Russian Jazz – From Swinging Soviets to Scat-singing Slavs

Russia’s relationship with the U.S. has a long and complicated history, the greater part of which consisted of big red buttons and mutually assured destruction.

But before the soviets were the object of American fear and loathing, they were big fans of our greatest national export – jazz.

The First Eccentric Orchestra of the Russian Federated Socialist Republic - Valentin Parnakh's Jazz Band

The first recorded jazz concert in Russian history took place months before the Soviet Union was even born, on October 1st, 1922, in Moscow. The concert was put on by Valentin Parnakh, a famed Russian polymath, often regarded as the founding father of Soviet jazz. His band, the First Eccentric Orchestra of the Russian Federated Socialist Republic, besides having a ridiculously long name, played mostly Dixieland jazz that Parnakh first heard and imported from Paris, a major hub of jazz.

However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that jazz gained major popularity in Russia. Through the movies of Leonid Utesov, a prominent soviet actor and singer, particularly Весёлые Ребята (The Happy Fellows), which featured a very jazzy soundtrack, jazz became all the rage in the nascent Soviet state.

The popularity of jazz continued to grow during World War II, but this growth halted abruptly with the end of the war, and the start of the Cold War. Jazz was thrown in the fire of anti-western sentiment, fomented by the government of Joseph Stalin. Jazz bands were persecuted and many Russian jazz composers were forced to go into hiding.


Yuri Nikulin sings Песня про Зайцов in the film Бриллиантовая Рука (The Diamond Arm).

Benny Goodman in Moscow - Amazon.com

All of this changed with Stalin’s death, and his successor, Nikita Krushchev. Krushchev’s process of de-Stalinization allowed for jazz to once again come to the fore. American jazz great Benny Goodman toured the USSR in 1962 and even recorded an album in Moscow. Again, the rising popularity of jazz was augmented by film, including the 1968 classic, Бриллиантовая Рука (The Diamond Arm). By now, Soviet jazz had become its own genre, synthesizing swing and the A-minor tradition of Russian folk music, with jazz instrumentation.

As a genre, jazz enjoyed continued popularity in the USSR throughout the ’70s and ’80s, long after it fell off the pop charts in the U.S. Even today, there are many prominent Russian jazz musicians around the world, and groups like A’Cappella ExpreSSS are popular throughout Russia.

As an avid listener and performer of jazz, I was largely unaware of the music’s history in Russia. It strikes me as a testament to the universality of jazz that it was able to not only persist, but thrive in the Soviet Union, despite the overwhelming political tension between the USSR and jazz’s country of origin. Also, while I think the preservation and advancement of jazz is important here in the states, as part of our history, I think it is equally important around the globe, as jazz has become such an inextricable part of the history of many countries.


A’Cappella ExpreSSS perform Hit the Road Jack.

2 thoughts on “Russian Jazz – From Swinging Soviets to Scat-singing Slavs

  1. @Проф. Моннье

    я уже знал, но на вебсайте писали “зайцов.” Я подумал что был неправилно.

    спасибо спасибо

  2. Nikolai! This is your Russian professor reminding you that o becomes e after an unstressed husher or ц (Песьня про зайцЕв. Otherwise – a fab little piece!

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