A 2004 Jazz Visit to Ukraine

img_0030I recently dug up, dusted off and added some photos to this old report on my State Department-sponsored lecture tour to Ukraine back in 2004. Subsequent visits have shown interesting things still happening there, so I offer this post for the sake of context and warm memories.

In the fall of 2002 I received a call from the U.S. State Department asking if I’d give a talk on jazz to a delegation of Ukrainian jazz journalists, broadcasters, educators and engineers. As head of the recording studios at the Library of Congress and de facto jazz specialist at LC, I told them I’d be delighted. As a jazz journalist and broadcaster myself, I’m always eager to meet international colleagues to exchange information and insights. When they arrived in Washington, D.C. what started out as a lecture turned into an interesting discussion, as these Ukrainians were not shy about the music they love. They wanted to talk about what’s happening and why. Since the conversation was so stimulating, I invited my new friends to my house that evening for some more cultural exchange. Three of them came and we had a wonderful time comparing notes and watching some rare Miles Davis videos. They left my place with books, magazines and CDs. As I walked them out to catch a cab, they asked if I’d like to come to Kiev to have similar conversations with their colleagues there. I enthusiastically agreed, though I did not realistically expect anything would come of this.

larry-kiev-1So, two years passed and out of the blue I received an e-mail from the State Department asking if I’d like to go to Kiev to talk about jazz and modern American music. The plan was to talk with students at various universities, academies and music schools in Kiev and Lviv, and also to participate in a roundtable discussion with music journalists and broadcasters. They made it clear that these would not be talks about jazz history, since they already have textbooks and a grasp of the chronology of styles and players. They were also quite familiar with the Ken Burns’ PBS series “Jazz,” which was first broadcast in the U.S. the year before. Instead, they wanted me to address what’s happening today and where things are heading. They said that because of international distribution channels, they already know the Blue Note and ECM catalogs, but they want to be introduced to some new artists, so I compiled three CDs worth of material from recent releases to illustrate the talks. To make the point about the rise of women instrumentalists and composers, I brought Maria Schneider, Allison Miller, Geri Allen and Susie Ibarra. To show that jazz musicians today are drawing inspiration from various traditions (not just blues and standards from the American popular songbook), I brought Uri Caine playing Mahler, Ann Dyer singing Bjork, Wayne Shorter playing a 12th-century carol, John Stetch improvising on Ukrainian themes, Monty Alexander doing “Redemption Song” and Ben Allison playing John Lennon’s “Across The Universe”. To give them a taste of Latin flavor, I had new recordings by Roberto Juan Rodriguez, Omar Sosa and Jerry Gonzalez. I also brought along some Rene Marie, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Dave Douglas, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, William Parker, Brad Mehldau, Martin Medeski & Wood, The Bad Plus, and some DVDs from Diana Krall, Charlie Hunter, Cecil Taylor and the Latin-jazz performance film Calle 54. Not sure exactly what to expect, I decided that I’d have outlines for the different talks but I’d improvise based on the reactions and questions.

003_1I arrived in Kiev on Sunday afternoon and was greeted by Anna Sumar, a Ukrainian national working for the US Embassy in Kiev who, along with Cultural Attache Lisa Heller, had organized this project, and of course my old friend Viachek Krishtofovich from Nota Magazine. After checking in at the hotel, we took a quick walk down Khreschatyk Street, the main avenue in downtown Kiev where we ran into Alex Kogan and his wife. Alex is a larger-than-life character who is the best-known and most respected jazz broadcaster in Ukraine. He also produces concerts and recordings, and on this day he was the MC of a musical celebration at the Art Club 44, which was presenting 44 bands in 44 hours around the clock. We all decided to go over and check out this scene in the smoky basement club where we found a head-banging hardcore group from Moscow slamming the stage like a Russian Limp Bizkit. On the way back to my hotel I got a kick out of the last remaining statue of Lenin in the city juxtaposed with a Mister Snack fast food joint.

