My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 1

The JCJB at Philharmonic Hall in Perm, a 2-hour plane ride southeast of Moscow at the base of the Ural Mountains. The sign reads "Amerikanski Dixieland."

Our American Jazz Creates a Russian Sensation

A rattle-trap streetcar rolls along in what New Orleans would be called the “Neutral Ground.” “Wow! Look at that streetcar,” I exclaim, for the thing is sided with corrugated tin. It’s obvious that this streetcar and others we passed have been in service for quite a tour of duty, but they do their jobs—packed with locals, they roll along smoothly.

The driver of our small bus grinds the gears, revving the old four-cylinder engine. Howard Elkins, with his typical wry smile comments, “Sounds like my old Dodge truck; it was a 1950.”

So far, the smaller Russian cities remind me of my youthful forays into Mexico: dusty streets, slap-dash construction and unfinished walls with the rebar sticking up as though the upper floors were planned but the money ran out, curbs here and there for 40 yards and then no curbs, and then the occasional grand building that looks like it was built with great care and artistry.

The bus shudders and strains around one final hard turn and enters the hotel parking lot, jolts to a stop and the six Americans and one Russian tumble out, grappling with the luggage. The local sponsors of the concert are really trying to maneuver it but we grab our own stuff and swarm the desk. It’s a four-star hotel.

In an hour we’re rolling again to the Perm Concert Hall. That’s the name of this burg: Perm, Russia.

Local TV press conference before concert in Perm.

We’re escorted into a formal room where seven chairs are lined up behind a long table; each man’s place is indicated by a bottle of water and a glass. Opposite all this is a row of reporters with pencils and questions ready. The questions are the usual ones: “Why do you play only older jazz? What is different about your approach? Do you play vintage instruments?”

This continues for 45 minutes. “This way, please,” and we get up, heading off again down corridors and into another formal room where a table is beautifully set with appetizers. And on comes the Russian food—lots of Russian food!

Out to the stage. The great Russian pianist Valeri Grohovski is our spokesman. He has gained the deep respect of us all, for not only is he a very special virtuoso, he is also charming, intelligent and articulate in both Russian and English.

He stands on the boards—bearded, long hair, handsome, his blue eyes flashing. His resonant baritone voice mumbles and babbles out the Russian, and the audience, packed in as tight as they will go, leans forward.

Valeri introduces the concert.

This will be a concert like no other,” he begins, and the mood-setting power of his words and presence takes up a full five minutes. Still talking, he flows on over to one of the two nine-foot grand pianos. He begins to swing the Charlie Shavers piece, “Undecided.” At about one-half chorus intervals we filter in, each man’s appearance greeted by thunderous applause. The piece winds and builds as solos are passed around, and the final ensembles come on and howl toward the ending. The band digs in and drives harder. I work up to a high C and let them do the rest as we stomp two extra bars. The last measure towards the 3rd beat—I rip to an E, and a cymbal crashes short on the 4th beat. Those endings—I think of a man running for all his worth and driving through the doors of a subway car just as they slam closed!

There are about two seconds of silence—the audience seems stunned—before applause explodes in our faces!

Valeri leaves the stage and we begin the magic of the jazz band that has driven, fascinated, delighted, and to a great degree made my life complete, while at the same time frustrated me—this for 50 years. The crowd is right there with every note. I look into the eyes of those on the first five rows, and there is this passion for music.

Flowers from the audience after the concert in Perm. All of the Russian audiences gave us flowers at the conclusion of the concerts.

In the second half Valeri comes back. We go after it with two pianos. The set spins by towards a grand finale, “The Raggle Taggle,” a minor-key up-tempo blues by the obscure San Antonio bandleader/drummer “Boots” Douglas. Our version is 4 times as long as Boots’ with an added section where I and then Ron Hockett play up and down a C minor chord with tom-toms. The tom-toms continue. I come back for a little C minor run, a hint of a famous Russian melody. He answers. We go back and forth like this for a while, then on a nod, the full rhythm section is in. We’ve worked this out. “Midnight in Moscow,” a song familiar to all Russians as “Moscow Nights,” spills out and fills the hall.

The high voltage in the air jumps up another 50%. We modulate to D minor for another chorus and stretch the ending of the piece.

The audience is on its feet cheering on and on. Pretty young Russian girls bring us bouquets of flowers, one after the other, as we take bows. The audience starts applauding in a rhythm: whop! whop! whop! whop! There are bows and bows! Then an encore. We play Armstrong’s “Swing That Music.” They’re standing again and clapping in unison.

And then we’re off. Security closes us off, but a number of autograph seekers figure out a way backstage. Finally it’s over and we’re hustled back into the formal dining room where another full meal is brought on. Here come the vodka toasts!

Autograph seekers after Perm concert.

I reflect on a few things. One must leave town, for a prophet is not praised in his home town. For us, for Americans, some things about our culture are just there, have always been there. Some of us know about and can get into the subtleties in the heads of Beiderbecke or Bessie Smith or hundreds of others and take such delight in every nuance, but most can not or do not. I am halfway around the world playing for the Russians. They have barely ever heard it before. They have “fresh eyes.” And here they are “inside” the music, right with us.

And I am so American down to my toenails with that Getzen cornet in my hand. Sandy Sandberg and Doc Severinsen showed up with a prototype Getzen in 1963. “Just try it. If you like it, it’s yours.”

Finally, after all the years and all the cornets made by famous makers: Courtois from France, the famous Bach Stradivarius, Yamaha this and that, the great Conn Victor, the King with its sterling silver bell, and so many others, that simple Getzen made in a little country town in Wisconsin is still the best.

I think of Merle Heirman, the designer of the cornet—a pleasant, humble man with a leather apron—a workman and craftsman. He was like me, I think. He learned on the job—was a factory man, a soldering man and when the time came he said, “Let me try. I think I can make a great trumpet.” He put one together and it became the “Severinsen model.” And then he said, “Now I want to build the greatest cornet in history.” It was all the result of a lifetime of thinking about it and dreaming about it.

The Russian trumpet players want to see it. “Where did you get it? American made?”

A symphony conductor is there from Moscow. “How did you learn that music?” he looks at me curiously. “Why? How?”

How do I answer him? There really isn’t a good answer. He repeats the questions. He’s very friendly, smiling. “Did you learn at a conservatory?”

“Oh no! Just learned by doing it all my life, and I’m still learning,” I finally say. “And I listened to the masters. Bix and Louis mostly.”

The characteristics of the concerts are mostly the same. Sold-out houses with extra chairs in the aisles and people standing along the walls.