Alexander Eydelman, who founded the Moscow Jazz Art Club in 1993 and has been its only president, writes stories under the name Aleksander Antoshin. Through the help of Rifftides Moscow correspondent Svetlana Ilicheva, Mr. Eydelman has agreed to our publishing one of his stories. The tale set in the 1960s helps put in perspective some of the ways in which Russian jazz fans bucked the Soviet system’s suppression of their efforts to hear American music.
The alarm clock rang at eight sharp. I cursed this damned punctual tin can and then, forcing my eyes open, stared lifelessly into the empty whiteness of the ceiling. I knew I had to make myself get up, I definitely had to—since I had promised Valery, Val, my best friend, to help him with the repairs on his can, an ancient “Moskvitch.” I raised my hands, palms gripping an imaginary gymnastic bar, a habitual exercise, and then—writhing and groaning—struggled to pull myself up, but every time, after each painful effort, my hands—with this imaginary bar—ended by falling back heavily on my chest. To anyone watching, it would all have looked funny and even idiotic. But there was no one to disturb my romping around as I fought against this stubborn ghostly bar. Another series of jerks—hands, legs, body almost in a knot—and a mighty spring inside me threw my body and soul out of the bed.
The outside door shut, leaving behind me the wet darkness of the entrance hall, and I was immediately immersed in the warmth and bright light of the summer morning that had enveloped the city. Val lived in an apartment block not far away, on the bank of the Yauza river, a tributary of the Moskva. I set off beside the cast-iron parapet of the embankment. The river ran by, its murky waters patterned with oily stains rushing towards its estuary. In the courtyard, by his father’s old crate, a Moskvitch, stood young Val. His early bald patch made him look much older than I, though we were the same age.
‘Well, Val, let’s get started, we haven’t much time. Got a date at four,’ I said.
I lifted the car with a jack, spread a mat under it and crawled on my back to take off the gear-box. Everything in this jalopy was greasy, dirty, everything leaked and dripped. Moreover, it appeared that the clutch was broken, too. Curses and groans accompanied my superhuman efforts to undo the rusted bolts and nuts as I gradually managed to make some progress. Then, at last, the gear-box was free.
It was at this moment, that I suddenly heard the music – mysterious and unfamiliar. It was jazz, I knew, jazz I loved so much, as I used to spend nights listening to it on my short-wave radio (1). The music I was hearing now sounded, however, absolutely new to me.
(1)In the early Sixties, when these events took place, as well as in the earlier period, the Soviet regime did not favour this kind of music, so young jazz lovers usually listened to the nightly jazz programmes on the BBC or the Voice of America.
The pianist played an ornate, lacy melody evoking associations with Bach’s themes. Absolutely precise phrases, each in its proper place, lined up in a polyphonic series, mutually complementing and merging into one intriguing and enchanting tune. A saxophone entered with a beautiful mellow shave joining the current of piano tones, and followed them with improvisation full of trilling drive and then, solo, building up an airy crystal-clear edifice of sounds.
I crept out from under the car. Val gazed at me inquiringly.
‘What ‘s the matter? Need something?’
‘No. Yes. I need to know, where that music’s coming from.’
‘From Zhorka’s flat. See that window on the second floor? He must be drinking now, I reckon, is Zhorka. When he’s had a couple he usually puts his tape-recorder on to max.’
Dirty and messy as I was I set off in the direction which Val had shown me and, stopping under the window, looked up. The alto sax went on weaving its intricate and, at the same time, simple and melodious pattern. It seemed as though this music was spiralling high up, I could visualise it clearly – winding higher and higher, into the skies. Heavenly music. But who was playing it?
My legs carried me to the front door drawn by the sound, which was getting stronger as I approached. Poor neighbours, they must hate this Zhorka, and his jazz. Second floor. Volume at full. White button of the doorbell. I looked at my hands, covered in grease, then at the shining whiteness of the button, and cautiously pressed it with my nail. The recorder, at top volume, seemed about to explode, and hardly anybody could hear my short, shy ringing over the music. Then I resolutely pressed my dirty finger on this virgin white button again. At last, the door opened. On the threshold, in the twilight of the hallway, stood a lad in a white T-shirt. His round face gleamed red – with booze and with the joy of life reigning over these premises. His small round eyes beamed tipsy good humour and his lips sported an amicable smile.
‘Who’s this, Snow-white?!‘ he said. ‘Snouu-wahy-tie, Snouu-wahy-tie!’ he kept repeating, choking with laughter and rejoicing at his own joke. Exhausted with laughing, he stared at me again, and asked:
‘Who are you? And why are you so dirty? What do you want?’
‘I want to know what music that is, and who’s playing?’
‘Ah, that’s it. C’min then, Snow-whitie,’ he said again collapsing with laughter.
I stepped forward into the room with the roaring recorder, I saw sheets of music paper and copies of American magazines scattered over the piano, an exquisite candlestick , a big decanter and glasses on a coffee table, and a Himalayan mass of empty bottles in the corner.