The official week began on Monday morning with a visit to a branch of the Ukrainian National Library where I met with colleagues who are trying to tackle the same challenges of dealing with digital storage and preservation of audio materials as we are in the US. Afterwards, I had lunch with a record company producer who issues field recordings of Ukrainian folk music. For someone who does ethnomusicological field work, he was not very conversant about issues of cultural identity, but he seemed earnest and sincere and I’m looking forward to hearing the CDs he’s produced.

That same afternoon I gave my first talk at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy for students, faculty and interested alumni. I gave an overview of trends, discussed the evolving roles of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and talked about the marketing of jazz and the current commercial dominance of singers, as well as the changing audience and repertoire, the rise of women instrumentalists and leaders, and concluded with Kievpredictions about where we’re headed. Though these were not music students, they were very bright and engaged and their favorite musicians seemed to be John Coltrane and Diana Krall. One student told me that at the jazz clubs in Kiev, many young people go not because they like the music very much but rather because jazz is seen as intellectual music that lends status and prestige. The students also asked good questions about politics in music. I lamented how few American jazz musicians made any overt musical statements about politics or the war leading up to the US presidential election. I also talked with them about new economic models for distributions of music, such as Artist Share, as well as the impact of file sharing and the consolidation of radio station and record company ownership. Everyone seemed quite pleased with the results. It was my only lecture for the week given in English. The rest would require Viachek, who served as my translator.

026_24After the lecture we went to hear an inspiring rehearsal by a 10-piece children’s band led by Victor Baysuk and his wife. I was surprised at how well these youngsters played, not only in tune but also with decent solos and some real feeling, especially from a young teenaged flutist. Afterwards we sat around with Anna Sumar, Alex Kogan, Victor and his wife, and Leonid Goldshtein, a television host and producer who told me that on Duke Ellington’s trip to Ukraine in ’71 he plied Ellington’s saxophonist Paul Gonzalves with Cuban cigars and vodka. It was a nice, sweet evening where everyone laughed and told stories and made sentimental toasts.

005_3aTuesday morning began at the Club 44 with a long interview with Ihor Tyulkin for What Hi-Fi magazine about recorded sound preservation and the work I do at the Library of Congress. That interview segued into a roundtable discussion with about 25 print and online journalists and broadcasters. I talked about the responsibilities of journalists, critics and reviewers and the esthetic criteria we used to measure what is good. I emphasized how important it is for anyone writing about jazz to have a grasp of cultural as well as musical history. I stressed the need to understand the terminology and basic vocabulary of music, and to develop the ears to identify which artists are playing without looking at liner notes. During our open discussion period, I asked them to talk about the problems facing them. A number of them mentioned the difficulties of people in their jazz circle not being able or willing to work together. I mentioned that this is a problem everywhere with every music scene and suggested various scenarios to help them organize and foster more efficient communication and a shared sense of purpose, such as creating listservs for announcements or making attempts to build consensus around certain issues. I shared with them examples of some of the internecine conflicts that occasionally arise in the US over power, control and territory in the jazz world and what people have done to overcome them, like forming the Jazz Journalists Association to offer a sense of community. I stressed the fact that complaining may be an effective way to blow off steam, but it’s ultimately negative and non-productive and I offered ways to resolve some of the ego and personality conflicts that keep people separate. I asked them point blank if they were truly interested in doing something and, if so, I encouraged them to stop waiting for sponsorship and implored them to just do it. I gave them the example of Transparent Productions, a non-profit presenting collective that I co-founded in Washington. Without any financial resources, we’ve been able to present more than 100 concerts of creative improvised music over the last seven years without spending a dime. I urged the assembled to find creative ways around whatever obstacles are holding them back. In private, some of my friends told me afterwards that the cynical “there’s nothing we can do about, it’s just the way it is” attitude is a holdover from Soviet times, where being proactive and taking initiative were not only foreign concepts, but dangerous ones. Many things may change depending on the outcome of the Ukranian presidential election later this month, so it’s possible that some are just waiting to see what unfolds.

