Red Hot With a Blue Note

Times Staff Writer

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.

“The advocates of a more ‘serious’ jazz consider him a kind of a joke.... Since I developed an interest in jazz, sometime in the ‘70s, Lundstrem has remained unchanged: a static, almost motionless figure with a ludicrous conductor’s baton in his hand, presiding over the bland, tame, unadventurous orchestra -- an embodiment of everything alien to the innovative, improvising spirit of jazz,” said Alexander Kan, who for years organized a new-music festival in St. Petersburg and now hosts a world music program for the BBC.

“However, paradoxically, he is treated with respect. And I share that respect,” Kan added. “He has managed to live and preserve the orchestra and its dedication to jazz through the horrific Stalin years -- quite a heroic achievement in itself.”

The fact is that Lundstrem presided over what was considered for three decades the No. 1 jazz orchestra in the Soviet Union. With sophisticated, uniquely Russian arrangements of jazz standards and unusual jazz arrangements of Russian folk classics, “this orchestra was probably one of the most progressive big bands in Europe in the 1970s,” said Kyril Moshkov, managing editor of Moscow’s Web portal.

“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.

“The American musicians are more sort of energetic, more pushy, but they’ve got no heart to their music, whereas Russian musicians have a soul. And even now when Lundstrem is conducting, and he’s an elderly person now, it’s like a miracle. Because when they are playing, they play with their hearts.”

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.”