When Igor Butman talks about jazz in the Soviet Union in the late '70s, his enthusiasm is only partly due to the fact that he was a teenager then, just waking up to music. Born in St. Petersburg, which at the time was called Leningrad, Butman started playing classical clarinet in 1972, at the age of 11. People there knew about jazz but they weren't allowed to let on: The music had been officially banned in the Soviet Union since the late 1920s.
"There was an article by Maxim Gorky after he visited the U.S.," says Butman by phone from Moscow. "Gorky wrote that jazz is not a very good music for the Soviet Union. Eventually the music was banned."
But things have changed. The collapse of the Soviet Union opened the doors to extensive cultural swapping. Butman is getting ready to take his big band on a seven-city U.S. tour, starting Friday in Seattle and passing through Cleveland Tuesday. Also on the bill are the Moscow Soloists, led by Grammy-winning violist Yuri Bashmet. The program includes classical works, performed by Bashmet and his ensemble, and jazz (including arrangements of works by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovitch), performed by Butman and his big band. There's also something that gets everyone working together: "Jazz Suite for Viola, Saxophone, Piano, String Orchestra and Big Band," by pianist/composer Igor Raykhelson.
A U.S. tour by a Russian sax man would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago. Under Stalin, people who didn't want jazz to flourish - including the Russian Association of Proletariat Musicians - used Gorki's 1928 article, "On the Music of the Gross," to argue in favor of government control over jazz. Intellectuals debated whether the music was virtuous or not. Was it the voice of the people or the corrupt spawn of capitalism, exploiting black people while whites spent their money dancing and drinking? The government came down on the side of spawn and exploitation, passing laws that people caught playing jazz or importing records could be fined. After World War II, as the cold war ramped up and Soviet zeal was at an all-time high, the politics of music were especially nasty. In his book Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1917-1980, S. Frederick Starr says it was prohibited to use the word "jazz" in public. For a while, saxophones were confiscated.
Butman, fortunately, was born in 1961. By the time he was a teenager, schools like his - the Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music - were offering courses in jazz. Butman dropped clarinet in favor of saxophone, studying with Gennady Goldstein, just as the country entered an era of tepid jazz tolerance. Ensembles formed at schools. The state sponsored some study abroad, and the music spread slowly. Butman says part of what this accomplished was to make clear that in their isolation, Soviet musicians hadn't honed their chops to the degree that European and American counterparts had.
He listened to jazz on Voice of America radio late at night. His American musical heroes included great sax men Cannonball Adderly, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Eventually the government began to book a limited number of concerts.
"Everything was controlled by the government," says Butman. "They could say whether you could perform or go on the road. They would give you money for that. You would play a set amount of performances each month."
Butman had a popular band, so the government kept him employed. So for him, government control had its upside. He didn't have to worry about booking gigs or any of the exhausting administrative details of running a capitalist band.
"It seems contrary," he says, "but if you are a creative musician, you can use those opportunities to do something."
Occasionally, Butman had the chance to play with American musicians on tour in the Soviet Union, musicians like Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton and most notably Grover Washington Jr., who gave the Russian player a spot on his 1988 recording Then and Now. Those connections eventually led to gigs in the U.S. and study at Berklee College of Music.
His career took off, thanks to attention from American jazz greats like Lionel Hampton and Wynton Marsalis. Butman moved back to Moscow in 1994 and has traveled back and forth frequently since then. President Bill Clinton, himself a tenor-sax player, heard Butman play during a state dinner hosted by Vladimir Putin and said he "may be the greatest living jazz saxophone player, who happens to be a Russian."
Butman says that when government control and support of jazz ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the impact on musicians was mixed. "It was not a very good period, but there was a lot of music and musicians coming, and we finally had a chance to play with great American musicians and players from Europe. It was hard - there was no money. We had to survive on gigs. But if you think of freedom … you could play everywhere. A few people started jazz clubs, there were places to play, musicians could perform nationally. At the same time, we had the chance to learn how good we were, and some of us were not very good. I was willing to learn and see what can we do."