I introduced myself and agreed to the treat. Zhorka took two tumblers and poured some liquor from a decanter.
‘Straight?’ he asked.
‘Straight,’ I said promptly – not thinking about the consequences. I took the glass and tossed down its contents. Fiery fluid – it was pure alcohol – caught my throat, my mouth was burning, tears spurted from my eyes. I groped for water – and at once found a glass in my hand: Zhora who had been observing me in silence, and with interest, had thoughtfully prepared it beforehand. Then he drank his own glass and we began a dialogue which has continued for many years now.
‘Stunning music! This concert was recorded in 1957, it’s called “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia”. Know who’s playing?’ he asked. ‘It’s the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Know Brubeck? No? Fantastic pianist, yes, he is. Top-level! There is also Paul Desmond with alto, then, too, Joe Morello on drums, Jo Benjamin on bass. All the compositions are Brubeck’s. Now they’re playing his dedication to Chopin, named “Dziękuję!” – meaning “Thank you!” in Polish. Now, listen, listen!’
A drunken tear appeared in his eye.
I listened to Brubeck’s solo, enjoying every sound, every harmony, every passage of this miraculously subtle, delicate melody bridging times – bringing together the 19th and the 20th centuries.
Then the composition ended. Zhora switched the tape-recorder off and with undisguised curiosity launched into questioning me on my modest person, my background, then asking where I got my infatuation with jazz, what I had read on the subject and what I read in general, and what I usually did in my leisure time. I answered all his questions in detail appreciating the fact that he was listening attentively to my spontaneous revelations, not once interrupting me.
‘And what was the first tune, the one I heard in the courtyard?’ I asked switching from answers to questions.
Zhora said nothing but went to the recorder and put it on “Rewind”, then started the tape from the beginning, and, as the first sounds filled the room, he asked :
‘This one, you mean? Oh, that’s a real masterpiece! It’s called Brandenburg Gate, but it’s not by Bach, it’s Brubeck’s own piece!’
We gave in to the music, for a long while uttering not a single word and wholly absorbed by the fascinating tunes. I saw, however, that now and then Zhora glanced at me – to see how attentive I was and how receptive to the music. I could understand his curiosity, I realised that this exquisite concert was a kind of litmus paper to test me.
Keeping silent and once in a while draining our glasses we went on listening up to the end of the tape. From the start, Zhora had been sitting at the piano and, as the music progressed and the liquor in the decanter accordingly regressed, a sentimental mood more and more crept over him, leaving wet traces on his red cheeks. Suddenly he started playing a tune in the same mood as the dedication to Chopin which we had just heard, it was also beautiful and unknown to me. Zhora finished the core theme and, driving it with his right hand into series of variations, while his left hand added even more ornate chords.
‘And what’s this? What terrific music!’
‘Like it? Very good, matey. This, my dear, is Mazurka in A minor by Chopin. Good music, as you’ll agree. And it may not be quite jazz, at least, not the kind we are used to… But only fatheads, narrow-minded fatheads, and there are plenty of those, stick to one single thing and refuse everything else. Savvy? And, now, look at Brubeck, a born American, a jazzman to the bone, he wrote marvellous music, but dedicated it to the great Europeans…’
Suddenly there was a whistle outside the window. And at last remembering Valery, I looked over the balcony.
There was my poor abandoned friend, helplessly waving his arms and appealing to my conscience. At this moment Zhora came to my rescue:
‘Val, stop being silly! Your mate won’t do anything useful for you, anyway, not after all he’s drunk. You guys better call it a day. Come on up now. There is some booze left for you!’
Val thought for a bit, shrugged his shoulders and ran for the entrance door.
We revelled late into the night. Zhora’s old Soviet-made recorder worked non-stop, the American jazzmen, one after another, testing its stamina. Never before had I heard so much wonderful jazz, I was brimming over with happiness, realising that something very important had happened in my life…
* * *
Years passed. In 1996, I found myself in Copenhagen at a concert of the great pianist Michel Petrucciani, an unhappy dwarf in life and a happy giant in music. The concert was in a circus building packed to the brim. Petrucciani played solo; there was absolute silence in the huge auditorium, but at the end of each piece the audience exploded with thunderous applause.
The programme came to an end, the audience stood applauding and shouting encores. The little man walked on his crutches back to the piano, sat down and thought. The audience froze. It was as though you could hear the musician’s heartbeat. And then he touched the keys. With the first chord I felt a lump in my throat and stinging in my eyes. And to prevent myself from crying, I took deep breaths. Michel was playing Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor.
During Brubeck’s last visit to Moscow, there was a reception in the Spaso-House, the residence of the US Ambassador, and the Maestro played there with Russian musicians. As the time for the last piece came, Dave said he was going to play his favourite piece. And sitting down at the piano, he played his magical dedication to Chopin – ‘Dzękuję!’.
The author is the Founder (1993) and President of the Jazz Art Club in Moscow.
The story was translated by Rostislav V. Zolotarioff, a Moscow-based freelance journalist .