As a leading advocate of Russian art in the world, Igor Butman is the most recognized jazz artist in the country. US President Bill Clinton said Butman “may be the greatest living jazz saxophone player, who happens to be Russian.” Leading into Butman’s performance with jazz vocalist Fantine at the JAS Cafe on July 14 we take a look back at the history of jazz in Russia.
Russia’s first jazz concert took place in October 1922 at the behest of Valentin Parnakh, an enigmatic all-rounder who wrote poetry, choreographed ballet and played piano. He brought the first jazz records and instruments to the country from Paris. The music was thereafter repressed in various ways throughout the Soviet Union – including the period of Igor Butman’s emergence in the 70s and 80s, when non-state-sanctioned concerts could see musicians or promoters locked up.
There was an expression that crystallized the prevailing sentiment about jazz music, which was largely associated with the West and frowned upon as a result. People used to say: “Today he plays jazz, tomorrow he’ll sell out his motherland.”
But in the last 25 years, jazz has flourished in Russia, with Butman being the most famous face of the music for the country. Butman grew up in the Soviet Union, but moved to the U.S. in 1987 where he studied at the Berklee College of Music. In 1993, he returned to Russia and became a jazz bridge between Moscow and New York, playing in Russia with the likes of Eddie Gomez, Lenny White, John Abercrombie, and Joe Lock.