Vladimir Tarasov Interview
The following is an excerpt of an interview conducted by the UNEARTHING THE MUSIC team before Vladimir Tarasov’s presentation of his “Thinking of Khlebnikov” performance at OUT.FEST 2018. You can read the full interview in our database here.
Vladimir Tarasov playing at OUT.FEST 2018 in Barreiro, Portugal. Photo by Andreia Carvalho
You were part of the Ganelin Trio, who were active in the Soviet Union. What was the jazz scene like in the Soviet Union?
Well, I was born in Archangelsk, and I started playing jazz early – when I was 14 years old I was already playing in the Big Band Orchestra of the International Seamen’s Club, it was a big band that played the standards, we did arrangements of music by Count Basie and Duke Ellington and such. Archangelsk had a huge port, there were a lot of sailors who brought American record catalogs with them and ordered the records they wanted, all traditional stuff but also music from Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, and it got there in about a week by the way, it was really nice. There was this huge circle of people who liked to play jazz, all this 60s stuff, you know, there were so many musicians and each of kind of himself, they had something to say…So this influence of the 60s was not only present in the US, it was everywhere. Eventually the orchestra of the Lithuanian State Philarmony came to town, their house big band (which was really good), and since their drummer was ill they started looking for someone to replace him. They found me, I was already back from St.Petersburg (Leningrad as they called it at the time), and I knew all these records, I already had done the music course, so I played the concert and the next morning the conductor of the orchestra Jonas Cijūnėlis come to my house and said “Ok, come with us to Vilnius” and so I moved there in 67. I played in the orchestra for two years, and then after those two years they removed us from the Philarmony because we only played jazz, not any of the Soviet, patriotic songs made for the sake of the party. So then I moved to the Radio Orchestra with that conductor and that was where I met the great pianist Ganelin Slava, and I started playing jazz with him. For two years we played as a duo, and then eventually we went to Ekaterinburg on a tour and we found Chekasin, and that’s how we became a trio.
But to come back to your question, I can tell you that the problem with the jazz scene in the Russia and other countries at the time, as it was in Europe by the way, was America. I say this as a joke which is partly true but fact is that everyone wanted to copy that 50’s American jazz in the Soviet Union. I remember that I was in these twelve concerts of Duke Ellington orchestra in 71 in Kiev, Minsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg…The first concert they played in Moscow, the audience was made up of just jazz musicians, because of Duke Ellington, he was a hero, a guru for everyone, like a jazz god, and when the break came everybody got out of the room and said “Wow, I also want to play like that.” But they don’t understand the main thing: He already exists, he’s on the stage, you can’t play like that, you can only copy him…so most jazz musicians in Eastern Europe were copying the music of the 50s, even American music today still copies the music of the 50s – it’s a copy of the copy! And that just wasn’t interesting for me or for Ganelin Slava or Vladimir Checkasin, so we tried to find our own way…and it looks like we found it!
Did you find Lithuania to be more liberal than other parts of the Soviet Union?
Of course, of course! Because Lithuania was incorporated only in 1940, it was much later than most parts of the Soviet Union, and they still remembered what freedom meant, and the Moscow government at the time thought “ok, they’re a small country, they can do what they want”…or maybe they were afraid to try to impose themselves more like they did with Georgia, Azerbaijan or Armenia, you know, that period…so we had a little bit more freedom. I’m sure that if we tried to make this trio in Leningrad or Moscow they wouldn’t allow us, and we saw it wasn’t allowed: we had so many invitations to play abroad, we had one in 72 to play in the Jazztage in Berlin with the Philarmony, actually the same concert was with Miles Davis, when I got the invitation from Joachim Berendt I was in shock, you know… but the answer from Soviet Union Cultural Ministry was that they did not exist… Still, Lithuania was the best place to be. But it still took 5/6 years to break down those barriers, little by little. We finally got out by 76, and then we started to play everywhere. The Ganelin Trio published “Con Anima” (1977) on the state’s record label (Melodiya). How did the label function? Did you face any pressures to produce any specific kind of music or music with a patriotic tinge at all? Well, the Melodiya that published “Con Anima” was actually the Lithuanian branch of the main Melodiya office in Moscow. Some really nice people worked there, and they didn’t ask us to play anything in particular, we just played our music. I’m still curious as to how our music was released there though – maybe because of the people in the Lithuanian office, maybe because Melodiya was such a huge company at the time, it was the official state music label…perhaps they just trusted the Lithuanian office. “Con Anima” wasn’t our first record though, our first record was published in Poland several months before on the Pronit label. This was 1976, when we first played the Jazz Jamboree festival, which was a very successful concert for the trio. And when the people in Melodiya understood that we had already put out one record outside the USSR (okay, Poland was kind of an eastern country, but still), they said “ok, we need to record them”.
The Neringa Café in Vilnius was reportedly a big part of the development of the Ganelin Trio and of Lithuanian counterculture in general. Can you tell us about the atmosphere and the kind of people who gathered there?
Yes, the Neringa Cafe was great, it was a place where all intellectuals, writers, painters, poets and musicians gathered in the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. We had the chance to play Jazz there for four or five hours every evening, as long as we wanted. Joseph Brodsky wrote a poem about the café, he went there all the time and he came to Vilnius with a nice company, Tomas Venclova, a great poet… he would sit there drinking Cognac, and sit there all evening listening to jazz…So I think that at that time the Neringa Café was very important, even for the KGB – I think they listened to everything that happened at the time and at the same time they had control of the situation, you know, we had a joke where if they brought a car and arrested everyone in the café every evening, there wouldn’t be an intellectual circle in Lithuania anymore, because everybody was there. And for us it was a very nice practice.
Do you think the café was bugged by the KGB?
Yeah of course! I even saw it, because I went there every day to practice the drums, we had a small room behind the stage and the café opened at like 12:00/1:00, and one time I went there before it opened, at 10:00, and I saw how they checked the microphones, they had them in places like boxes on the left side near the wall…I saw a lot of microphones there, and they were really shocked when they saw me but they didn’t say anything. So I went to my room to start practising and after five minutes one of them knocks on the door asks me, “do you have matches?” I say “yes, of course” and then he asks me “What’s your name?” I was a bit worried about what might happened, to be honest…And this was sort of commonplace, all this George Orwell stuff happened in the Soviet Union at the time.
Continue reading the full interview in our database here.