A Conference of Ambassadors: Igor Butman and Wynton Marsalis Celebrate Their 60th-Birthday in Moscow

The history of jazz in Russia does not begin with the fabled U.S. State Department-sponsored traveling shows of the so-called Jazz Ambassadors, which brought a number of American jazz greats to Eastern European countries and beyond during the years of the Cold War. It is, in fact, an almost 100-year-old history waiting to be rediscovered.

Its origins can be traced back to one man, Valentin Parnakh, a dancer and a poet. Parnakh first encountered this new music in the early 1920s during a trip to France. Enamored, he brought back records and instruments to his homeland in the hope of introducing its incendiary rhythms and concepts to his fellow Russian artists and musicians. This culminated in Russia’s first-ever jazz concert, which he helmed in Moscow in October 1922.

Valentin Parnakh

Yet, the history of jazz in Russia is also inevitably interlinked with that of the country’s Soviet years, during which all-things Western were suppressed or downright censored. Such was the fate of jazz, America’s one true original art form. Yet, there was little Soviet authorities could do to prevent ordinary people from sneakily listening to Voice of America’s Jazz Hour on radios behind closed doors. In this sense, it is possible to see that the aforementioned Jazz Ambassadors program was beneficial to both the United States and the Soviet Union. For the U.S, it was a way to help counter Soviet stories about American racism. For the U.S.S.R., it was a way to reach compromise in the face of jazz music’s growing popularity with the common folks.

Today, the Russian jazz scene is vibrant and growing every day, and saxophonist/bandleader Igor Butman remains one of its central figures. Butman emerged in the late 1970s and has since had a stellar, wide-ranging career that is difficult to sum up in just a few lines. From recording with some of the world’s biggest stars (Chick Corea, Grover Washington Jr., Gary Burton and many more) to performing in front of several world leaders, from producing the acclaimed The Triumph of Jazz concert series in Russia’s biggest concert halls to running one of the hottest jazz clubs in Moscow today, Butman is both a champion of jazz in his home country and an acclaimed advocate of Russian art abroad.

For his 60th birthday, Butman decided to gift himself and the audiences of Moscow and Saint Petersburg with a very special concert by inviting jazz giant Wynton Marsalis and the whole Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to play with his own big band, The Moscow Jazz Orchestra. I was invited to attend this one-of-a-kind event a month prior to the Moscow performance and accepted for several reasons, including my passion for Russian literature, the theories of the Soviet montage of the early 20th-century and the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I was also lured by the prospect of seeing Moscow’s spectacular Red Square with my own eyes, and intrigued by the idea of attending a major jazz show by two jazz giants at the State Kremlin Palace, which would take place on October 27.

Igor Butman (Photo: Courtesy Lydia Liebman)

Finding myself in Rome at the time, where I was involved in the coverage of an international film festival, I overcame a few hurdles to secure a visa at the Russian Consulate. The fact that I had been officially invited to a major Igor Butman gala celebration certainly helped speed up the tedious process. Having sorted all that out, I began worrying about more mundane things, like traveling from Rome’s warm early autumn temperatures to Moscow’s notorious freezing cold climate and bringing the right attire for a gala event. This is just one of the challenges of having to live much of my life on the road and out of a suitcase; you’re never quite prepared for any and all weather conditions. Besides that, I can barely knot a tie and for some reason, I was having a hard time finding a proper belt ahead of the trip.

A few days before scheduled departure, news of an impending lockdown in Moscow due to a worrying spike in COVID-19 cases was further cause for concern. Nevertheless, the organizers reassured me that I would be well taken care of during my three-day stay and that they would make sure I’d be out of the country before the city went into a lockdown. After some personal consideration and against the advice of some of the people around me at the time, I decided that nothing could stop me from attending a glorious jazz extravaganza in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So, armed with my negative Fast Service PCR test results (which set me back 140 euro!) I was finally and happily on my way.

Moscow at night (Photo: Courtesy the author)

When I arrived in Moscow, I was delighted to find I would be staying at the Hotel National, which is located at the heart of the city by the Red Square and comes complete with a view of the Kremlin during breakfast. I took advantage of the proximity and reveled in the spectacle, going on several night walks during which I listened to some of Tchaikovsky’s most majestic compositions, including my favorite, the “Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23,” which I truly believe to be one of the most magnificent pieces ever composed by a human being.

On my daily and nightly walks, I caught glimpses of some of the area’s most renowned landmarks. St. Basil’s Cathedral, the State Historical Museum, Lenin’s Mausoleum, the brightly-lit GUM department store and the historic Bolshoi Theatre. Along with the rest of the foreign press delegation, we were taken to dinners where I discovered Georgian cuisine, which I was delighted to find also has lots of meatless dishes to choose from for a vegetarian like me, including delicious mushroom dumplings and stuffed eggplant.

We made a night of it at the Igor Butman Jazz Club, a glowingly elegant venue where warmth and good vibes abound. The venue was opened in 1999 and over the years has offered an important showcase for both domestic and international established and emerging jazz talent. Some of their portraits decorate the walls, including a big one of Christian McBride by the main staircase. The night’s band performed an entertaining set of straight-ahead jazz and oddly enjoyable versions of pop tunes, including a take on Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” which had us in stitches and became one of our running inside jokes for the rest of our Moscow stay.

The next day was the day of the big concert performance and we all showed up at the Kremlin in our fanciest clothes, passing several security checks before making it into the State Kremlin Palace theater, a monumental building constructed at the height of the Soviet epoch in the 1960s. Originally built under Nikita Khruschev as a modern arena for Communist Party meetings, it is now a place for the arts and for music, able to hold 6000 people. We met Butman himself backstage and despite his reputation and celebrity status, we were delighted to find him extremely friendly and smiling as he told us about the night’s program.

