I guess I’m going to have to learn Russian before I’ll truly understand why Vasislav Zakharov is so famous here. This seventy year old saxophonist, whose 70th birthday we are over here in part to celebrate is not mentioned in the one Russian jazz history book that I’ve read. But he is so well-known ,that last night’s concert poster just had his name and huge picture of a saxophone. At least in Khabarovsk, he IS jazz.
Part of it, I’m coming to understand, is that he taught, mentored or inspired every other jazz musician here. The first of his two birthday concerts was on Thursday night. The 600-seat Drama Theater was sold out. There were five acts on the bill. The first was a big band made up of students and some teachers from the Khabarovsk Territorial College of the Arts where Slava taught-and still teaches. Everyone tells me he is retired. In fact, they say he was retired when he started teaching at the college. Probably asked there by the current jazz director Valery Khusainov, who says he started playing jazz as a teenager after hearing Slava perform in Khabarovsk. Valery is in his mid-fifties now. So that was a while ago. I don’t think Slava is paid for teaching at the college. I don’t know if he was ever paid for doing it. Maybe when I learn Russian I can find out.
Between every act an announcer came out and talked about different chapters of Slava’s life. Even getting some partial translation from one of our Russian students Katie, I was still puzzled. Our other Russian student Inna tried to help me out by posing this question: “What would it take in America for an artist to be recognized by the federal government?” I think of the National Medal for the Arts, or the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards. I think of Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder, and I answer that to be honored in this way these artists have created a body of work that has been so widely recognized as influential, that they represent the art form. She says she thinks that this is not why Zakharov is a musical hero of Russia.
Our group was the last to perform on the concert. It had gone on so long (about 2.5 hours) that I considered shortening our set. But unlike in Americn, the house was just as full after the intermission as it was for the first half. We were greeted with enthusiastic applause and we responded with like energy. I said to the musicians afterwad that I thought we represented what American jazz is about. We played with spirit, conviction and solid swing. Alan, who also sat in with the band before us since their drummer didn’t’ get his visa and couldn’t make the trip, was his usual powerful self. He wowed people. Marilyn brought the house down (as I thought she would) I have a feeling she will be a legend here by the time we leave.
It was apparent on first meeting Zakharov that part of his appeal was his irrepressible humor. This man jokes all the time. Almost every sentence has some self-deprecating or sly, or silly or overt humor in it. He literally almost never says a serious word. I know this because our student translator Inna starts laughing every time he speaks, and starts most sentences with “He made a joke…”
Zakharov is funny in the way the old TV character Mr. Bean is funny. Funny standing still, doing nothing. Funny because he seems at every moment to be holding himself back from saying or doing something funny. And sometimes, even when he is standing on stage receiving an armful of roses, a plaque and a check from regional minister of culture, he can’t refrain and bows on bended knee and kisses both her hands. Then he stands up and waves the check in the air as if to say “I finally got paid”
What has taken longer to become apparent is that Zakharov is also remarkably honest. In fact, his humor is kind of like the soda in a mixed drink. It disguises the message, carries it down before you notice it is there. Then, like the vodka in the drink, the honesty hits you later.
I wonder if this funny man found a way speak more truth than others could in Russia during most of his lifetime. Kind of a parallel to all the joy that comes out of his music. And maybe that too is part of what people love him for.
When we gave Slava the Pendleton scarf we had purchased for him as a gift, he didn’t even open the box. Just said thank you and put it in his bag. What he did say was something like. “I want to improve on the Russian ability to receive a gift.” At least that was how Inna translated it. He then gave us each a copy of his CD, which he jokingly apologized for having been recorded in a garage. (How is it that a 70 year old musical hero of Russia has only recorded one CD?) Anyway, I think he was trying say something serious to us in his joking way by giving us those CD’s. Something about how, as generous as Russians are, they don’t know how to receive a gift.
Last night at the end of his birthday party, after two full days and nights of being feted and lauded and celebrated, Slava was walking around the restaurant handing out copies of this CD to everyone in the room. Like every person was his friend. This too I think is the secret of Slava. In a country where I keep being told that there is no tradition of philanthropy, where the culture of volunteerism doesn’t exist, Slava keeps giving. The mountain of flowers, the tributes and heartfelt speeches, and the medal for musical hero of Russia may ultimately be a testament to just this.