the postwar crackdown on all things American, especially jazz. A scandal ensued, Starr says, and the Lundstrem band was banished to Kazan, the capital of the republic of Tatarstan.
Lundstrem, who has made a successful career out of skirting difficult political debates, says the group went to Kazan of its own accord.
"We didn't try to convince anybody of anything. We just arrived," he said. "And we figured while they figure out whether this nation needs jazz music or not, we'll get an education. We decided there was no point in arguing with Maxim Gorky [who had declared that jazz was 'music for fat cats.'] We knew that life would sort things out."
Lundstrem began listening to old Tatar folk melodies and -- for the pure challenge and fun of it -- turning them into complex jazz arrangements. A Georgian lullaby he overheard in a restaurant became one of his most famous recordings, the haunting "In Georgian Mountains."
Lundstrem figured it was his duty as a musician to creatively process the sounds around him.
"I'm a great fan of the words of Mikhail Glinka, the first Russian composer whom Europe discovered. Glinka said that music is composed by the people, and we composers simply arrange the music. And I believe the greatest thing that all the nations have created is their folklore."
This was music even Stalin could love. And down in Kazan, who cared that Lundstrem was also spinning arrangements of Glenn Miller, Fletcher Henderson and Ellington?
Mainstream jazz was rehabilitated after Stalin's death in 1953, Khrushchev's gassy stomach notwithstanding. Shostakovich, then head of the composers' union, listened to Lundstrem's recordings and liked them.
"He said, 'There's no need to argue. This is a living example of what our own Russian jazz should sound like,' " Lundstrem recalled.
(Later, when Lundstrem visited Shostakovich's home, the composer's son began entertaining them with boogie-woogie blues on the piano. "That's your influence," Shostakovich said with a shake of his head. "But I'm not against it.")
The band was invited to Moscow and on Oct. 1, 1956, Lundstrem was designated director of the state jazz orchestra. The band eventually toured 300 Russian cities and dozens abroad, including Santa Barbara for its 1999 jazz festival.
Jazz, at least Lundstrem-style jazz, had become politically correct.
From the beginning, jazz scholar Alexey Batashev said, the Soviet system was of two minds about jazz. On the one hand, it was reprehensibly American. On the other, some suggested it was a good kind of American, because it had originated with African Americans.
"The American communists suggested the idea that jazz music had proletarian roots, and was revolutionary, and that it was possible to make a revolution in the U.S.A. where the Southern states would decide to join the U.S.S.R.," Batashev said. Black American artists such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes were welcomed in Russia, he said, because Soviet authorities believed they shared a natural kinship and could help spread the message of communism in the United States.
Lundstrem has his own philosophy, which he says he applies to his life as much as his music. "The Chinese say the movement forward is the movement toward eternity. The movement backward is the movement against eternity.
"Having realized that we're just a tiny particle of the overall universe, we should all preoccupy ourselves with only one thing: Move forward. Because should we move backward, eternity will smack us in the head so hard we will never regain consciousness."