008_6aDuring a break, I was interviewed for Ukrainian television and the young reporter stuck a microphone in my face and asked me what jazz smells like. Somewhat taken aback I told her that a Ben Webster ballad smells like a beautiful flower and poorly played music smells like old fish. It was a strange, and at times surreal interview. I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Eugenia Strizhevska, host of the radio program “Jazz-Peak” on the national station Radio Promin. As with a number of these interviews that I did in Ukraine, I wasn’t always sure I understood the questions being asked but I just went ahead and answered the questions that I thought or hoped were being asked. That night we went to a free concert by the Polish group Kwartet Henryka Miskiewicza Full Drive before a packed house that included little kids dancing in the aisles. Surprisingly, when the saxophonist started playing “Stars Fell On Alabama” the audience burst into applause. I asked myself how many American audiences these days would recognize this beautiful, somewhat obscure melody from the 1930s?

img_8732Wednesday’s lecture took place at the Glier Music College before a packed classroom of music students and professors. Not much reaction from the students, sort of like talking to a painting. However, when I was talking about how women composers and instrumentalists are coming on strong these days and mentioned Maria Schneider, a German saxophonist in the front row raised his hand to say that he was the bouncer at the New York City club Visiones, where Maria’s orchestra was in residence on Monday nights, and he told some stories about the high quality of musicians in her band. As usual, after the lecture everyone came up and wanted to talk. One of the professors presented me a book he’d written about Ukrainian Dixieland jazz. A student pianist said he had carpal tunnel syndrome and asked for suggestions of someone in the West to treat it. Two men who produce a jazz festival asked for suggestions of musicians to bring to Ukraine. Many students waited patiently to see the discs I had played. I handed out plenty of business cards and encouraged everyone to keep in touch.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at Lemma Studios, a new recording facility and label on the outskirts of Kiev, but had to leave to make the evening jazz concert by Skhid Side, whose performance at the House of Scientists was sponsored by the US Embassy. I had been asked to say a few words before the concert so I began by saying I had long dreamed of coming to Ukraine, home of Taras Shevchenko, Valentin Silvestrov and my grandmother. This mention of Shevchenko, the revered 19th Century poet, and Silvestrov, the brilliant modern Ukrainian composer in the same sentence as my grandmother, prompted two cascading waves of applause; the first from the audience that understood my English, the other from those who waited for the translation. I can’t remember what else I said but it was warmly received. The concert itself was straight-ahead mainstream jazz played by a quartet of professional musicians. Nothing striking or out of the ordinary, but strongly swinging with some creative ideas. Again, it was reassuring to see children in the audience.

026_24aAfter the concert I did a quick interview with journalist Alya Filippova from Business Week and Kievskiy Telegraf about the impact of technology on music, then it was off to the train station to make the nine-hour overnight trip to Lviv, in the western part of Ukraine, about 45 miles from the Polish border. Though somewhat discombobulated by a lack of sleep, we arrived at the Lviv Music Academy not quite sure what to expect. The professor who greeted us was playing Oscar Peterson when we entered his office. I asked him who else he liked and he mentioned Erroll Garner. He also said that the students there have very little exposure to jazz so he was sure they were all looking forward to it. This became evident during the first tune I played, drummer Allison Miller’s edgy, in-the-pocket version of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Almost immediately some of the students were nodding their heads up and down and dancing in their seats. I was also intrigued to see two nuns in the back of the room who seemed to enjoy the title track from  Maria Schneider’s “Concert In The Garden.” Many of the students and faculty came up afterward and asked about the CDs I brought. They pleaded with me to let them burn copies of the compilation discs, so I did, knowing that they’d never be able to afford to legally buy all the CDs represented on them. They were all so open and eager to learn, I got the feeling they would absorb and assimilate this new music very quickly. Interestingly, in the audience for the talk was the Ukrainian avant-garde saxophonist and composer Yuri Yaremchuk, who asked me why I didn’t play any Anthony Braxton, Elliot Sharp or Anthony Davis. We got into an interesting discussion about these and other important musicians and Yaremchuk afterwards invited me back to his house for coffee and conversation with his friends Borovkov Alexander and the painter Igor Yanovich. They played CDs for me, including some impressive performances by Yaremchuk in various configurations with his daughters and others that displayed his original concept of space, texture, timbre and mood. I was surprised at one point to hear him play an Ellington blues, but he wryly pointed out that it was commercial music he only plays for money. We talked about the music and art world in Ukraine and remarked how universal certain things are. We had less than an hour but it was great fun hanging with these three members of the cultural intelligentsia of Lviv. It made me feel connected and lifted my spirits.

