Central & Eastern Europe / Art / Music / Popular Culture / History

Three Kings

The strange, subversive tale of the Vilnius Jazz Trio

Ganelin, Tarasov & Chekasin: the Trio in Dnipro, 1981. (Private archive of Vladimir Tarasov)

Jazz was much more of a two-way street than rock and roll; it may have started out as an American import, but it allowed Eastern European musicians to develop their own avant-gardes, and export them back to the West – or even to each other, as a form of East-East exchange. 

The music grows, seizes the entire space, it wants to drown out the world, it won’t let you think of anything … I calm myself, I convince myself it’s just music, it’s just a concert, but the faces around me grow darker still, the debris under my feet trembles and rises from the floor, visions and dreams explode inside me.

(from Vilnius Poker by Ričardas Gavelis, translated by Elizabeth Novickas)

It was Lithuanian writer Ričardas Gavelis’s 1993 novel Vilnius Poker, a phantasmagorical journey through the last years of the USSR, that best described the cathartic impact that free jazz had on people living under Soviet rule. The episode in question concerns an avant-garde jazz group giving a concert in an abandoned church. The performance, featuring almost impossible virtuosity and unfathomable invention, leaves the audience stunned.

The group described by Gavelis is a fictionalized version of the real-life Vilnius Jazz Trio (sometimes known as the Ganelin Trio or simply the Trio), a mould-breaking ensemble comprising  pianist Vycheslav Ganelin, sax player Vladimir Chekasin, and percussionist Vladimir Tarasov. The Trio enjoyed massive popularity in the Soviet Union despite frequent obstruction from officials. Because they were based in Vilnius (and not Moscow or Leningrad) they were allowed a certain amount of freedom – and their music was so abstract that few officials really knew how to respond to it.

It is just over fifty years since the Trio played their first ever concert at the Yunost Jazz Festival in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro (then named Dnipropetrovsk). When I caught up with Trio drummer Vladimir Tarasov by phone he had had totally forgotten that such a major anniversary had occurred, and thanked me for reminding him. His memories of the Dnipro event are still pretty sharp, however. “The festival was organized by the communist youth movement or Komsomol, and security was heavy. There were a lot of police, maybe KGB too. There was a campaign against youths with long hair at the time, and all the males in the audience had short back and sides.”

Still living in Vilnius and very much active both as a musician and a conceptual artist, Tarasov is one veteran of the Soviet underground who has remained true to his ideals. An outspoken critic of the current regime in Moscow, he is also a staunch friend of the Ukraine, something his Facebook posts make abundantly clear.

East-East exchange

We often think of rock and roll as the archetypal rebel music, especially when examining the cultural relationship between West and East during the Cold War. From the Rolling Stones Warsaw concert of 1967 to David Bowie’s performance beside the Berlin Wall in 1987, certain rock happenings have entered the historical canon as events of frontier-rattling importance. Despite its subversive reputation however, rock did very little to change anything in Cold-War Europe - jeans and hairstyles excepted. It was jazz, not rock, that acted as a meaningful conduit of change. As well as being perceived as a distinctly American art form, jazz was also seen as artistic freedom at its purest. Rock was by comparison formulaic, over-commercialized, obsessed with trends.

Jazz was also much more of a two-way street than rock; it may have started out as an American import, but it allowed Eastern European musicians to develop their own avant-gardes, and export them back to the West – or even to each other, as a form of East-East exchange. 

Jazz was not outlawed in the USSR; on the contrary it was a respectable branch of popular leisure. Almost every big city had a big band, often attached to the philharmonic orchestra. Many cities could also boast annual jazz festivals, and Western jazz musicians of the more traditional type were occasionally invited to perform - Duke Ellington toured the USSR in 1971. (Vladimir Tarasov travelled from city to city following the Duke's tour.) Jazz in itself was not a problem; it was modern jazz, and free jazz, that officials regarded as suspicious.

