Jazz with a Russian Accent
For many Americans, the thought of going to live in a foreign country might seem exotic. Buying a place in a small village where you can walk to the market every day, enjoy sights and sounds you've only read about in travel brochures, enjoy exotic nightlife, and eat exotic foods would be a dream come true, right?
That depends upon your perspective.
In the 1930's and '40s, a musician by the name of Eddie Rosner was riding a huge wave of popularity. It started in Berlin, where the Eddie Rosner Jazz Orchestra played the hits of the day. When the Nazis got to Berlin, he fled to Warsaw, where things were great for a while. At one point, Rosner and his group performed to a seemingly empty theater, only to later learn that Joseph Stalin had been sitting in the shadows of the balcony and sent a messenger to tell Eddie he liked what he heard. They became, essentially, "Stalin's Band" during the war, entertaining troops and party bigwigs. Rosner was well paid, lived in a large apartment, and had the world by the tail.
As quickly as it began, however, it ended.
When the war ended, the music for which he had been celebrated was now decadent. His "crime" got him a ticket to a Siberian prison. Interestingly, the commander of the prison liked his music and let him form a prison band, which would wind up entertaining their captors, while being in prison for the very thing they were expected to do...play jazz.
Though Rosner died broke and in obscurity in the mid 1970s, there are echoes of Rosner's band still heard today. After he was released from prison following Stalin's death, Rosner formed another orchestra, which featured Nina Brodskaya as soloist. The cold war, however, would once again force jazz musicians to go silent. Brodskaya, like many others, would take the first opportunity to leave their homeland for a new life in the United States.
My wife Beverley and I have been privileged to meet and become friends with a large number of people from Russia and The Ukraine who now live in Central Ohio. Some were doctors, worked on aircraft engines, taught music, danced with the Bolshoi or Kirov Ballet, and worked as a mechanical engineer. Coming to this country meant a freedom they could not know in the Soviet Union, but it came at a great cost. An example was Violetta Boft, who had been a prima ballerina with the Stanislavsky Ballet. She would have danced with the Bolshoi, as did her brother George, but she had been born in the United States before her parents returned to Russia. Only Russian-born dancers were allowed to dance in the Bolshoi Ballet. Because she had been born here, the Soviets never allowed her to dance in the United States. She and her brother George spent many years with BalletMet, giving their dancers the benefit of their incredible talents and experience. She would speak with a mixture of pride, sadness, and anger about her dancing career...what she had had - and what she had given up to come to the United States. All who made that trip during the cold war sacrificed a great deal to come.
The same is true with singer Nina Brodskaya. She and many other transplanted Russian musicians still perform together, but it is to an empty hall...meeting each Tuesday night to play, share some vodka, and enjoy some of their favorite Russian dishes. Instead of a theater, they play together in the basement of a dentist's office.
It is well worth your time to read this recently published article from the New York Times about Eddie Rosner's life and these musicians who now play for the music they love without having to look over their shoulder. You'll find that story here. In a Brooklyn Basement...Jazz with a Russian Accent
Below is a short performance by the Eddie Rosner Jazz Orchestra. Below that is a short feature about his group. It is in Russian, but the video footage and the music you'll hear makes it worth checking out. Those of you who speak the language may well remember the time that the Eddie Rosner Jazz Orchestra was flying high. It also reminds me of how much we have in this country...and how much we have to be thankful for.