Colorado Springs Gazette, 5-17-09
small, intimate venue, maybe thirty seats.
The Jazz Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg has a big hall for the stars
who come to town, but the Ellington Room is my
favorite spot. Quiet, cozy, and jam
sessions every Tuesday night.
amazing how popular jazz is here. Sure,
St Petersburg is a city of over a million people, so there’s bound to be some
fans, but I never thought of jazz as a Russian passion. Most of my friends, however, know where all
the good clubs are, and the Jazz Philharmonic Hall is a source of civic
all so fascinating because it’s a complete turnaround from Soviet policy. Jazz used to be dangerous for Russians to
listen to. It symbolized everything the
Soviets feared about America. Now all Russian
music schools offer jazz programs. Unbelievable.
embracing of jazz is, I think, part of Russia’s attempt to deal with its
past. There’s a wonderful film that
opened soon after I arrived here:
“Stilyagi”, roughly translated as “Stylish People”. It was a derisive term, used to describe a
counter-cultural, pro-American movement during the Khrushchev era. Stilyagi men wore zoot suits and slicked back
their hair. Stilyagi women wore fishnets
and piled their hair high.
loved jazz. They played
jazz, listened to jazz, and danced to jazz, all on illegal recordings made on
old X-rays that wouldn’t look like records if the authorities raided their
has a sweet story, musical numbers from Russia’s top musicians, and a big
finish that encourages Russia to celebrate some level of personal
diversity. You gotta give ‘em credit for trying.
about all this as I listen to the jam.
first few notes, it’s clear I’m not in the same league with these guys. Their playing is effortless. They improvise as easily as they breathe, and
they swing like nobody’s business. But I
don’t care. I’ve been talking to the
musicians for an hour or so. Being an
American who speaks Russian and knows a little about jazz has given me some
sort of cache’ here. I think I can pull
the pianist if I can join the jam. He
enthusiastically offers me his seat. I
call the tune, my prerogative as guest.
The bass player nods to indicate he knows it, and confirms the key we’ll
play it in. I make eye contact with the
drummer. He hasn’t yet said a word to
me, but I
figure it’s now or never. I snap my
fingers a few times, and we’re off.
great to play with pros. I fly along
with the bass player and drummer, touching ground here and there to fill out
the harmonies in what seems right to me.
The bass player makes it easy to hear where the piece is going, and the
drummer lays down a beat that is disciplined but full of swing. I don’t have to think about anything. I can just play.
comes around to solo, and I think I do all right. As I hand off the chorus to the bass player,
I cut my comping back to a minimum so the audience
can hear. When we start to trade fours,
I think, “Well, this is it. I’m jamming in St
Petersburg’s Ellington Room. Anything
else good that happens in my life I’ll just be grateful for.”
over my seat to the next pianist. She,
like all the local musicians, is far better than I am. She accompanies a vocalist on one of the most
beautiful ballads ever written, Hoagy Carmichael’s
“Skylark”. It’s very sweet to hear
Russian vocalists sing jazz standards.
Even though their English isn’t the greatest and they may not always
understand the words, it’s obvious they love the music.
favorite scene in “Stilyagi” reminds me of this. The hero is learning to play the sax so he
can win the girl of his dreams. He’s
imagining he’s on a balcony in New York, and there’s a fade back to the New
York skyline. Lots of night lights on
Broadway, the kind of scene you see in American films all the time. What makes
this one different are the glowing blue letters: “ETHEL WATERS SIGNS GERSHWIN”.
doesn’t bother me at all. In the blue incandescent
alphabet, I see love letters to America.