That night we went to a jazz club where some of the students we met earlier in the day were playing. It was, unfortunately, second-rate lounge music (“Volare”) but I sort of liked it anyway. I couldn’t help but think they just need to listen to some of the masters to hear the difference between hip and corny. The pretty young pianist had good technique and a sense of how to swing, but her solos didn’t go anywhere. We also encouraged the charismatic singer to learn the meaning of the lyrics she’s singing. Maybe the CDs they copied will help.

009_6aThe next day I wondered around Lviv taking in the sights. It’s a very old city, relatively untouched by the war. I loved the architecture, streetcars and babushkis (older women) selling their fruits and vegetables on the sidewalks along the narrow twisting streets. My translator later introduced us to a man who invited us for coffee. Turns out this gentleman is a jazz fan, so I invited him to a talk I was giving that night at a library. He promised to come and he offered to take us back to the train station after the talk. He also said if there was time, we’d go by his house for something to eat. The talk went very well and was much more interactive than anything else that week. The audience numbered about a dozen people but they were really passionate about this music, especially a young male economist who loves Miles Davis, and a female poet. Most spoke English quite well and the discussion covered many topics; some wanted to know how to listen to jazz and others wanted my opinion of the European jazz scene. Interestingly, the poet wanted to know if jazz musicians only played for each other. She said it’s like that in the art world in Lviv. I played for her Rene Marie singing a Shaker hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing,” which never fails to move me. And I played them something from John Stetch’s CD Ukrainianism, which struck a resonant chord in that beautiful room. It was a two-hour mix of music and intellectual conversation that flew by and ended far too soon. I think everyone wanted to continue but the library had to close. Afterwards, we went to our jazz friend’s house, which turned out to be a beautiful, well-appointed apartment with a high-end, audiophile stereo system. 017_15aOur host’s tastes ran more towards funky, fusion things on the GRP label, and I have to admit that for the first time those records sounded pretty good to my ears. More food, more sentimental toasts, and then we were off to the train station for the overnight train back to Kiev. Managed to get a couple hours of sleep before pulling into Kiev at 7:30 a.m. What a nice surprise when we saw Eugenia, our friend from the radio station on the train platform. She’d come all the way down just to give me a CD copy of the interview we did.


It may take me a while to assimilate all that I heard and learned in Ukraine. I came back with a stack of CDs for my radio show, and I’m immediately impressed by the fact that instead of imitating American jazz players, many of the best Ukrainian musicians have developed their own voices based on their own traditions and experiences. I’m already taken with the music of The Black Sea Trio (with guitarist Enver Izmailov), pianist Natalia Lebedeva, the aforementioned Skhid Side, Polish pianist Leszek Mozdzir, bassist Mark Tokar, pianist Mikhail Alperin, the acid jazz group aby mc, Odessa-based pianist Yuri Kuznetsov and especially the adventurous, creative improvised work of Yuri Yaremchuck and the late Alexander Nesterov.

Thinking back, I have to say that among the highlights of this trip were the conversations late into the night with my friends on the train. I learned a lot from them not only about the music scene in Ukraine, but about life and the changes their society is going through since the fall of the Soviet Union. I worry what might happen if the will of the people is thwarted in the upcoming election, as the majority of Ukrainians are neither docile nor ignorant. And if jazz represents freedom, Ukrainians clearly want more of both.


One comment on “A 2004 Jazz Visit to Ukraine

  1. Blair Ruble says:

    Very nice. Thanks for sharing Happy new year’s

    Sent from my iPhone

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