Paradoxically the Trio broke up in 1987, just at the time when Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost were making avant-garde jazz respectable. Ganelin moved to Israel. Chekasin and Tarasov remained in Vilnius, but lost the habit of playing together. Tarasov in particular has remained very active in the Vilnius arts scene, and in many ways has become the keeper of the Trio’s flame. He wrote a memoir about the group, and has very generously given interviews to any writers who have come knocking at his door.

“Russian artists thought of Vilnius as if it was Paris. The coffee here was drinkable for a start.”

Tarasov was born in Archangelsk, a busy port over 1000km north of Moscow. Growing up there did not necessarily imply cultural isolation; the city had an orchestra, and a big band that included Count Basie and Duke Ellington standards in its repertoire. Tarasov describes himself as a typical “shestidesyatnik” or child of the Sixties, a generation that simply lived its own life and ignored the state as much as possible. It was in around 1966 that Tarasov remembers being beaten up by people he assumed to be associates of the secret police. “I played jazz, I bought foreign records from sailors, I was like a present to those KGB guys.”

Tarasov was a self-taught musician, learning from the drum parts of the records he heard on Willis Conover's legendary Voice of America radio show. He played in dance bands in cafés and spent a short period at the Leningrad conservatoire (“They asked me what kind of music I listened to. I said Jazz. They said that I had no need of such music. It was American propaganda.”). Eventually he was invited to join the big band of the Lithuanian Philharmonia and moved to Vilnius, capital of what was then the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1968.

Compared to Archangelsk and Leningrad, “the spirit of Vilnius was awesome”. Capital of what had until 1940 been an independent state, it still felt like another country. “Russian artists thought of Vilnius as if it was Paris. The coffee here was drinkable for a start.”

Already making a name for himself in Vilnius was pianist Vyacheslav Ganelin, who had moved to Lithuania with his Russian Jewish parents in 1948. Tarasov and Ganelin started playing together in 1969, and were soon performing at the Café Neringa, a downtown hotel bar that attracted non-conformist intellectuals. Dissident poet Josef Brodsky visited the Neringa whenever he was in Vilnius, and mentioned the café in his poem Lithuanian Divertissement, a tribute to the bohemian freedoms of the Lithuanian capital.

Tarasov and Ganelin were invited to several jazz festivals in 1970-71. It was at one such event in Ekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) that they were taken to the nearby military club to listen to the local dance band and their amazing young saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin. “He was supposed to be playing dance tunes but his sax sounded like John Coltrane; the place was full of local girls who just didn’t know what to do with their feet. It was just amazing, I will never forget it”. They immediately got Chekasin a job in Vilnius so they could form a band.

The resulting Trio quickly made its mark in Soviet jazz circles, but still had no official status.  When they were invited to the Berlin Jazz Days in 1972, the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture informed the Trio that their group did not officially exist and could not therefore travel. The Trio were subsequently taken under the wing of the Lithuanian Philharmonic, but the Ministry of Culture continued to play games with foreign promoters, suggesting that the Trio were unavailable due to illness and they might prefer another band instead.

Music Making in Nine Rooms

Given this level of official hostility towards avant-garde jazz, it is hardly surprising that the Trio’s first album was released not in the Soviet Union, but in its communist ally Poland, where not only was modern jazz tolerated but had become something of a national cultural brand. Between 1976 and 1980 the Trio went on to record a trilogy of classic albums (Con Anima, Concerto Grosso and Ancora da Capo) for state record companies in the USSR and Czechoslovakia; the release of each was delayed by several years by bureaucrats startled by their avant-garde nature. Each album consisted of a long, almost symphonic piece that switched effortlessly in mood and genre, mixing traditional melodies with impressionistic interludes and cacophonous noise. Although pianist Ganelin was the leader, Chekasin was the extrovert star, playing two saxes at once, switching them with flutes, and carrying an armoury of percussion instruments strapped to his waist.

The Trio’s most legendary performance, and the one that illustrated perfectly the connection between modern jazz, conceptual art and dissident culture, was Household Music Making in Nine Rooms, premiered at the Vilnius Philharmonic in 1979. Mixing music and performance, the piece was the direct outgrowth of the Trio’s connections with Moscow’s (largely banned) contemporary art scene. The first movement started with Tarasov asleep on a bed, before being woken by the sound of an alarm clock and leaping up to read Pravda newspaper upside down.

