Jazz behind the curtain

Published in Clarinet and Saxophone Magazine, Autumn 2008, and Just Jazz, March 2010

Comrade Stalin was said to be opposed to jazz, apparently regarding it as decadent. Untrue of the music, but very accurate on many of its players. There was, of course, always a black market in jazz records in the Soviet Union and some brave souls put together live bands which played in dark cellars - not unlike Liverpool, in fact. But the collapse of the Soviet Union catalysed bands in some unlikely spots.

I was in Georgia, helping preparations for the first elections, equipped with clarinet as ever, and from a distant room I heard the familiar sound of "Sweet Georgia Brown" being played in the atrium of Tbilisi's main hotel. I descended with as nonchalant an air as a jazzman suffering from withdrawal symptoms can ever muster, and stood by the bandstand applauding each number in an appropriately supportive manner.

Soon I wangled an invitation to join them and we got through a number of jazz standards that we all knew. Then, as I was about to thank them and slip away, the pianist approached me and said, "our clarinettist asks whether, if you come back to Georgia, you could possibly bring him some reeds as it is impossible to obtain them here." I replied that of course I would do so.

A year later I was back in Tbilisi and the band was still at the hotel. I quietly gave the clarinettist a full box of reeds. He cried, and with tears streaming down his cheeks he embraced me. It makes you realise what we take for granted.

Some years later I was in St Petersburg, again on election duty, and, with colleagues I went out to a cellar bar by the side of the canal. A group of young people soon arrived, got out instruments and launched into spirited renditions of the classic jazz repertoire. It turned out that they were students at the conservatoire and they gigged around the bars to pay for their courses. Hints were dropped and they invited this venerable clarinettist to join them. They insisted that I played the whole evening and, after they had passed the hat round, they tried to give me a share of the tips. I gently refused, thinking that what I was being paid for one day's work in St Petersburg was probably the equivalent of a considerable part of their conservatoire course.

Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and is not at first sight an obvious candidate for classic jazz. It does, however, have a brand new conservatoire building. Local colleagues insisted that there was a big band course and they made an appointment for me to meet the tutor at his Friday rehearsal. He welcomed me warmly and invited me to join him in a rendition of Sidney Bechet's "Petite Fleur".

He then rushed off and returned with Alina, a very attractive twenty-five or so year old, who was introduced to me as the college's classical piano tutor. This did not seem to be a very promising duet partner, but I was completely wrong. Alina could play anything after just one hearing and swung like mad. Tentatively I asked if perchance she was free to "rehearse" the next day, Saturday. She was and we spent two hours going through number after number. That night one of the big hotels was having a jazz night and we went along. Someone told the manager that we would do a couple of numbers and we were invited to play. After perhaps a minute of the first number, a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist slipped on to the stand and joined us to make up a full rhythm section. It was a good international night.

Surprisingly I never found a band in Moscow, but I did buy a soprano sax in a park there! One of the flea market stalls had this instrument and I asked its price. "My price is two hundred and fifty dollars and fifty cents - what is your price?" "One hundred and fifty dollars" I responded. We settled on one hundred and seventy-five.

Inevitably I had problems getting it out of Russia. At the airport the customs officer looked at this saxophone snugly stretched across the corners of my suitcase. He said, "Your papers say that you are an elections consultant, so why do you have this instrument?" "Ah," I said, "even politicians have to play music occasionally." A slight smile quivered round his lips and he waved me through.