hard bop to the new school, jazz has found a haven in post-communist Russia.

Moscow’s jazz scene is a creature of many faces. Take the comical shenanigans of one big band in a dive of an expat bar, with all members clad in matching mustard-yellow tassled jackets and an old hippy guitarist who looks (and probably thinks) like he’s still in the Swinging 60s, or a pastiche Cuban group belting out Santana covers to an empty room. Contrast that with heavy-hitters like saxophonist Igor Butman, a popular figure who cut his teeth in the US for a decade, or Alex Rostotsky, an electric bass player whose latest CD features adventurous adaptations of works by Modest Mussorgsky. Right down to a highly flamboyant yet equally creative acapella vocal trio called Jukebox, it’s all here.

According to Cyril Moshkov, editor of, Russia’s only jazz magazine, there are about 1,000 jazz players in the city (official population 10.5 million – in reality it’s more). They fall into three generations: the old guard, who favour austere hard bop and other mainstream styles; the middlemen, now in their 30s and 40s, 80% of whom left Russia to pursue careers abroad (interestingly, many went to Israel); and, finally, the young cats, still paying their dues and finding a way into the murky world of jazz music.

Russia’s first jazz concert took place in October 1922 at the behest of Valentin Parnakh, an enigmatic all-rounder who wrote poetry, choreographed ballet and played piano. He brought the first jazz records and instruments to the country from Paris. The music was thereafter repressed in various ways throughout the Soviet Union – including the period of Butman’s emergence in the 70s and 80s, when non-state-sanctioned concerts could see musicians or promoters locked up. During jam sessions with visiting American groups, Russians played with their foreign peers but were not allowed to exchange words. Government inspectors would ensure two violations resulted in dismissal from the state booking agency, which provided musicians with all their work.

Much has changed since those dark days. One look at the monthly gig listings on’s information portal will show abundant choices any given night – and not only local groups, but a host of international names as well. Tessa Souter, a British vocalist who lives in New York, recently played a couple of dates at the Union of Composers and was happy to sing the praises of her Russian backing band: “They were great. There’s something different about the way Russians swing, it’s wonderful. Musicians have a lot of soul like the Russian people.”

Financial woe may have hit the country hard, but that hasn’t stopped a new jazz club from popping up right in the historic centre of Moscow – the V&J, situated on Old Arbat, a popular tourist promenade. “People are becoming more interested in music and art, not material things, so I don’t think the crisis makes a difference” says Victor Voitov, the V half of “V&J”. “We wanted to open a place where Moscow’s high-level musicians can let new people into jazz music.”

Even after three months of pretty solid concertgoing, there’s still a lot left for me to see.

Published @, 29/4/09 – click here for original.