“It was the equivalent of a demonstration”, Tarasov told me. “It was one of the starting points of Soviet conceptual art”. Such was the avant-garde nature of the performance that it was a disappointment even for the Trio’s own fans, who were expecting something more musical. “Some members of the public were shouting ‘where is the jazz?’ “.

Semplice, recorded for Melodiya in 1983 (Cover from the 1995 CD re-release)

In 1984 the Trio visited the UK at the invitation of Soviet exile and jazz broadcaster Leo Feigin. The whole of the BBC’s Russian service was waiting for them at the airport. They took the Trio aside and asked “are you with the Overcoat?”, pointing to the obvious KGB guy who had come on the same plane. According to Tarasov, concert agent John Cumming gave the Overcoat £50 to stay away until the end of the tour. The next time the Trio saw the Overcoat, he was boarding the plane home carrying the kind of bulky cardboard box that usually contained televisions.

"The Russians are coming"

The following year saw concerts in Portugal and France. It was on their return that the Trio played a sell-out concert in Moscow. Their music had never been played on Soviet radio, and their popularity depended entirely a few hard-to-get-hold-of albums and word of mouth. And yet they were greeted like rock stars, with the militia deployed in order to protect the building from ticketless fans.

“The Russians are coming– and the world of jazz may never be the same” wrote Larry Kart in the Chicago Tribune in June 1986. Taking in 16 cities in 26 days, the Trio’s 1986 tour of Canada and the USA was a sign that the Soviet bureaucracy had softened its stance. The arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev as party head in March 1985 had already hinted at a change in governmental style, and evidence of relaxation could be detected at all levels of the system. The Trio flew to America without the company of an Overcoat, a further sign that the group was no longer considered as a risk.

Los Angeles Times critic Dan Heckman described the Trio as “the most fascinating non-American development in jazz since Brazilian bossa nova.” Central to the American reception of the Trio was the idea that they had picked up this quintessential American art form and handed it back to the Americans in more radicalized shape, forged by their experience of life in a one-party state.

Some have argued that the Soviet bureaucracy’s decision to send the Trio on foreign tours in the Eighties was similar to the way in which the CIA promoted American abstract painting in the Fifties; a calculated attempt to appeal to foreign sensibilities by using ground-breaking art as a metaphor for freedom. It is one of history’s supreme ironies that the cultural Cold War ended with the Soviet authorities using a jazz ensemble of which they strongly disapproved to try and persuade foreign audiences that the USSR was boldly embarking on reform.

The relaxation of Soviet bureaucracy, so important in enabling the Trio’s foreign trips, also meant that it was now easier for people to emigrate. Vyacheslav Ganelin decided to take his family to Israel. His departure was a huge shock, coming at a time when the group finally seemed capable of doing anything they wanted. “It was extremely sad” Tarasov says. “Ganelin didn’t tell us until the last minute. It should have been the beginning of our international career, not the end.”

Despite remaining involved in music, the three never played together as a trio again.  Tarasov is nowadays as famous as an installation artist as he is a percussionist. Tarasov’s visual art has the same organic quality as his drum solos, and it’s difficult to separate the two sides of his creative personality. “When I’m making installation art I approach it like a musician, and when I’m on stage I play drums like an installation artist.”

The rise and fall of the Trio mirrored almost exactly the leaden, neo-Stalinist period of Soviet history, from the ending of the Sixties’ cultural thaw to the emergence of Glasnost in the 1980s. Their music represents the exact spiritual opposite of the value system which Soviet rulers were trying to enforce, and the greatness of their cultural achievements was in a sense determined by the epoch in which they operated.

According to Tarasov, almost all art in the Sixties and Seventies was the art of rebellion, both inside the USSR and in the wider world.  “And as we lived in a closed totalitarian system, our Trio was, in the eyes of many, a desired taste of freedom.”

© Jonathan Bousfield

An earlier version of this article appeared in Jutarnji list.