My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 2

House in Chita. Many houses in Russia have these ornate wooden shutters.

We do a concert at the extreme Siberian outpost, Chita, after which we do a turnaround and head back to the west. Chita is pretty shabby. There is a forest fire somewhere in the far distance and the air is full of smoke. It’s hard to breathe. This is deep southern Siberia due north of Beijing, China. I look at the place, fascinated. Generations of people have built their own wooden houses. There are many thousands of them, maybe hundreds of thousands, all over Siberia. Mostly they are in bad shape—some are made of logs cut from the Russian forests which still cover millions of square miles.

“The birch trees,” they say, “They are Mother Russia to us.” Their straight white trunks form banks across distances so vast, that in times before automated travel the land could barely be crossed.

No shortage of timber here, I think, and in Chita and in hundreds of other Siberian towns they make log cabins of them. They still do. The roofs are tin-corrugated mostly, but some have standing seam tin roofs, so prized back in Texas.

The tap water in Chita.

Our hotel is not much. It sort of has the basics in that it’s only a little dirty. The doors do close and lock. Behind the building, a power generator or something is running on a gasoline engine which revs up about once every 30 seconds, making it difficult to sleep. None of the hotel deficiencies bring complaints from our seasoned pro musicians, except in the bathroom where we find brown water. I decide it must be full of rust and set it running for half an hour. It never clears. Ah, well…it is at least warm. I go ahead with a brown water shower.

That afternoon at Chita, Morpheus claims the attention of the bandsmen. Valeri and I head off to a press conference. As we enter I see a bank of microphones on a table, two chairs and two bottles of water. All is similar to the previous conference, except that there is quite a bank of reporters. As we enter they erupt in applause. We take our seats. I try to disguise my silent counting of them. There are 40 or so on hand!

As we set up the stage, I meet an interesting native who is in charge of the stage workers. I have heard about him from Valeri. He is a musician, a drummer. He has no hands, only stubs and parts of hands—not enough, it would seem, to take hold of a drum stick. Still somehow, Valeri says, he does it. I notice that he limps. His feet are just stubs too. They are hidden by his shoes.

The acoustics at Chita are the best of any place so far. So is our concert. The hall seats only 500. Extras squeeze in and stand around by the open side doors.

I hear the bite of the cornet coming back while the rhythm section is exactly together. I know that’s the key. If the rhythm is exactly together everything flows, and on this night we play our very best—I play my very best. Only two hours sleep, but almost all of the time on this night I’m thinking, “I wish I had a recording of that solo, that piece.” That is often in my head on such nights, because it’s hard to capture the band playing at its most inspired. My old theory about sleep being so critical is challenged.

Krasnoyarsk Station where we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railroad

The distances are enormous. We fly back west 2.5 hours to the city of Krasnoyarsk, where a magnificent train station stands proudly. We are five hours ahead of our train and sit around, wander around town a little, eat a little, laugh a lot.

Dog at Krasnoyarsk Station.

There’s a little grocery store next to the station. Four of us go over and buy a few things. As we’re coming out we see a dog walking back and forth carrying his bowl in his mouth. I walk back to look for a little food to help him out, but there is a line now in the store. When I come out again he and his bowl have disappeared.

We have compartments on the famed Trans-Siberian Railroad. To the others it offers an ordeal, something to be dealt with. They take it in good humor. For me it is luxury. I enjoy train travel.

We roll past huge numbers of even smaller handmade wood houses. There are miles and miles of them. I don’t see any people. More and more houses but no people and no cars.

What goes? The houses go on and on. Each has its own garden, worked and ready for spring.

Finally I learn they are “summer houses.”

In the communist days the government would provide the land almost for free. People would have a “cliff-dweller’s” apartment in town, but eventually the summer would come and they would have the reward—the summer house.

The view from our car aboard the Trans-Siberian. Melting snow among the birch trees meant lots of standing water and mud. Notice the overhead wires: the railway operates on an electrical drive system for all of its thousands of miles.

“What kept them from just moving there?” I ask.

Answer: “The government didn’t allow them to be heated.”

“Could they sell them?”

“Yes, but with many restrictions. Mostly they could only be sold to retired people. Or, if the owner was a teacher, he could sell it to another teacher. Now, they may do whatever they wish. Heat them up, sell them, use them winter or summer. But the old patterns mostly remain.”

The concerts roll on. Always the surprised audience that goes into a kind of ecstasy; the sustained, sometimes rhythmic applause, the calls for encores.

The band in Red Square, at the Cathedral of St. Basil. Click on image for larger version. L. to R.: Jim Turner, Mike Waskiewicz, Valeri Grohovski, Jim Cullum, Howard Elkins.

We see more of what we’ve always seen in the music business: great contrasts. Of course here we see the contrast of the Russian Bear, with the scars of the communist years showing.

All this is changing, and especially in Moscow there are displays of the new Russian wealth. The place might best be described as a poor man’s Paris. Its center is filled with grand boulevards and architecture and little old-looking charming streets, shops, cafés, all set among the famous onion-domed churches. The domes are here and there, all around and are freshly restored and repainted.

The people are stylishly dressed and handsome. I am told that the rate of change is so fast that it may be felt month to month. I also notice that as they build new buildings in downtown Moscow, someone is paying attention, for the new blends with the old very effectively.

A huge problem in Moscow is traffic. It seems everyone is now able to buy a car. The traffic crawls toward gridlock. Bentleys and Rolls Royces are sprinkled among the regular old Toyotas, Hondas, Jaguars, Lexuses and BMWs. Of course there are some old junkers wheezing along, too.

Moscow River city skyline. The building with the tall spire in the distance is Valeri's apartment building.

We walk along the Moscow River. It runs through the city center, a bit like the Seine—past the high-powered concert hall where we will play the following night. A large billboard poster with a full color photo of our band hangs over the entrance. It is inscribed in huge red Cyrillic letters which translate to “Jim Cullum Jazz Band Appearing Here April 6th.”

Moscow Performing Arts Center entrance to Dom Muziki ("House of Music"). The large caption at the bottom of the poster reads "Jazz Band Jim Cullum."

We walk on to a very excellent, well-appointed and elegant restaurant. As we enter I notice a table of sophisticates, many of them young and handsome, many of them with cigarettes in their hands.

We ignore the smoking. I especially remember all those early days at the Landing, when the smoke was so thick it would sting your eyes. We used to joke that you could take a big knife and cut a square of it, carry it outside and watch it blow away.

Valeri and Howard get caught in the snow.

Outside, beautiful snowfall begins and delights us as we walk from the restaurant to Valeri’s apartment. The flakes are fluffy and light and come faster. We throw a few snowballs back and forth. There are no direct hits.

Valeri proves himself to be a master of charm over and over as he arranges details, getting cooperation from officials, airport workers and supervisors, that would seem quite impossible. Usually he finds some common bond of friendship. On one occasion, after he has discovered that several airline big shots attended the Moscow Conservatory of Music, he is off to join them in a back office for vodka and hors d'oeuvres that he quickly and magically has produced.

The bottles quaffed, the brass emerges with him, all smiles. We are hustled right through security, and most of us are moved up to business class. We murmur among ourselves, “Look at him go, he’s good!”