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mike zwerin


PARIS, 2 March 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 Two

Siberia: The Intrigue Factor

AKADEMGORODOK, U.S.S.R. - When Pat Metheny toured the Soviet Union in 1987, he said he went where he liked and saw and talked to who he wanted. He was "almost disappointed with the absence of the 'intrigue factor.'"

One year later, arriving in Moscow international airport with a journalist's visa and carrying a trombone case the size of a small coffin, I felt like a walking intrigue factor. It turned out, however, that, despite being registered with no tourist group and speaking no Russian, I was as ignored as anybody arriving in an airport in any foreign country with nobody to meet them. It was, as Metheny said, almost disappointing.

In fact I could have used an intriguer to help me deal with the hard horde of taxi drivers trying to hustle $40 for the drive to Vnukovo airport, where I had a flight to Novosibirsk for a "Symposium of New Jazz Music" a/k/a the Second Siberian Jazz Festival.

Around midnight, Vnukovo's small canteen was empty except for Alluring Alissa, Mel, me and a stewardess or two. I knew it was Mel because he had a T-shirt with "MEL" on it. A member of a church choir traveling around singing for peace. Mel was on his way from Seattle to catch up with his choir in Volgograd. His church had a long name I did not recognize and from what he told me it was a bit bizarre. He did not believe in an after-life of Heaven and Hell, which their doctrine holds is what we are living in right here and now. And it is up to us right here and now to decide which we prefer. If you understand what that means, please tell me. Even at birth, perestroika attracted oddballs.

Alluring Alissa was gracefully gliding and dancing with her Walkman in the corners and the corridor, smiling as though Heaven was indeed here and now. She resembled Julie Christie, only, you know, not really, and she was listening to Ahmad Jamal. If you think that's strange, you should know that she was on her way to Lvov to visit her parents, she is Russian, lives in Brasilia and her Brazilian husband was in Beirut. She spoke Arabic but not Portuguese. I think that's what she said. It doesn't quite read right, does it? At the very least, it was confusing. Then, in line to board my flight, I watched Alluring Alissa engage Mel in close eye-contact conversation. The "intrigue factor" suddenly loomed large.

We flew east over four time zones and landed in Novosibirsk at 8 A.M. local time. I was greeted by Sergei Belichenko; gynecologist, drummer, promoter and genial host, otherwise known as the Siberian Norman Granz. "I dream someday of forming a Siberian Jazz Association," he had told the Polish magazine Jazz Forum some months earlier. "And then maybe an Asian Association." Tomorrow the world.

If you think he was under delusions of grandeur, bear in mind that here he was responsible for bringing 200 musicians, critics and miscellaneous experts and KGB operatives from as far away as Paris and East Berlin to Akademgorodok, this scientific think tank in the exurbs of Novosibirsk, the so-called "capital of Siberia," for a five-day jazz festival. An Armenian reedman of my acquaintance described this caper, in English, as "mind-blowing."

Working within the parameters of perestroika, Belichenko picked up a newly "private" sponsor, Vega, a "State" manufacturer of sound reproduction equipment, which displayed its wares in the lobby of Akademgorodok's modern concert hall. One of their models featured twin cassette decks. Having been told that you have to get a key from a party official to make a photocopy, I asked a dumb question: "How come you can copy spoken words but not printed words?" Belichenko's jaw dropped. "I never thought of that," he said. A colorful painting of a friendly bear on a banner hung over the stage, along with the slogan (also in English): "Peace, Love and Jazz Supreme."

Orchestrion, a trio from Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) played in front of a slide projection of a man proudly displaying a portrait of Stalin tattooed on his chest. They played with something close to desperation. I was told that Volgograd is a "militaristic" and "patriotic" city, still clinging to the glory of the World War II victory. The Orchestrion players are not exactly hometown heroes. The music was far from pretty.

What they called New Jazz in the Soviet Union was comparable to American Free Jazz. Explosive music with minimum rules in which emotion and symbolism take precedence over technique and tradition. Like Free Jazz with black power in the '60s. New Jazz could not be separated from politics. Its audience was small but enthusiastic and intellectual. In addition to socio-cultural relevance, Soviet avant-garde jazz was closely linked to the plastic arts, like '60s New York jazz was linked with Abstract Impressionism.

