Jazz Bridge Journal Post #5: Conversations

Posted on December 15, 2011


Our pianist friend Ilya us today that there was a motto in the Soviet Union in the 1940’s about jazz. The motto was “Today you play jazz, tomorrow you betray the country.”

Ilya’s sister Katya doesn’t have much good to say about Khabarovsk, or her job with the police, or Russia for that matter.  Living in Russia is “interesting” she says. But I get the impression it is interesting in the way in which our travel here was interesting, which is not the kind of interesting you like to have everyday.

Ilya says he was 15 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  That means Katya was about 11.  He said that during that time, there was so little food that his family of four would make a tin of meat last 2 days.  A little bit at each meal, and then put half the can away for tomorrow.

He says that the generation of students that is enrolled in his college now, aged 15-21,  lived through that deprivation.  The national birthrate went down to the extent that there aren’t enough students to fill spots in the colleges now.

He says thank goodness those times are over.

I can’t imagine.

He says that one way that the arrival of capitalism has played out in Russia is that in Soviet times the Universities were free.  In fact all education was free. Now they are still free, but only if you get a high enough score on the exam to qualify.  Everybody else has to pay.  However, it is still relatively inexpensive.  I get the impression that the relatively part is also relative.

Katya tells me that one of the nicknames they have for Putin is iPod iPhonavich. Or sometimes iPhone iPodavich.  Needless to say the only iPhones I’m seeing here are ones that our group all sport.

Not that there aren’t cellphones. Everyone seems to have a cellphone, and it seems like the more ostentatious the ringtone the better.  And they don’t seem to bother with silent mode much either.  So at random moments you’ll hear little blasts of Lady Gaga, Autumn Leaves or carillon bells.


We heard a final exam today.  A young man played a beautiful piece on the Bayan, which is Russian for button accordion, which is English for an instrument so hard to play it borders on the absurd.  In the first place you have buttons rather than keys.  scores of tiny buttons that you play in each hand.  And you can’t see them.  The instrument is so big you can’t play it and see your hands.  And you have to squeeze it in and out for your tone, your dynamics, and your articulation.

And this boy was playing what sounded like a Back toccata, though it wasn’t. Counterpoint between the hands, virtuosic runs, chords, the whole deal.  And I know that he can’t be a great bayan player or he would be at some prestigious music University in a big city.  But he is so good and so musical that our jaws drop.  And all I can think of is how will he make a living.  What kind of earning potential could possibly justify all the effort he has put in to master this instrument, even to this level.  And how much better will he have to be to compete in the real world?

When we ask him later, Ilya says that if he is good enough to get into a quality University like the conservatory in Moscow, then he will probably teach.  But he won’t make much money for it.  So he will probably play gigs in the evenings.   I’m not sure how much bayan gigs can possibly pay.  To get these gigs he will have to advertise because no one will be calling him. So he will have to hit the pavement, and hustle.  Our drummer Alan Jones asks if he might play in a band.  Ilya says a band that uses the Bayan is not a band that will make much money.  So maybe this boy will move to Europe to try to earn money there.

I can’t figure out if it is crazy, fearless or wrong, to seek your fortune in the wide word armed with nothing but the skill of playing a button accordion.


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