Live Free, Play Free
by John Stowell
Jazz has a small audience in America, but it is respected and appreciated all over the world. As an American jazz musician playing abroad in countries that lack personal freedom, I've found that jazz can embody democracy in powerful ways for some audiences.
I've had the pleasure of performing and teaching in Russia four times. My first trip there was in 1983 with flutist Paul Horn. The group consisted of a quartet of Paul, myself, bassist David Friesen, and Paul's son Robin on drums. Russia was still a Communist country then, and we were playing the first public performances there in fifty years. Our audiences ranged in size from 500 to 1200 people per concert. Because we were the first Western jazz group to offer public performances in Russia in fifty years, people were very curious to see and hear us.
The authorities discouraged our having personal contact with anyone, but we still managed to have some great conversations. People would approach us backstage or as we were leaving one of the halls and invite us to their homes, probably placing themselves at risk. In private, our new Russian friends were animated, funny, articulate, warm, and hospitable.
The encounter that I remember most was with a young lady who approached the stage at our last concert after we had finished playing. She simply said, "Live free and be happy." I stayed in contact with her for a few years afterwards; her comments gave me a new appreciation of certain freedoms I had taken for granted. I hope that she has been able to experience some of those freedoms herself in the post-Communist Russia of today.
Guitarist John Stowell's Mel Bay book/DVD Jazz Mastery will be published soon. He is a Hofner artist, playing a signature model "Verythin JS". John can be reached for comments or questions at: email@example.com