The University of Illinois jazz Band in Russia
by Dan Morgenstern
Aside from Charles Lloyd’s impromptu visit in 1967, only two U .S. jazz groups had performed extensively in the U.S.S.R. in modern times until the University of Illinois Jazz Band made a six-week tour of the Soviet Union from November 11 to December 23 of last year.
Like the two previous official visitors (Benny Goodman and his big band in 1962 and Earl Hines and his sextet in 1967), the Illinois Band performed as part of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cultural Exchange Program, administered at our end by the State Department.
The band, generally acknowledged to be perhaps the most exciting and accomplished collegiate jazz group in the U.S., gave from four to six concerts in each of six cities: Tashkent, Yalta, Krasnodar, Moscow, Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and Leningrad.
The touring unit consisted of 20 first-string musicians, two alternates (a third, bassist John Monaghan, was taken ill just before the tour’s start), two singers, and the band’s dynamic, charismatic leader Prof. John. Garvey.
The band’s personnel included the cream of the Illinois jazz crop and lined up as follows: Ken Ferrantino, Jerry Tessin, Ron McWilliams, trumpets; Cecil Bridgewater, Ric Bendel, trumpets and fluegelhorns; Larry Dwyer, Phil Swanson, Al Andreason, trombones; Rick Roush, bass trombone; Terry Pettijohn, French horn, guitar, banjo; Dean Leff, tuba; Howie Smith, Larry Cangelosi, Ron Dewar, Ron Scalise, Bill Feldman, reeds; Jim McNeely, piano; Bill Isom, bass; Chuck Braugham, drums; Maurice McKinley, conga; and DeDe Garrett and Don Smith, vocals. The alternates were Ron Meng, trumpet, and Jim Cuomo, reeds and recording technician.
In addition, the entourage included a Russian tour manager, two interpreters (one male, one female), and a lady announcer, a Soviet specialty. Mr. Drozdrov, the manager, had toured with all previous U.S. groups in Russia, including Goodman’s band.
The tour took place under the auspices of Goskontzert, the official concert agency, which handled all bookings, publicity, etc.
All the band’s concerts were completely sold out-with SRO where allowed. By any estimate, the tour was a complete success.
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So much for the bare facts. To fill in the details, we spent several delightful hours with Prof. Garvey, who gave us enough material for a series of articles. Garvey is a rara avis on the contemporary scene: a truly cultured and civilized man. His observations and impressions ranged widely, and what follows is mere summary, divested of the elan and grace of a true story-teller.
“We were billed as an ‘Estradni Orchestra,’ a term for which there is no real equivalent in our language or musical life. Perhaps these popular ensembles could be described as a combination Kostelanetz-Boston Pops-Welk.
“Since we were not publicized as a jazz band, this affected the kind of audiences we got. The jazz fans knew, but others came out of sheer interest and very friendly sociological curiosity about the U.S., and there was a third group—Estradni fans—who heard a jazz band and at first were a little baffled; in part because of the demeanor of the band, the uncustomary applause for soloists, etc. But they warmed up....
“There were many young people, but the predominant group was of middle age, with a sprinkling of military, both officers and enlisted men. Many came backstage to see us after the concerts.
“The best known jazz figures in the U.S.S.R., in order, are Willis Conover and Duke Ellington. Wherever we went, people would pull out photographs of Conover and ask us if we knew him. As for Ellington, our new arrangement of Take the A Train (by Ernie Wilkins) always drew heavy applause when announced, and further spontaneous applause when the theme was played—it happens to be the theme song of Conover’s Voice of America jazz broadcasts. It is surely the best known jazz piece in Russia...
“Our two singers are soul singers, and their numbers were the first examples of soul music to which Russian audiences had been exposed. They went over extremely well, but a minority of listeners told us in backstage conversation that they found this music incomprehensible.
“Our basic repertoire, in addition to soul, included six or seven Basie charts, which invariably made the people and the musicians feel good; some of arranger-composer-trumpeter Jim Knapp’s music; some romantic ballads (My Funny Valentine, etc.), new arrangements by Ernie Wilkins done just before we left (A Train and two others), Larry Dwyer’s imaginative recreations of past styles (Old Beelzebub Blues, etc.), and specialties by the Dixie Band, mostly based on records by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven.
“Dixieland is very popular in Russia, but in Leningrad we ran into a somewhat dogmatic attitude towards our brand—this is the city in which the first Soviet jazz band was formed in 1924. A fellow got into a argument with Larry Dwyer, who plays piano for and leads the Dixie Band. His point was that our big band was great but that the Dixieland wasn’t real, especially the solos, which he felt were not serious. It was a heated but friendly debate.
