Arts, Culture & Media

Growing up without religion in the Soviet Union, believing in jazz

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Credit: Courtesy of Igor Butman
Jazz saxophone great Igor Butman

One of the world's great jazz saxophonists was born in a country that once outlawed the saxophone.

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Butman says when he was a toddler, he couldn't keep his hands off of his parents' record collection.

“They were hiding the records from me, because even when I was 2 or 3-years-old, I was putting records on and dancing to it," he said.

This was in his family's flat in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, in the early 1960s. Butman says there was one record he played over and over again: “One song by Ella Fitzgerald, where she sings 'Mack the Knife.'"

Recordings like these were prized possessions in the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviet government tried to stamp out American jazz, branding it degenerate music.

After World War II and during the early years of the Cold War, the authorities even confiscated saxophones, and shipped jazz musicians off to the Gulag. But they weren't able to suppress the appetite for jazz; it had an almost cult-like following in the Soviet Union.

"Because when you live in a country with no religion, you have to believe in something,” Butman says, “so you believe in music."

In the ’60s and ’70s, Soviet officials took a more benign view of jazz, and tried to domesticate it, creating officially sanctioned jazz orchestras and Big Bands. But they were called "variety" orchestras. 

“They didn't want to say the word jazz, because it was American. If you say ‘variety’ orchestra, it's okay."

Butman fell in love with the saxophone, and performed with the Soviet Union's top variety ensembles while still a teenager. He says Soviet bands could imitate the best of the American jazz musicians, but Butman wanted to find his own voice. 

In l987, Butman got a chance to come to America. 

“When I came I had a bag with only two badminton racquets." He didn’t even come with a saxophone.

He studied contemporary jazz and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston and started writing his own jazz scores.

Igor Butman never thought he'd see the Soviet Union again. But then, "As soon as I left, they're like PLING -- no Gorbachev."  

The Soviet Union had dissolved in a flash. So he moved back in l993.

“I didn't love the Communist Party and the political situation. But I loved the people I played for. It's a great country, with a lot of spirit."

These days, Butman has his own orchestra and big band, spreading the gospel of jazz to a new generation of Russians.

Butman believes music has the power to change people, even when it's no longer subversive. He sees it in the faces of people at his concerts.

"Russian people, especially in Soviet days, they scowl, never smile, because if you smile, there's something wrong — why is he smiling, the country's in danger and he's smiling,” Butman says. “We we're always in danger, of the US, Cold War. So now people go out of the concert smiling, very open faces, they're really excited. "

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