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mike zwerin


PARIS, 8 February 2001 - This is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book called LAST DECADE IN PARIS. It is about an American writer who is stuck in Paris - I know I know, there are worse places to be stuck - during the last decade of the 20th century. I also know that it was rumored that all the romance was supposed to have been gone from Paris by then, but that's not true.

Paris was the European capital of jazz, and the world capital of African music in particular and world music in general. During that time, I had a weekly column in the International Herald Tribune covering every kind of music except serious music. The projected book will be about my subjects and me and how we related.

I traveled a lot. One nice thing about Paris is that you cannot separate life in it from traveling in and out of it. Similarly, the 1990s did not cut conveniently off from neighboring portions of recorded time. For our purposes, the Last Decade In Paris is deemed to have begun in 1988 in Siberia...

Mike Zwerin

Chapter One, Part One

Call It A Siberian Symposium, But It's Really A Glasnost Gig

AKADEMGORODOK, U.S.S.R. - Early in the year 1988, a letter arrived from a mad Russian of my acquaintance informing me that his plans for a Tashkent jazz festival were now "misty." He said: "The date moves maybe to next year, or even another city. Like in that known joke - everything is accurately right except not he but she, not wins but loses, not money but husband. I will send you detailed message to persuade Herald and his Tribune to send you to criticize the swinging camels who are jazzin' up our perestroika."

That looked like that for awhile. Until an invitation arrived by telegram from a genial Siberian. So it turned out to be not Tashkent but Novosibirsk, and not a festival but a "symposium" in the birthplace of perestroika.

The Second Symposium of New Jazz Music, "Gold Valley 88," was held from May 11 to 15 in a think tank in a forest named Akademgorodok (Academy Town), a self-contained complex of medium-rise buildings in a birch forest in the exurbs of Novosibirsk, the virtual capital of Siberia. Academy Town's population of 100,000 consisted of the academic community and those who provide services for it. It had been founded 30 years earlier by scientists with pioneering spirits who first saw this dip in the plain in the autumn when the trees are a riot of color and named it "Gold Valley."

Professor Abel Aganbegyan, founder of the Siberian Institute of Economics in Novosibirsk has been advocating economic reform since the 1960s. He was also a leading opponent of the plan to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers. The plan was canceled by Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought Aganbegyan to Moscow to serve as a high-level adviser. Tatiana Zaslavskaya, Aganbegyan's student and successor as the institute's director, wrote a paper in 1983 calling for more market forces and less planning in the Soviet economy. She, too, was now a senior Gorbachev aid in Moscow. Residents compared Akademgorodok to Cambridge, Massachussetts.

Although there were by then about 30 full-time jazz musicians in the Soviet Union, something of a stigma was still attached to their music and the freedom for which it was a metaphor. In other words, it was not totally clear if the festival was legal or not. The organizer, Sergei Belichenko, covered his tracks with a serious letterhead. This was a "symposium" not a festival. The organizing committee was "The Center of Studies on Folklore Activity and Cultural Public Education." These people were not involved with the threatening revolutionary music that neither Hitler nor Stalin liked. They were just cultured folks, you see, who wanted to educate people about folklore. No threat to anyone.

A 1978 interview with Belichenko, who was a gynecologist and a drummer, was reprinted in the book "Russian Jazz, New Identity" (Quartet). He said: "I think that avant-garde jazz is one of the most significant artistic phenomena of the century. I do not accept that it should be called 'black music' - the music is above all such ethnic criteria." Not only was that over-simplified, it was a dangerous thing to say. It wasn't even quite true at the time. Hell, there are a lot of important people who don't think it's even quite true now.

Daytime seminars dealt with such topics as "The Aesthetics of New Jazz." Blues and 4/4 time were rare at the evening concerts. Except for Conrad Bauer, an East German trombonist, the participants were all Soviets - maybe half from Siberia and others from as far away as Lithuania. It was staged in Science House, a modern and well-maintained office building and cultural center in the middle of the town with a modern 1,000-seat auditorium and an artificial forest in an atrium.

The group Arkhangelsk from the northern city of the same name unfurled a banner with the word "glasnost" in Russian but without vowels in it while they performed some of their aggressive and uncompromisingly abstract collective improvisation. Since in Russian "glasnost" can be defined as "vowel" as well as "openness," vowel without vowels implies openness without freedom. Keyboardist, Vladimir Turov, explained: "Theoretically we have always had freedom of speech, even under Stalin. We wanted to remind people that you have to work for freedom. We had doubts about the banner, and there were long discussions before the concert, but jazz is a cry for freedom and we wanted to express something of our history through our performance."

Mikhail Alperin, a Jewish pianist from what was then Moldavia, played a solo set utilizing his ethnic roots mixed with elements of ragtime, Bartok, snatches of "Caravan" and Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare." There were bands from Tomsk, Omsk, Kemerovo, Volgograd, Talinn, Moscow and Leningrad. Sometimes intentions were better than execution, but quality was not the point. These people did not get together very often, certainly not in Novosibirsk - the first symposium had been 10 years earlier and that was mainly Pierre Boulez and musique contemporaine. Just being here was the point.

