My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 4


Church in Yekaterinburg where the Czar and his family were killed in 1918.

The Engineer throttles back, and the huge electric motor, which has driven and strained and carried us all across the underbelly of Russia, finally relaxes. The Trans-Siberian slows to a crawl and enters the station at Yekaterinburg.

As always there are several strong men from the local Philharmonic Hall jumping up and down the train stairs to handle our luggage. We come to street level in Yekaterinburg. At 1.3 million, it is Russia’s 5th largest. Its growth is coming on strong, and it’s quite a city.

Yekaterinburg is most famous because at a church about a block from our hotel, Czar Nicholas Romanov II and his family were shot in 1918. That whole business is filled with intrigue, with the legend running on and on that the youngest daughter, with the magical name Anastasia, had escaped.

Only now after all the years it is known that all were killed. The remains have been ceremonially buried with deep reverence at the Cathedral at St. Petersburg alongside all the predecessors of Nicholas II dating back to Peter the Great.

It’s easy to pick out the Czarist buildings; some of them are in good shape or have been restored, and some are in decay. Then there is the communist stuff, looking bland and kind of crummy, a lot like the worst American public housing. But then there are the “new Russian” buildings, and generally these are fine-looking at top-of-the-world standards.

Ice fishing from a bridge in Yekaterinburg.

The musicians go on the prowl and take some excellent photos. My favorite is this one of three fishermen on a bridge, one of them swigging from a bottle.

Another is of a boy and his beautiful dog. When I see a dog like this it makes me miss my old dog Peggy. I am like Mr. Bojangles—after 20 years still grieving for his dog.

All the Russian cities have streetcars. This is especially pleasing to me. The world seems slowly coming in my direction on this.

I remember how great they were in New Orleans when I was a boy. Get on for a nickel on Canal Street and they would fan out through the neighborhoods. In the late 1950s they took them out, tore up the rails and replaced them with fume-spewing buses.

“Whose great idea was that?” we all asked each other, and 45 years later they put the streetcars back.

Boy and his dog, Yekaterinburg

I admired Paul Crawford, the great New Orleans trombonist. “People love the romance of the streetcars,” he said. “There’s no pollution and they’re cheaper. It’s a no-brainer.”

Anyway, they are now reappearing in a number of American cities.

Our Sunday night concert at Yekaterinburg is sold to the walls, and 60 extra chairs have been put in the entrance foyer. The elegant Philharmonic Hall will seat 740. The locals are serious about their music and their concerts. They hold nearly 200 of them annually at this hall.

Their reaction to us is the same as the other Russian audiences. The applause runs on and on. There is an immediate standing ovation at the end. Some of the guys are saying that maybe this is the best so far. I don’t know. They are all beginning to blur together in my memory.

The trumpet player from the jazz club in Ufa, the one I condemned as “over-amplified” is there. He has traveled 400 miles to attend the concert and is very complimentary. We struggle with the language barrier. Finally, he tells Valeri that he is impressed the most by our band’s playing together while he is accustomed to playing against the other musicians, each trying to display more virtuosity. And he is amazed by the non-amplified sound.

Standing ovation in Yekaterinburg.

I am flattered by his comments. He is quite a virtuoso himself and brings a lot of creativity to his be-bop.

The band is shown into the large, elegant private office of the Director of the Philharmonic where a formal dining table awaits. The Director is vibrant, welcoming, and extra friendly. He greets us with an almost steady stream of Russian and Russian vodka. We join in the salutes. A Salute to music, to the Philharmonic, to the hall, to our band, to all women, to friendship. I stand and salute the Russian People and the Russian Nation.

Finally, Valeri offers the most eloquent toast to the Philharmonic Society, its Director, President and Deputy (also on hand) and how they have supported the Arts like no others. He says he means it, too.

Down the hatch with the vodka, and then there’s a “military toast” where we all stand with arms folded in front of us while the Director holds his vodka glass on his right elbow and somehow downs it without spilling it or dropping the glass.

Vodka toast with the Director of the Philharmonic Society in Yekaterinburg.

After each shot he pauses, then gesturing with clenched fist he lets out a loud “Da!” Clearly, however, he is highly intelligent and capable. I see no sign of intoxication as he articulates, now with Valeri interpreting, the history of the Yekaterinburg Philharmonic Orchestra and why it is the best in all of Russia. He has been involved with the Chicago Symphony, studying their organizational techniques, and famous orchestras in Europe too, and feels he has combined the best of American and European management and fundraising.

The Yekaterinburg orchestra and its quality was until 1994 quite a secret from the outside world, for the city was the center for all the Soviet high military technology. As a result, citizens from the area were not allowed to travel abroad, period. Foreigners could not visit Yekaterinburg.

All during these festivities, great food and wine is being served. It’s the most fun I’ve had in Russia except for being onstage.

Earlier that day I was picked up by Svetlana, a translator, and we went to a local FM radio station where a crusty old radio cat interviewed me at length—an hour and 45 minutes of length. He had read many books on jazz by Leonard Feather, James Lincoln Collier and others.

He asks a number of questions, eventually working around to asking some about the differences between white and black jazz musicians. I give sincere, honest answers that the differences tend to be individual, not racial, etc.

He says, “But Mr. James Lincoln Collier says there are clear racial differences and he’s an expert. Do you mean to challenge the opinion of Mr. James Lincoln Collier, the expert?”

“I guess so.”

“Very interesting,” he says. “And you, the leader of the most famous Dixieland band in the world, must know something about this, too.” He looks very serious and then he adds, “But Mr. James Lincoln Collier?”

“I don’t know,” I say, “Why don’t we talk about Louis Armstrong or something?”

There was a long pause. Finally, he says, “Very good,” and we go in another direction. He asks me what I thought of teaching jazz in conservatories. I respond that I think it is not impossible to teach jazz in conservatories but it is difficult, because I think jazz is best learned sitting at the feet of a great master—that it is easy to teach formulas at conservatories but creativity has to be found by one’s self, through the example of a creative and inspired master.

Boy, he really likes that. There’s a pause while he hears the translation from Svetlana. He lights up, reaches over and begins shaking my hand vigorously up and down for a long time. What a kick!

I walk outside, and in the hallway they’re preparing vodka toasts. Having eaten nothing all day, I am not at all ready for a shot of vodka. They insist and insist. Finally I fall back to “I’m sorry, I am an alcoholic,” (which is not true) and this stops them.

“I am so sorry,” one of them says.

“Oh, no,” I say, “Don’t let me stop you, Please, let’s have a toast.”

The interviewer was trying to stop smoking and he had pieces of hard candy, a couple of which he had given to me. I pull out one of them from my shirt pocket and make a toast with it. “To our friendship and the great Russian Nation.” I raise my piece of candy as they all raise glasses of vodka, which are all tossed off with broad smiles and laughs and handshakes. I think I get away with it.

They follow me to the car still talking on and on about the genius Beiderbecke and then about Ellington—Svetlana translating like crazy.

I’ll tell you, when you’ve got a jazz nut, they are the same everywhere in the world. We part in the center of Yekaterinburg on the big, open stone-paved square, with the classic buildings all around—the streetcars running down one side. We embrace, almost certain never to meet again. I told them of my teacher Carlton MacBeth and the parting he and I always used: “We have the same feathers!”

Svetlana works pretty hard at that translation, but finally they understand.