Syurpriz! 100 Years of Russian Jazz: The Documentary

"Jazz 100 Russia" documentary posterThe Marlowsphere (Blog #157)

When it comes to documentaries where the subject is jazz, the American catalogue is full of viewing choices, so much so you come away with the impression that jazz is only performed in the United States and if it is performed elsewhere on the planet, well, how good could it be? If it was created and performed on a par with American jazz composers, arrangers, and musicians, well, then, certainly documentaries would be a lot more present.

Syurpriz! That’s Russian for “Surprise!” According to a recently released feature-length  documentary (114 minutes) produced in Russia, jazz has been performed in Russia (more surprise) for 100 years!

The documentary—“Jazz 100 Russia”—was the brainchild of renowned Russian tenor saxophonist Igor Butman (he’s also one of the characters in the documentary as well as one of the producers, along with Yulia Hmelevskaya).

Cyril Moshkow Russian Jazz JournalistIt was written by Russia’s leading jazz journalism Cyril Moshkow. The director is Alexander Bryntsev. The documentary’s major sponsor is the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.

The documentary calls itself “groundbreaking” and it is that. It’s the first documentary to encapsulate the 100 years of jazz in Russia, starting with the introduction of jazz by (syupriz) an innovative dancer, Valentin Parnakh, who brought the jazz sound and aesthetic to Russia from his visits to Paris in the early 1920s.

Second, the six-part feature is a cornucopia of archival footage that no doubt took years of specific and serendipitous research.

Third, along with the archival footage, the soundtrack is wall-to-wall jazz of various stripes paralleling the evolution of jazz in the United 1935 Alksandr Tsfasman Band in Early Soviet TalkieStates, from “trad jazz” to “free jazz” to today’s contemporary styles. This, too, must have required painstaking research.

Fourth, the documentary does not shy away from dealing with the political lefts and rights in Russia since the 1917 Russian Revolution, although the references are subtle and non-critical.

The 100-year span of Russian jazz history brought together in 114 minutes is in itself a work of art: gorgeously shot and edited so well the viewer does not notice the content juxtapositions. It tells a story of not just the jazz players, but also the social and cultural backdrop in which this democratic form of music through improvisation ─ and therefore individual freedom of expression ─ as survived and grown in a country with a long history of adherence to central authority.

1959 Moscow Jazz Club Backstage Rehearsal, photo (c)Vladimir SadkovkinSpeaking of improvisation, one of the best definitions of jazz is articulated by Evgeny Pobozhiy, the young winner of the 2019 Herbie Hancock Jazz Guitar Competition. He says:

[Jazz] is the most perfect musical form that humans have created. Jazz culture
has absorbed the best achievements of humanity: Western traditions and oriental
ethnic traditions, and African, of course. It is based on improvisation, that is, on
spontaneous music-making, and improvisation is impossible without deep knowledge
and understanding. A jazz musician has always been something like a symbiosis of a
creator and a scientist, both involved in a certain spiritual practice.

Well stated. Just like the documentary.

The documentary will become available outside Russia after it has been shown on Russian television. Click here to see the trailer.

Eugene Marlow, Ph.D.
“Jazz in China” Winner of the 2022 Free Speech Film Festival

Eugene Marlow, MBA, Ph.D., © 2023



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