Marsalis cheers blue Russia Music: Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis plays the history of jazz for Russians who know all XTC about the blues but aren't sure they'll ever swing as a nation.

October 07, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Wynton Marsalis was here to play his trumpet and talk about jazz yesterday, but let's just take that as a starting point because there's always a wider sense of things -- particularly in a country like Russia that lives by suggestion and improvisation.

"Jazz music has two basic things," he said, to an absolutely jam-packed Rachmaninoff Hall at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. "One is the playing of the blues, and the blues is the soul of the music, and jazz must always be played with soul, with feeling."

So far, so good. The blues is not a difficult concept in a country wracked by murderous ideologies, by economic collapse, by corruption -- in a country where life is a challenge, where the joke's on you, where poetry still matters.

"And the other," said Marsalis, "is swing. Swing is the sound of a group of people working together, talking to each other, trying to coordinate."

The audience burst into applause, because they were hanging on every word Marsalis had to say, but this was the crux of it.

Russia -- the home of the collective, the country that prides itself on its rejection of individualism -- is a place where it sometimes seems you never hear the sound of a group of people working together. The communal fable aside, it's every man for himself here.

But Marsalis and the six other members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra showed, for one afternoon at least, that it doesn't have to be that way. Even in the midst of a solo, the band had swing.

The Lincoln Center group launched a world tour by flying all the way to Moscow for one engagement, which is tonight, and the first thing they did on getting here yesterday was go stand on the bridge from which tanks fired on the recalcitrant parliament back in 1993. That's tourism with an edge.

Jazz once was banned

Then they came over to the conservatory to talk about jazz to students and faculty and anyone else who could elbow in. And they played a little, too.

Long ago jazz was forbidden and delicious here. When it was allowed to surface -- still in Soviet times -- it developed a limited but ardent following. Russian jazz, to indulge in an unfairly sweeping generalization, tends to be a little intellectual and a little inward. Marsalis stood up on stage yesterday and through his trumpet he spoke right to the audience.

They began with a little history tour, beginning at turn-of-the-century New Orleans, where musicians first began embellishing the material and playing with notions of rhythm. Along with Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and Victor Goines on clarinet, Marsalis showed what a New Orleans trio would do.

"We're making up all of our music," he said matter-of-factly, "and we're trying to make it make sense. We're trying to organize it as we go along."

The crowd was cheering and whistling. The band came down through the decades. Gordon got sounds out of his tarnished trombone, with the help of a mute and a toilet plunger, that no trombone was ever thought to produce. Herlin Riley, compressing 80 years into three minutes, showed how drummers went from the rat-tat snare of march music to the keshushhhhh of a brush on high-hat cymbal, all the while pushing the beat to the back of the measure.

They played "Happy Birthday to You" in New Orleans style, moved through the years and fashions until the melody and even the beat had become recognizable only in memory and imagination, and then suddenly came crashing back to Bourbon Street and familiarity. More whistles and cheers.

Improvisation school?

Then they played "Rubber Bottom" and "Play the Blues and Go" by Duke Ellington, and "Embraceable You," with Marsalis by turns husky, brassy and forlorn.

Marsalis took questions, and a student wanted to know if there were schools where he could learn to improvise.

"I don't think there's any school of improvisation," he replied. "It's like a school of talking. Is somebody going to teach you how to talk? Jazz has to be learned on the bandstand."

An older man wanted to know in which direction he thought jazz was developing in America today.

"Nobody can know that," Marsalis said. "If I could tell you that, I'd be in horse-racing or something. But there are many musicians all over the country, and they want to swing.

"They don't want to wear gold chains or curse. They want to play music. They're not going to have videos. They're not going to be exported as representations of the United States. They are not going to be part of this rampant and blatant commercialism. There are many, many people all over the United States of America who are not a part of any of that. Believe me."

To a student who was barely more than a boy, Marsalis delivered a thought that might be the essence of jazz and the country where it was born.

"Anything can be developed if you want it bad enough," he said. "Anything can be created, if you're willing to devote the energy to creating it.

'Loved to swing'

"My father's a musician, so I always grew up around musicians. They were always struggling. They never had enough money. But they loved to swing."

He had the audience, which knows a thing or two about struggling, with him all the way. They were cheering, though eventually they subsided into the traditional rhythmic clap, and, yes, someone came forward to hand Marsalis a rose. This was Russia, after all.

"Americans were born with jazz," said jazz fan Oleg Minaev afterward. "It's what they're made of."

"Russians," he sighed, and presumably he was talking about musicians but maybe he meant to include the whole country. "They're great. But they're like students. They're not listening. There just isn't that swing."

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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