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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
Belichenko insisted. "There's nothing, nothing. Only debts."
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."
bellowed. "These are dreams, only dreams."
your jazz festival was once only a dream," Krestianov said. "Today's
dream is tomorrow's reality."