When one looks back at the history of the Soviet Union, jazz music isn’t normally looked at that often. That’s mainly because jazz music is looked at as a primarily American style of music, which is a fair judgement. However, like many aspects of human culture, they spread outside their boundaries and change to their new environments; jazz music was no different. I would argue that Soviet jazz is an interesting concept, almost antithetical to the idea of the USSR. Why would the Soviets adopt one of the most defining cultural factors from America? In this essay, I hope to cover the brief history of Soviet Jazz as the country progressed, along with covering popular songs and artists that you should no.
A Brief History
Jazz reached the Soviet Union at around the same time that it was becoming popular in America, the early 20s. Many sources pinpoint the start of the spread of jazz in the Soviet Union to one man: Valentin Parnakh. Surprisingly, Parnakh was not self-identified musician, but instead a poet and a choreographer. The story goes that Parnakh was inspired by hearing American jazz musicians perform in Paris, where he was visiting. He was so driven by this new form of music that he went back to the Soviet Union, bought a whole orchestra with his own money and hired young and enthusiastic musicians to perform this newfangled music. This was the first official jazz band formed in the Soviet Union, and they called themselves The RSFSR Eccentric Orchestra: Valentin Parnakh’s Jazz Band (very succinct, I know). Their first performance was in October of 1922. From there, jazz spread throughout the USSR at a relatively steady pace.
At first, the new spread of jazz music wasn’t treated with much resistance by the press or government. It was a new thing that people pretty much enjoyed across the board. After a couple of years, jazz was met with some resistance. When the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM) was formed in 1923, they opposed jazz music, due to its Western roots.
A small aside here, this is just me comparing the rise of jazz in the Soviet Union and the America. I find it very interesting that jazz both faced opposition in both countries, but the reasoning is very different. Its no doubt that the reason why America opposed jazz was due to racial reasoning: jazz was created by African Americans people and Jim Crow was still going very strong in America at the time. With the Soviet Union however, its disdain was due to its Western origin (both of which I think are unfair prejudices).
Throughout the 30s and early 40s, jazz had sort of a rocky relationship with the government. RAPM was disbanded in 1932 and along with its disbandment a lot of the disdain for jazz went a long with it. Jazz flourished (and I use that word pretty liberally) during the mid 30s to mid 40s. During WWII, like many allied countries, jazz was played by some official war bands in order to raise morale for the troops. Things changed for the worse after the war ended as the world slowly shifted into the Cold War. While it isn’t clear on who gave the order (the sources that I’ve read have placed the blame on different people), jazz fell under an large umbrella of Western culture that was banned from the Soviet Union. Due to the rising popularity of jazz as a “high brow” culture in America and other Western countries, it was viewed as bourgeois culture.
Jazz sort of fell into the music underground scene until about the early 60s. Musical genres weren't banned in the Soviet Union anymore, jazz clubs were slowly opening across the nation, and even Western jazz bands were touring inside the nation. Jazz still was viewed as somewhat unpopular by officials however, but that was more due to the fallout of previous efforts to vilify jazz.
From there, until the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, jazz had a relatively steady presence in the country. Prominent musicians made careers, jazz bands toured the country, and everything seemed ok for the time being. As the Soviet Union collapsed, many jazz musicians fled the country, due to the economic crises that plagued the country. However, jazz still remains today in the modern day Soviet Union, split across the many countries it used to be made of.
A few artists that you should know
Leonid Utesov: A bandleader and singer who was very important in the establishment of jazz in the Soviet Union. Many compare Utesov to Frank Sinatra, and I wouldn’t argue with that comparison. There is some controversy on whether or not he could be considered a jazz musician or just the 30s version of a pop musician. Nonetheless, an broad overlook of Soviet jazz musicians would be incomplete without at least a mention of Utesov.
Oleg Lundstrem: A famous bandleader and composer. Lundstrem is responsible for composing and performing a lot of Russian jazz standards that are still played to this day. His formation of the Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra (founded in his namesake) is a historic jazz band formed right around the influence of jazz began to spread around the Soviet Union. It won a Guinness World record award for being the oldest formed jazz band in the world back in 1994.
Eddie Rosner: A famous jazz trumpeter. Rosner traveled the world under his band name “The Syncopators” (referencing the musical practice of syncopation, commonly used in jazz), and even working his way up to the State Orchestra of the USSR during World War II. He was arrested shortly after the end of the war for trying to leave the country illegally and was sentenced to 10 years in the gulag. He was allowed to play the trumpet in the gulag to boost the morale of the other prisoners. He was released in 1954 and had a semi-major comeback. He founded his own big band and toured the country, even appearing in a film or two.
Alexander Vladimirovich Varlamov: A prominent band leader. Varlamov, like Utesov helped popularize jazz music in the Soviet Union in the early 30s. Varlamov is also credited as one of the bandleaders and directors of the State Orchestra of the USSR. While state bands are usually nothing to write home about, with regimes like the Soviet Union, postive perception of the state is everything. This band existed mostly through wartime in the late 30s to mid 40s. With the almost sudden demonization of jazz in the mid 40s, the state band was disbanded.
Viatcheslav Nazarov: A famous jazz trombonist. Nazarov built his way up within the Soviet Union, playing along with the likes of Oleg Lundstrum, eventually earning the recognition as the best jazz trombonist by many Soviet critics. Nazarov immigrated to the US in the 90s where he had a mildly successful career until his life was tragically taken in a car crash in 1996.
I hope this short article helped deepen your understanding of the history of jazz in the Soviet Union! It’s always a pleasure researching and writing these articles, and it is my hope that you learned something. Thanks for reading!