Russian Studies: The Search for Soviet Jazz

The Search for Soviet Jazz

 Kary Stevick (International Relations, ’20)

link to film

This past summer I had the amazing opportunity to not only visit and study in St. Petersburg, Russia for six weeks as part of the Reves Center’s study abroad summer program, but also conduct research regarding one of my favorite things—jazz.Soviet Jazz 1

Initially, I was not sure if I could turn my idea into a full-fledged project. After all, what is so different about Russian jazz? Well, almost everything it turns out! The only English-language book published on the subject led my project to explore the differences between “Soviet” jazz, played by local musicians and heavily influenced by the country’s difficult relationship with the music, and “true” jazz, played in swanky hotels for mainly American tourists. When I arrived in St Petersburg, I decided to examine why Russians are still interested in jazz music and what aspects of Russian life influence its musicians.

What really made this project special; however, were the personal interviews I conducted. I had the opportunity to interview Russian jazz legends, a professional jazz singer, and a local jazz bar owner. My summer nights were filled with visits to jazz cafes off of Petersburg’s main thoroughfare Nevskii Prospekt and to concerts at the St. Petersburg State Jazz Philharmonic Hall.  I even attended the international music festival PetroJazz! Being thrust into such in-depth interviews forced me to step up my language game. I had to articulate my questions perfectly, as well as listen carefully to and comprehend my interviewees’ answers to make sure I did not ask something they had already said. In my Russian classes I had never had a Russian unit on jazz, so I found myself adding new music/jazz specific verbs and phrases to my ever-expanding vocabulary every night.

Soviet Jazz 2

Culturally, I was able to learn about St. Petersburg’s relationship with the West. All the music I heard during my time in St. Petersburg was American jazz music. I also learned what Russians think about themselves and Russian culture. Everyone I interviewed was proud of Russian jazz and articulated perfectly how it differed from any other genre of music. “Russian art is inherently confessional,” Alexandra Soboleva, one of the field producers and a professional jazz singer, told me during an interview.

The research project I conducted in St. Petersburg has greatly helped my understanding of Russian culture. Moreover, my language skills have improved dramatically. No matter what topic I had looked into, I would have learned a great deal. However, the fact that I was researching something I love made my summer adventure in St. Petersburg a more enjoyable and meaningful experience.

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