RED AND HOT: Jazz in the Soviet Union by S. Frederick Starr

RED AND HOT: Jazz in the Soviet Union

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Working from extensive interviews as well as rare documents and recordings, Start has produced a sturdy history of jazz in Russia since pre-Revolution days--only mildly intriguing as an esthetic study, perhaps, but rich in paradox and implication as a record of Soviet attitudes toward popular culture. Ragtime was eagerly embraced by the middle-class in pre-WW I Russia; after the Revolution, the next phases of jazz arrived more slowly--not because of Soviet disapproval but because of isolation and civil war. Until 1928, in fact, jazz was a beneficiary of lenin's NEP, catching on big in teahouses and workers' cafes. And even the 1928-31 Cultural Revolution, starting off with Gorky's attack on this ""Music of the Gross,"" couldn't kill jazz: it was, instead, ""rehabilitated"" (sweetened, made less raunchy); Pravda championed jazz in a debate-cum-purge against Izvestia; in 1939 Stalin's sinister aide Kaganovich co-authored How To Organize Railway Ensembles of Song and Dance and Jazz Orchestras. But, after the triumph of all-out jazz during the WW II Soviet/US alliance (producing Russia's first genuine jazz-star, Polish-Jewish cornet virtuoso Eddie Rosner), came the harsh postwar crack-down--due, says Start, to Stalin's paranoia as well as understandable Soviet fears of over-Americanization (and the need to maintain control while demobilizing). Paradoxically, however, the virtual banning of jazz gave Soviet jazz an esthetic boost: it became the ""lingua franca of dissident Soviet youth,"" thrived in the hinterlands, embraced forward-looking be-bop, regained sporadic approval (1965-67 especially). . . yet became an elite art, soon overshadowed by rock. (And, disappointed by the post-1968 repression, many jazz musicians emigrated.) Throughout, Starr gives appropriate emphasis to the swarm of interlocking factors and issues involved: traditional European tensions between high/low music; jazz's proletarian credentials (e.g., black-American roots) and bourgeois, decadent image; the predominance of Jewish jazz musicians; the minimal appeal of native Russian popular music. He evaluates all major Soviet performers, documents each visit from western groups. He concludes by noting the USSR's ""ideological commitment to shaping public values and the inertia of its system to carry out that mission."" So, despite some stretches of graceless prose and some over-simplification when moving into broader historical questions, this is a conscientious, often-fascinating study--more for cultural historians than jazz aficionados.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press