“In Leningrad, we also played at the House of Friendship, opposite the Yosef Weinstein big band. It is an excellently trained band, playing mostly arrangements copied from U.S. recordings, with relatively few solos, very good discipline, and a deportment reminiscent of classical musicians. There was also a good small group from within the band. In the jam session that followed, there was an outstanding tenor sax player named Kutzman , a former member of the big band.
“Because everything closes up at 11 p.m., and our concerts usually ran until 10:30, there wasn’t much opportunity to jam, except on nights off (there was a session at the Pechora in Moscow, a combination student cafe and jazz club, which I did not attend), but many musicians came to see us after the concerts. The grapevine really worked, apparently—in Volgograd, eight musicians showed up at our hotel who had traveled all the way from Rostov—six guys and two girls. They’d heard about us from a Swedish musician who’d played there and had seen us in Prague, also from a friend who’d heard the band in Moscow and told them not to miss us—especially Ron Dewar. They bad no tickets, but we got them in and held a jam session for them later. In Leningrad, musicians came in from Riga, and so on....
“We distributed as gifts to musicians 50 of our albums—on behalf of the State Dept.—and also left behind Xerox copies of our arrangements—mostly Basie charts. There is a severe shortage of big band music, but there are published jazz scores in Russia . In Moscow, we had a meeting with the president of the local branch of the Union of Composers, who gave us record s and scores, including a concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra (with strings) and a very interesting concerto for jazz orchestra by the Adzerbanian composer Murad Kashlayev. We plan to perform it—it has a real feeling for jazz. He has written for films, but is not exclusively a jazz composer.
“We tried to make a point of visiting conservatories and universities wherever we went. We had beautiful visits to the conservatory in Tashkent and the Krasnodar Institute of Culture (a kind of teacher’s college) as well as to the Rimski-Korsakov Conservatory in Leningrad [where Prof. Garvey, an accomplished violist, played in a classical string quartet].
“It was very interesting to me to learn that the Soviet government gives equal support in conservatories and universities to classical (i.e., international , Western European) music and to the Narodni music of the individual republics. They are held equal. In Tashkent, for example, students have the option of studying violin, piano, classical voice, Beethoven , etc. or majoring in Uzbek instruments, such as the doira, rubab, dutar, etc.
“In Moscow or Leningrad, you can major in Russian national music—balalaika or bayan (a kind of accordion)—and in native dance. I was more interested in this than in the excellent classical instruction.
“We purchased (individually) Uzbek instruments to bring back home with us; also a few balalaikas and domras (the latter a lute-shaped instrument with a round belly), and records of Uzbek music. We hope to get method books for them.
“The Uzbeks were a Moslem people, and the hospitality tradition is out of sight. The director of the philharmonic, Amor Nazarof, couldn’t do enough for us in every conceivable way. He put on a show for us of dance and music, featuring the pilaff dance, in which a dish is balanced on the head, then transferred to the shoulder, then back to the top of the head. And in Krasnodar and Leningrad, we attended concerts of national Russian music, hearing balalaika orchestras and great choral singing. There are super virtuosos in the balalaika orchestras...
“In Tashkent, we invited a local musician to play with us on Ode to Billy Joe, which has a free improvisational section. He sat in on the doira, a marvelous instrument; a large drum looking like an out-sized tambourine, with jangles inside. His name is Adil Kamal-Hadjaieff. One of the beautiful things about the instrument is that the player is also an actor-dancer. He can play three doiras at the same time—they have to be heated before playing. I’d like to get him as a visiting professor at Illinois for a semester...
“Uzbek music was closer in feeling to jazz than any other we heard in Russia. Ron Dewar wrote a fanfare for two saxophones based on Uzbek themes. It’s a crime that we don’t have enough respect for our own national music to treat it as the Russians do theirs.
“Throughout, we had excellent accommodations, and, with a few exceptions, very good food. After the first two weeks, when they kept feeding us beefsteak and potatoes, we asked for some Russian dishes. I heard that other U.S. groups didn’t care for it, but we found a wide variety of good food, and the vodka, of course, was wonderful...
“We’d like to return. I’m studying Russian; nobody in the band spoke the language, and we didn’t have much advance warning about the tour. Among the Russians, not many speak English, but those who do speak very well.
“From our experiences on this tour and foreign visits we’ve made in the past, I can say that sending jazz groups overseas, particularly to Russia and Eastern Europe, is of immense value. Nothing brings better results, both ways. We got to see the Russians as individuals—genuine, real people rather than abstractions.
“It’s a program I should like to see increased, despite language difficulties. What the Russians seem particularly interested in are living examples of intrinsically American arts—jazz, folk music, American dance.
“Let me add that our State Dept. escorts and the people at our embassies—and not just the cultural people—are bright, dedicated and knowledgeable, and that holds true wherever we’ve been.
“After our last concert in Leningrad, an old, grandmotherly lady embraced me and said: ‘The men in your band-they’re not like American men, but like Russian men.’”