Alexei Zoubov,head with saxophone
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        From Jazz Seduction to Jazz Addiction (Moscow)

        September 11th, 2008 by Alexei Zoubov

        This is a sequel (kind of) to The Great Jazz Seduction post.

        I’ve bought my first tenor saxophone in the spring of 1955. I didn’t know that at the time, but it turned out to be a decent horn, made by Kohlert in the 30’s. At the time it was a German company, and it still exists, but somewhere in the far East – Taiwan or Thailand, I don’t know for sure. The old man that sold it to me gave me some instructions on how to hold it and which end goes into the mouth. There was an ancient chirped mouthpiece and a few half-rotten reeds. I was ready to start.

        It was next to impossible to find anybody to give me lessons or even just an advice. As I already mentioned before, from 1947 on, Stalin and the Communist Party declared a war on all so called “bourgeous capitalist” influences in art, literature and music, and jazz and the saxophone became almost officially the enemies of Soviet state.

        Stalin died in 1953, and that saved a lot of people and arts from complete destruction. Very slowly, but steadily, the atmosphere started to change and jazz music and its fans started to crawl out of their hiding places. Some bands playing in the restaurants and at the dance parties started to play something vaguely resembling jazz and use saxophones. But the only thing I could learn from these saxophone players was how not to play!

        So. in the beginning my lessons came from the radio and a few records I could get hold of. For the three months summer vacation I went to my parents’ “dacha” (summer house) and spent all these three months practicing 6-8 hours a day. Just imagine how happy it made my neighbours!

        No matter how much the neighbours wanted to stop me, they didn’t succeed, and in September I returned to Moscow full of unjustified confidence in my playing abilities. I managed to get into a semi-amateur big band at the Moscow Arts Workers Club. This band was a part of a large variety concert program “The First Step”, that really deserves a separate piece because of its enormous influence on the development of stand-up comedy, pop music and even jazz in Moscow. I will definitely return to this topic later.

        Now I started to discover that there were other serious young jazz musicians in Moscow. Almost all of them were like me, college and University students, majoring in areas very far from music, united by their addiction to jazz.

        Once more, I couldn’t even imagine then that I’ll eventually become a professional musician. I was working on developing my skills just for the fun of it. But at that time there were two problems in my life that I intended to solve, using my newly acquired pretty limited musical skills, namely:

        1. I really needed to make extra money.
        2. I was a shy and reserved person, lacking any confidence with dealing with chicks. They just felt my inner discomfort and preferred to deal with somebody else.

        So I intended to use my saxophone to change my financial situation and attract some girls. To some extent, it worked, mostly in solving the first problem – money.

        There was a growing demand for the dance bands for all kinds of dance parties, mostly in colleges, university and science research institutes. It worked practically the same way as so called “casuals” are organized here in the States. There was a contractor who’d secure the gig and then put together a small band. And although I wasn’t really accomplished player back then, there wasn’t really anybody else, and I suddenly became the most popular tenor player in Moscow and started playing gigs non-stop, 5-6 times a week.

        But, if the money problem was more or less taken care off, the situation with girls didn’t improve much at all. What really helped, at least for some time, was booze!

        It made me stronger, assertive, confident, more attractive to the girls, it seemed to me that I even played better, which, to some extent, could even have been true. The problem was – it only worked if I was able to control the amount consumed and stop on time. And I was notoriously bad at it!

        Russians are deservingly known as some of the hardest drinkers in the world. Russian jazz musicians always were eager to be very patriotic about that and prove themselves to be “more Russians than Russians” in that respect. As the Russian saying goes: “You have a drink and become a completely different person, but.. this other person wants to have a drink too!”

        Never liking the person you are at the moment is definitely a contributing factor to the development of drug and alcohol addictions, in jazz musicians in particular. You try to reach that wonderful state of perfect balance of feeling great about yourself, being in full control of your music, with that nasty self-deprecating voice suppressed, when everything flows naturally and the joy of creating overwhelms you…

        Some lucky musicians achieve this state naturally, some get there by hard work on themselves, and some get there with the help of drugs or alcohol. For the latter this state becomes more and more elusive and rare, they have to use and drink more and more, and…

        OK, that is a topic for a separate post and I promise to get back to it. I don’t drink or use for a long time, close to 25 years, and I’m lucky I’m alive now. In the art of drinking myself almost to death I am definitely a retired professional and, hopefully, my story could help others.

        By 1956 eight musicians formed a more or less permanent group and called it, very inventively, “The Eight”. It featured a trumpet (Victor Zelchenko), trombone (Konstantin Bakholdin), two altos (George Garanian and Eric Dibay), one tenor sax (me) and bass (Igor Berukshtis), drums (Alexander Garetkin or Alexander Salganik) and piano (Boris Rytchkov or Nikolai Kapustin). It was the first group in Moscow that played written arrangements. It soon became the most sought for group and was so busy, that it had sometimes to split to send two-three guys to the next gig, while the others were finishing the first one.

        The picture below is the only one I have saved from this time – sorry for the quality.

        This was taken at The Eight gig in 1956.   

        I’m in front at right, playing my Kohlert sax with Brilhart mouthpiece.

        This group played everything from pop tunes to dixieland to swing (Glenn Miller was essential), even some bebop – and the crowd was happily dancing and applauding after every tune.

        The Soviet society was slowly opening to western influences and the power was reluctantly going along. There was a decision made to have an International Youth Festival in Moscow in the summer of 1957. The Soviets intended to promote the successes of the Soviet Union to the guests from abroad, but there was an unintentional result – promotion of the western culture to eager to absorb it Moscovites.

        And Moscow jazz musicians became some of the main beneficiaries.

        More next time!

        Posted in Jazz, Just Stories, Music, That's how it was..