Vladimir Tarasov, a Lithuanian, the best known (and probably best) percussionist in the country, was also known for his collection of contemporary Soviet painting. It had been recently on public display at a gallery in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. He wrote art, as well as jazz, criticism. The following Sunday he would perform a solo percussion piece at the Kunstmuseum in Bern as part of an exhibition called "Moscow Artists of the '80s." Tarasov works more in New York than Siberia.

He had recently toured the Soviet Union with the African-American percussionist Andrew Cyrille (known for his collaborations with Cecil Taylor). He lived in a large wooden house on two hectares of forest land 70 kilometers from Vilnius. He owned two boats and a car. His solo performance in Akademgorodok began with a tape playing militant Socialist songs from the '30s. Then he switched on a rhythm box programmed to parody military marches. Joining in on his drum kit, Tarasov moved from melodic to rhythmic accents and back again, weaving in and out of the revolutionary songs with an irony that provoked laughter from the enthralled audience. It was an aural equivalent of the Stalin tattoo.

On the festival's opening night, he had played in duo with the saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin, who also lived in Vilnius (I arrived the next day and missed them). In a recent poll conducted by a youth magazine, Chekasin had been voted the most popular jazz musician in the Soviet Union. (He is still active, creative and popular.) He and Tarasov became known through their work with the Vyacheslav Ganelin trio. Before Ganelin, a keyboardist and composer, emigrated to Israel the previous year, the trio enjoyed the strongest international reputation of any Soviet jazz group. Ganelin described their style as "closer to contemporary chamber music than Free Jazz." The West German critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt called it the "wildest and yet best organized and most professional Free Jazz I've heard in years."

Chekasin's album "Is This Possible" (Melodya) was one of the more ambitious, eclectic and original jazz records of the decade. Closing the festival, he played the leading role in a ballet he helped conceive and direct. The Guardian called him the "Jacques Tati of jazz." A compact, volatile, enigmatic figure with brooding eyes, he moved his face and body like a mime, jerked like a robot on wires, posed as a dixieland clarinetist, raced through chords like Cannonball Adderley, imitated a breathy Coleman Hawkins and played two saxophones at the same time like Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

The critic Efim Barban, who now lived in London, wrote of Chekasin: "Reality sometimes appears in his music as a distorted caricature reflection of the fictitious, as a sham, so that what it excludes as fictitious becomes the true, authentic, reality."

On final Sunday, walking form the hotel to the auditorium, a companion and I joined the crowd of people reading tracts signed "Memory" posted outside the cinema. It was a bright, sunny spring day and these people did not seem in the least threatening. They were people who had not had much opportunity to decide what they thought about anything like this for themselves before. Now they were getting used to the process of learning how to make up their own minds.

"Memory" was an organization of xenophobic Russians who objected to the "Sovietization" of their Republic. Having come out of the closet on the coattails of glasnost, they complained that the Moscow metro is designed in the shape of the Star of David, and that Jews and Moslems are "polluting" the Russian race. The small crowd of people reading the reactionary and racist manifestos on the bulletin board were respectful, but more than a bit puzzled. As they walked away they entered into heated discussions. Is this how democracy is born?

Musically, the most reactionary event at the festival was my own set. I was in dire need of a straight-ahead 4/4 blues after listening to music without key signatures or barlines for four days. Belichenko had chosen a student of Chekasin's to play with me. The only blues line he knew was Charlie Parker's "Buzzy" so we played that. Judging from our rhythm section, which shall remain nameless, the blues are anything but alive and well in Siberia.

Taking the tune out - or, more accurately, being taken out by the lack of one - I remembered a mad Russian of my acquaintance who told me that jazz was invented in Odessa by Jelly Roll Menshikov.


Back to Chapter One, Part One of Last Decade in Paris: Call It A Siberian Symposium, But It's Really A Glasnost Gig

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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