Midnight In Moscow

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By Simon Green

There were two defining moments in my life that ignited my interest in jazz: the first was a bit unfortunate, the second a somewhat better scenario. Ironically, unbeknownst to me at the time, both were linked and led me towards a hedonistic jazz journey.

A lady friend had kindly presented me with a ‘45’ single of Glenn Miller’s wonderful hit ‘Moonlight Serenade’, which I played repeatedly. As it rekindled nostalgic moments of a brief romantic tryst with the aforementioned benefactor, so the volume of music increased culminating with my mother storming into my bedroom shouting: “turn that infernal racket off this instant!” Having duly obliged, I then shot back at her: “Glenn Miller was one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers this century, and besides, being a ‘Wren’ officer in the war, you must have danced to his music at the balls you used to attend.” “I sat those ones out” she replied snippily.

I should have left it at that, but being in my late teens and thinking I knew better than anyone, especially my parents, I muttered under my breath: “probably no one invited you to dance.” Unfortunately it wasn’t quite quiet enough and was met with “what did you say?” with her voice rising an entire octave in that short sentence, accompanied by her hands in the notorious “double-teapot” position. “I’ll have you know,” she replied sotto voce and in a voice not dissimilar to the Queen’s, “I had men queuing up to ask me to dance with my name on their cards,” and with that she flounced out of the room, nose in air.

Selection_030Having had a top musical background, first as a chorister at Canterbury cathedral, then at the fabled Kings Canterbury where classical music and Gilbert and Sullivan ruled the roost, I had never been exposed to any form of jazz. This changed when I was walking down Frith St in London’s West End in 1979 and happened upon number 47 which housed the eponymous Ronnie Scott’s and thought “why not?” and walked through the door that was to change my life as it introduced me to a jazz world hitherto unknown, and has been with me ever since.

Fast forward to today, and it finds me in Moscow trying to discover what the city has to offer jazz-wise, and I was not to be disappointed. It has to be said that one of the common denominators with most of the clubs is their locations which have the rather annoying habit of being difficult to find.

I started off by visiting the well established and crème de la crème of clubs with its stable of national and international players at their disposal: Club Soyuz Kompozitorov at Brusov Pereulok 8/10 – difficult to find but well worth the effort. A group were playing offering a trip down memory lane with some retro jazz, and they delivered with aplomb and vitality. It was accompanied by a beef Carpaccio that was to die for along with the ubiquitous red wine that seems to follow me around – or should that be vice versa?

This is a very cozy speak-easy place that wouldn’t be out of place alongside Woody Allen’s jazz club in Greenwich Village with its eclectic electric atmosphere. Do watch the seats you choose as prices vary considerably from bar places at 600 roubles a shout to front seats that touch the stage costing 4,600 roubles. Anyone with any sort of musical appreciation knows that those seats aren’t the best unless you’re some sort of groupie, and the optimum ones that extract the best ‘ensemble’ are half way back. The side seats, which offer a perfectly good view and go for 1,400 roubles, are in my opinion the best way to go. In short, this is a must visit place, but allow a few extra minutes to locate it, then with that done, descend into the nevermost depths of the abyss and enjoy!

Next up I visited the illustrious Igor Butman’s jazz club which moved a year ago from Chistye Prudy to Taganskaya and is one minute from the circle line exit and right next to the main theater, so an easy place to find for once. The charming manageress Anastasia, allowed me carte blanche to the place, spoke good English, so I was able to circulate, glass of red in hand, taking photos uninterrupted of the quintet who were playing with great dexterity.

The Igor Butman quartet are a real ‘tour de force’ in the jazz world and have many tours under their belt including an upcoming concert at the world famous Studio 54 in the USA on October 25 this year; indeed they played at the Kremlin in 2000 in front of Presidents Putin and Clinton. The club exudes a pleasant atmosphere and as always with jazz, a real potpourri of people in attendance being affected in different ways. There was a collection of excited ladies celebrating a birthday on one side, then in the middle there were a couple of aficionados in feet-tapping frenzy to the beat, and in front of me, a rather amorous couple who were taking kissing in public to an entirely new plateau! Food is reasonably priced and looked inviting, so if you’re looking for something different to do one evening, look no further than here.

Wanting somewhere dead center, I next visited Club Forte who boast the maxim: ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’—art is long, life is short. Many well known Russian names have played here (Bolshaya Bronnaya 18 which is 400 meters down from the main McDonalds in Pushkinskaya). It was rather unfortunate that there was a major ‘remont’ going on when I visited, and gaining access to the place was no mean feat, dodging among JCB’s, Tajik workers and broken concrete slabs. Tickets are 500 roubles and once inside you can enjoy a variety of jazz from jazz-rock to blues, funk and soul. In truth not quite my taste, but others who were there appeared to be getting into it. The food verges towards Soviet in choice as it was rather fish and mushroom orientated, and it’s atmosphere a touch Bohemian with tables almost on top of one another.

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My final destination was Club Alexey Kozlov, the doyen of jazz masters in Moscow. Kozlov is 80 years old this year, yet still plays with the energy of someone half his age. This place is to the side of the Olympic Stadium in Prospect Mira at number 16, but is a nightmare to find – even the internet suggests allowing an extra 20 minutes! Tickets are 500 roubles and there are plenty of seats to choose from once inside. My only criticism is that the tables are rather basic and reminded me of Primary school fetes and jumble sales, but when watching a master craftsman plying his trade this minor discrepancy is soon forgotten.

I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly and he was charm personified, having started in 1957, announcing himself to an unsuspecting Russian world, and was quickly recognized as an innovative maestro. His saxophone playing is simply dazzling and hypnotic, and has the entire range of chromatic scales, cadences and arpeggios whilst maintaining rhythm, beat and tune simultaneously. This virtuoso extraordinaire is a must-see person and you’ll understand why I wax lyrical about him. Kozlov, along with Butman, have propelled Russia into the jazz stratosphere, and there are other clubs out there I didn’t have time to visit.
When all’s said and done, you can still find me at my happiest nursing the odd glass (the cognoscenti among you will substitute glass for bottle!) of wine at home and listening to the likes of the incomparable Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Summertime;’ or the sultry Julie London belting out ‘Cry me a river,’ and not forgetting Stan Getz and the husky dusky tones of Astrid Gilberto with ‘The girl from Ipanema.’ Whatever your tastes in music, I conclude with the words from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: ‘If music be the food of love, play on!’