Igor Butman with Wynton Marsalis (Photo: Courtesy the author)

He also recalled his first encounter with Marsalis, saying that while their paths had crossed on a number of occasions, he only properly met him in 1998, when the trumpeter arrived in Moscow for a performance with the full Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Since then, they have been great friends and have performed together many times.

It’s no wonder Marsalis and Butman hit it off, as they share some significant similarities with one another, including the fact that they both come from revered musical families. They are also recognized today as leading jazz authorities in their respective home countries and their careers have been influenced by an appreciation for jazz and music tradition. Not to mention that they were born just a few days apart – Marsalis on October 18 and Butman on October 27 – and both celebrated their 60th birthday this year.

Celebration was, indeed, the keyword of the night. A double birthday celebration for Igor Butman with his Moscow Jazz Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis with his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. These bands and their top-rate musicians would share the stage, performing a number of arrangements together and each band also having the opportunity to perform pieces from their own repertoires. However, it was just as clear that this event was more than about celebrating a couple of birthdays and having a jolly good time. It also represented a downright fusion of cultures, histories and music traditions.

For example, the first act opened with a sublime rendition of one of the main themes of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, reimagined with an Ellingtonian zest. The symphony was originally written by the great Russian classical composer in the midst of the siege of Leningrad at the hands of the German and Finnish armies. This was a merciless prolonged blockade that lasted from September 1941 to January 1944 and, like the city of Leningrad, this symphony came to represent a tireless opposition to Fascism and totalitarianism.

The second act opened with one of the most famous traditional Russian songs, popularly referred to as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” first published in pianist/composer Mily Balakirev’s book of folk songs in 1866. It soon traveled the world, eventually making its way into the jazz repertoire of several American jazz ensembles of the first half of the 20th-century, including that of Glenn Miller. The version played at the State Kremlin Palace was inventively mixed with Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song,” once again combining Russian and American heritage in an enlightening way.

Both pieces were arranged by Nick Levinovsky, a longtime Butman collaborator and a seminal figure in the development of Russian jazz. Having discovered jazz via the aforementioned fabled Voice of America broadcasts at age 13, Levinovsky played with many touring American jazz greats in his formative years before founding his own acclaimed jazz fusion ensemble in 1978, Allegro. A young Butman joined the group’s ranks in 1983 and when the saxophonist traveled to America, Levinovsky followed him there. Their work together has lasted to this day and Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra has since recorded two full-length projects of Levinovsky originals, including 2009’s Moscow @ 3 a.m. and 2013’s Special Opinion.

There were several other highlights on the night. Among them, a beautiful version of one of Butman’s signature ballads, “Nostalgia,” arranged by Vitaly Dolgov and featuring some great extended solo work by Butman on saxophone and Vadim Eilenkrig on trumpet. There was also a heartfelt tribute to the late great Chick Corea via a rendition of Return to Forever’s “You’re Everything” from 1973’s Light as a Feather, performed with Russian-born vocalist Fantine (watch a clip of Butman playing with Fontine from 2019 via the player below.)

Fantine was one of a number of vocal guests to join the bands on a few numbers on stage. Among them, Sergey Mazaev, one of Russia’s foremost rockstars and the frontman of rock band Moral Code X. Aside from performing a take on the well-worn “Fly Me to the Moon,” he played one of his group’s most famous songs, “First Snow,” the domestic popularity of which prompted a singalong from the audience.

The first act closed with a variation on Marsalis’ composition, “Baby, I Love You,” originally sung by Bobby McFerrin. The song was performed here by both bands and fronted by Moscow Jazz Orchestra pianist/vocalist Oleg Akkuratov as “Happy Birthday Igor!” Akkuratov was one of the night’s brightest stars. Aside from his obvious talents, his energy and playfulness are positively infectious. He is at one with the piano, has some great vocal chops – and boy, can he swing! Another Moscow Jazz Orchestra talent worth highlighting is guitarist Evgeny Pobozhiy, who wowed the audience with his amazing solo on Levinovsky’s “Young Beauty (Here She Is).”

The closing piece of the night was a tour-de-force tribute to one of Butman’s heroes, Benny Goodman. Before the concert, Butman had told us about getting his start on the clarinet before switching to the saxophone and dreaming of one day leading his own big band like Goodman. This conclusive suite offered much space for some noteworthy exchanges between individual members of both ensembles, trading several choruses and solos. We almost fell off our seats during the culminating “drum battle” between Igor’s brother Oleg Butman and Obed Calvaire of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Later that night, our delegation was invited to a post-concert reception, where Butman looked as lively as ever and jammed the night away with a number of artists as they took turns to perform on the stage that had been set up for the occasion in one of the halls at GUM, the party’s venue. Despite coming from weeks of touring and having one more major birthday concert at Saint Petersburg the following night, he looked as fresh as a daisy and loved all the vibes. Marsalis was there too, sitting at the center of the room, radiating positivity.

Sadly, I had to flee the scene before long, as I had an early flight to catch, a bag to pack and a tie to “un-knot.” But before heading to my hotel room, I couldn’t help myself and went for one final walk around Red Square.  With jazz still ringing in my ears and surrounded by the majesty of the gigantic, historical buildings around me and their cross-cultural eclectic architectural styles, I suddenly realized how little we know of the people and the world around us and how art, including jazz, can help us try to understand its mystery, the mystery of creation and the mystery of each other.

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