Belichenko arranged an after-midnight party for a dozen of us in a sauna on an army base about a half-hour drive from Science House. There was black bread, sausage, cheese and spit-roasted chickens. A jug labeled Benzina containing a rose-colored liquid was passed around. "Moldavian moonshine," it was explained. As the last of it was poured, somebody asked if there were any more. The happy reply was: "Oceans."

Since the Gorbachev campaign to diminish alcoholism in the Soviet Union, you did not buy booze here. You scored it. People walked around with bottles of Moldavian Moonshine in their briefcases. The conversation grew more animated, the laughter more hysterical.

Then came the jokes. "What's the difference between the Soviet Union before and after Gorbachev?" "Before, if you were standing on the street with a bottle of vodka and a foreign newspaper and a policeman appeared, you would hide the newspaper and drink. Now you hide the bottle and read."

Within the context of the mounting conviviality I assumed the irony would be obvious when I proposed a toast: "To the Evil Empire." A certain pall descended on the hairy, towel-wrapped gathering and a critic from Leningrad responded: "I hope this won't shock you, but I think Reagan was right. It was an evil empire. Rarely has a government been so far from its own people as we were under Brezhnev."

"Were?" exclaimed a cynic.

Whatever new openings there may have been in the intellectual life, the physical remained as grungy as ever. Akademgorodok was a privileged place, for an elite. A Westerner accustomed to cold climes warmed by good technology and plenty of food would have felt only marginally uncomfortable there. But reality hit hard one afternoon when a group of us drove the 35 kilometers (20 miles) to Novosibirsk proper, or improper, which had a population close to two million.

Pointing to the lines of people outside the stores, someone said: "You do not go shopping in Novosibirsk, you go hunting." The atmosphere reeked of diesel oil. A restaurant we eventually chose to go to - actually, it was the only one open, there was really no choice - was a realization of your worst Socialist nightmares featuring filth, lack of proportion, nasty service, boredom and terminal hopelessness. Platters of cold meat awaiting us on an unwashed tablecloth looked as though they had been there for days. The lack of style and civilized smiles brought out resentment against the great, pure and unrelenting stylelessness of Soviet life on the part of the Russians in our party. A trombone player said that Soviet-manufactured trombones were only good for fishing poles, a film-maker bragged that Soviet cameras were great for hammering nails.

On the other hand, "Siberia" (in English) was the name of a private cooperative Alyosha Krestianov had just incorporated on March 22. Private cooperatives were a central element in the Gorbachev economic restructuring program. A hairdresser by trade, Krestianov was Belichenko's assistant festival producer, and the day after it was officially over, he served a sumptuous lunch in his apartment. "Siberia"'s logo is "Beauty and Health for Women." Partners include professional beauty care experts who offer what Krestianov described as "any service a woman needs to ease her nonprofessional life" - massage, acupuncture, computerized medical diagnosis, and beauty care and products.

The English name was chosen with an eye toward eventual exports of perfumes and creams and miscellaneous balms. One marketing plan was to provide shopping services. Making a short speech, Krestianov said deals are being negotiated with stores so that the cooperative will buy clients' groceries while they are being treated in Siberia's shop (which did not as yet exist).

"Nyet, nyet," said Belichenko, who was short-tempered from post-festival tension and massive doses of Moldavian Moonshine. "So far this cooperative does nothing but spend money."

"You are not fully informed," Krestianov replied. "You've been too busy with your festival. We have made great progress these past few weeks. I have no job now," he continued. "I do not work for someone else. I have no boss. I work for myself. I work harder than ever, 20 hours a day. I know how to work. I don't like leveling, where somebody doing the same job good or bad gets the same pay. I think better quality should be rewarded. That's perestroika. I am perestroika."

He said he had been the only man in his class at the hairdressing school in Omsk. The rest were all women: "I've always been different. Since childhood, I was fired from four jobs. Only now with perestroika, people like me with minds of their own are needed. Now the people who fired me are begging me to come back. Last week the regional director of service industries asked me to be an adviser. He promised me a mountain of gold. I have so many ideas, there are so many possibilities. The train from Moscow takes two and a half days. On this train we will install our own salon. The women can use our services and save time."

"Lies, lies," Belichenko insisted. "There's nothing, nothing. Only debts."

"We have calculated everything," said Krestianov. "The person who replaced Dr. Zaslavsky as director of the Institute of Economics is our adviser. That person has also invested in our cooperative. Our bankers are very sympathetic. Our computer consultant verifies that we can make a profit."

"Stop!" Belichenko bellowed. "These are dreams, only dreams."

"But your jazz festival was once only a dream," Krestianov said. "Today's dream is tomorrow's reality."


Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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