Monday, 18 March 2013

A jazz lecture in Moscow, St Petersburg on the train, Mattisse and Picasso, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington swing ,.

This Friday, we decided to attend a lecture at the American Centre here in Moscow on the topic of jazz : what it is, its history, why it became so popular and what it means.

We walked down towards the American Cultural Centre based in the Library of Foreign Literature.

The lecture was given by a charming, breathless and enthusiastic young woman who is herself an accomplished amateur musician,and judging by the rendition she gave during her talk, a very good jazz singer.
In appearance and style she reminded us of a Mormon or Jesuit missionary - the infectious smile, the extraversion suggesting she had seen the light, and would be happy to show it to us.
Still, jazz is the devil’s music, so we must be wrong about this.
I took issue with her when she ascribed the rise of jazz to its encapsulation of American values of freedom, equality and individuality.
Leaving aside the point definitively nailed by the philosopher Isiah Berlin that freedom and equality are opposites in the real political world, something that Americans refuse to believe, I argued that it was the denial of basic freedoms to America’s black population that encouraged their development of a separate artistic and musical identity through  jazz.
Of course, she could have replied that the music itself, insofar as it demands American values of its exponents, has helped to make black and white Americans equal, but since they are patently not equal then one could accuse this argument of being jesuitical - whoops!
The talk was superbly livened up by a video of Duke Ellington’s band playing ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing’, which we can’t resist showing here.

The talk over, and very enjoyable it was too, despite the American propaganda, we headed up to the station to catch the 10.10pm to St Petersburg, which would get us in at 6am the following morning.
The solid long snake of steel, 16 long carriages, that would take us the roughly 400 miles through the dark and snow filled night was on the platform. It looked more reliable than the sun coming up tomorrow, it looked stronger than Atlas and if necessary it could have held up the earth. The Soviets built trains in the Victorian style - to last forever, even unto the dawning of capitalism in Russia, or the strange form of it which prevails here.
The attendant in our carriage could have shown any US service organisation how things are done. He took a pride and pleasure in his work, striding along the carriage announcing that he would make tea or coffee for all, and serve it with or without biscuits or croissants.
He was smartly dressed, polite and efficient, our tea arrived with a smile and it was superb. He understood intuitively what many here do not, that the boss is only a temporary stand in for the real boss - the customer. Some people you have to train, others just get it, and he did.
The broad masses in Russia, if this sample are statistically significant, are thoughtful and considerate, respectful of others’ privacy in public spaces, and there is none of the rowdyism one constantly encounters in London. I have never seen the kind of moronic shouting and swearing by large tribes of overweight and red faced young ‘men’ in public here that we see so often at home. We wonder why?

At 6 am, after a good if cramped nights sleep ( I was on the top bunk ) we arrived promptly at the Moscow train station in St Petersburg.
We walked out into a scene that looked as if we had arrived in a fairy tale : spires, stone, domes, palaces and pink and blue churches are everywhere and every street displays the elegance and restrained proportions of eighteenth century architecture. The streets and buildings are as polite as the people, they have taken the trouble to look good, which is a sign of consideration for others - modernism says this is how I feel, I’m authentic, my feelings are in tune with my function, so get used to it. 

Us in an empty Nevsky Prospekt at 6.15 am

A frozen canal near central St Petersburg, 6.30 am

The Winter Palace, or the Hermitage, in the background, 6.45am

First stop, the Winter Palace or the Hermitage, one of the greatest art galleries in the world.
The Czars and Czarinas lived in the palace and Catherine the Great turned much of it into a public gallery, a process completed by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

It is utterly sumptuous, gorgeous, dazzling, kitch in many places but irresistible everywhere. You can see where Walt Disney got his Magic Kingdom from.

The Winter Palace and the Alexander's column

The entrance hall of the Hermitage

There is too much to describe, but suffice to say that the room that features Matisse is capable of fixing a human to the spot for a week - there, in one room, is primitivism to perfection, it’s been downhill ever since. We ignored Picasso after this room - soul free geometry, plagiarism without a sense of humour and totally sexless. Matisse is erotic, Picasso is sclerotic.

As we left St Petersburg late Sunday it looked as if the darkness had been painted in, behind and around all the buildings just to show another side of their personality - now they danced and sparkled like young aristocrats at a ball, each waiting to be asked for the next mazurka, whilst behind them, the older or bigger buildings assumed the benign air of their parents, playing cards and looking solicitously across to see how their progeny were faring in the marriage stakes.

We have lived in Tolstoy’s world for a weekend - it’s time to get back, we can only take so much refinement, we need something that will swing. 

And anyone can swing, just look at these Japanese school children playing Benny Goodman.
Jazz has transcended race now, as it was destined to, but don’t forget that it took a white band to spread the music on radio in the USA - ‘race music’ couldn’t get aired until much later.
Black folk weren’t considered refined enough to play their music over the syndicated radio shows in the 1930’s, and such has been the black and white divide that Miles Davis was attacked by some black jazz artists for having the white pianist Bill Evans in his band.
‘I wouldn’t care if he was green, man’ replied Miles, ‘he can play’

Life is music, is what we say, and it should swing.

But how can life swing if we don't share what life has to offer?
There are, in Israel, as there are everywhere, some religious nutters who don't know how to share because they think God wants them to have everything...the most moving illustration of this and its opposite, which gives us some hope, is in The Guardian today ( Tuesday 19th March ) and is a short film about a Palestinian boy and the Israeli opposition who support him and his family against the settler fanatics.

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