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An Incurable Optimist (In April 2001, Oleg Lundstrem will be 85)
(Moscow today & tomorrow, april 2001)

Mr. Lundstrem, do you remember when you were bitten by the 'jazz bug'?
Of course I do. It happened in Harbin in 1933. I grew up in a family of intellectu-als: my father was of Swedish origin, his name was Leonid Lundstrem, he was a professor of physics. We played music at home quite a lot. Father played the piano, mother sang, and I played the violin, but to tell you the truth, I liked to dance a lot, especially the fox-trot. And then one day, I walked into a music store to buy some new records for an upcoming dance date. [ put on one record, then another, and suddenly there was an orchestra I had never heard before. An incredible new sound, fantastic rhythm.

The label read "The Duke Ellington Orchestra". You are going to teli me that in 1933 the name was already well known? Not a bit of it! What was popular were commercial dance bands. So 1 am the one who discovered Ellington in Harbin. The selection on the disc I was listening to was "Dear Old Southland". My friends and I must have played il lliroiii'Ji hundreds of times. When we decided to put our own band together, naturally we included it in our repertory. Incidentally, I was unani-mously elected bandleader.

I was born in Chita, Russia, in 1916- In 1921; my parents and I moved to Harbin, China. My father was offered a position teaching at the KVJD (Chinese Eastern Railway), which traversed Manchuria and went as far as Vladivostok, and which originally was owned jointly by China and Russia. When China recognized the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic), many Russians working on the KVJD left, because they refused to recog-nize the Soviet government.

That is when my father was offered his contract. He thought he would take his family to Manchuria, stay there for a cou-ple of years to work, and then come back. Who would have thought then that the 'couple of years' would stretch into a quarter of a century?

At that time, incidentally, Harbin was world-class cultural centre: we had an opera company, an operetta theatre, a philharmonic orchestra, wonderful choirs and chamber music groups. They invited opera soloists from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and even the great Lemeshev came from the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. Soloists from His Imperial Majesty's orchestras played in ours. Some of the the-atrical actors and chansonnier, such as Vertinsky, were of the same calibre.

Let's go back to 1934. You heard the Ellington recording, and you put together a jazz band consisting of young musicians.
The date, October 1, 1934, got into The Guinness Book of Records, as the found-ing of the world's oldest jazz band. At first, there were unly nine of us, which was the standard number for the 1930s: three saxophones (. uk, VI. Sere-bryakov, 1. Lundstrem), two trumpets (Vit. Serebryakov, A. Kotyakov), one trombone (A. Minenkov), a rhythm section (A. Gra-vis on string bass and banjo, I. Umyanets on drums, and me on piano).

Later, when we moved to Shanghai and started playing profession.illy, Ihe band grew to between 15 and 17 musicians.

We played popular American songs, as well as Soviet melodies, which I was arranging by that time. Talking pictures had just appeared, most of the ones avail-able were American, even some musicals, such as Broadway Melody of 1938. We could pick out any tune by ear. There were dozens of bands, including even some American ones, playing in ball-rooms, made up of European refugees from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslo-vakia, after those countries had been invaded by the Fascists.

Didn't you meet some celebrities in those days?
Oh, yes: American trumpet player Buck Clayton, star of the Count Basie band. It happened this way: in 1935, our trum-peter Kotyakov, Minenkov, the trombonist, and I went to look around in Shanghai, and suddenly we found out that an American big band was playing in one of the local ballrooms. So we bought tickets, sat down, and listened. And we couldn't believe what we were hearing: Buck Clayton was playing for us. At the time, he sounded a lot like Louis Armstrong, and Kotyakov in Harbin was known as the 'local Armstrong'. Anyway, we started to go to that ballroom every evening. And - can you believe it - Buck Clayton remembered us! When we toured the United States many years later, in 1991, he recognized both Kotyakov and me, much older and grey now. And he started to cry, and he ran up to us and he threw his arms around us.

How did you return to Russia? It was a difficult time, and you had been abroad for over twenty years?

I'll tell you one thing: the world is full of kind people. You see, we had decided to
come back home as early as 1937. I went to our Consulate General in Shanghai, and I put my name on the appointment list. At the time, the Consul's name was Yerofeyev. He asked me what problems I was having. I told him that I had a band, and the Japanese were getting fresh, there had been a battle recently on Lake Khasan, and so we wanted to fight for the Fatherlaru.). The Consul frowned, and said, "You see, we have a small problem here: some Trotskyites have been uncovered recently, and we are temporarily not issu-ing visas. But don't worry, we'll get every-thing straightened out, and we'll let you know."

I mean, this man literally saved us. Can you imagine us coming to Moscow at the height of the trials of internal enemies of the State? Back then, the consuls changed every two or three years. Well, since he had promised to clear things up, we wait-ed patiently, until 1941. The war had already begun. So we wrote another letter requesting we be sent to the front as vol-unteers, and everyone in the band signed it, and I went to the Consulate a second time, where I unexpectedly saw my old friend Yerofeyev. "Hello there, what prob-lems?" "Same as before, except now the Germans are near Smolensk, and we're cooling our heels here, and we ask that you send us to the front immediately." "Well said, patriotic lads! Tell your musi-cians the Consul General said that now you are more needed over here." And that is how I enlisted in 1941, and in 1944, I graduated from the French Technical Academy in Shanghai as an architect. So we returned to Russia for good only in November of 1947. And got sent to Kazan, where the local authorities decid-ed to make us over into a Tatar show band, a concert group attached to the Philharmonia.

Commission on Cultural Affairs announced that he had just returned from a high-level meeting in Moscow, at which it was decided that the Soviet People do not need jazz. And so, the chairman said, because the band was already in Kazan, where professional musicians were in very short supply, let's do the following: the trumpet players, the trombonists, and the clarinet players get sent to the opera and symphony orchestras; the saxophonists will be assigned to movie theatres to play med-leys of popular Soviet songs before each performance; and the others will go play in restaurants. So there. The orchestra didn't start playing concert dates until 1956.

During the 1950s, several new stars appeared in the band: saxo-phonists Garanyan, Zubov, and Albegov, and the trombonist Bakholdin, but they were all fans of new directions in jazz, such as bebop and cool jazz. Were they able to find something in common with the boys from Shanghai?
They were brilliant improvisers, which I personally greatly appreciated. Yes, Garanyan and Zubov had a rather ironic attitude toward what they considered our archaic kind of music, but all in all, they respected it. What I mean is that they understood each other immediately. Generally, jazz styles change very often. What is in vogue today may very well be rejected tomorrow.

Mr. Lundstrem, some three genera-tions of musicians have played in your band. Today, a significant num-ber of your musicians belong to yet a new - a fourth - generation.
Alexey Zubov, our second-generation vet-eran, recently heard us play in Los Angeles, and noted, "Four generations, but they play like a well-oiled machine!"

Are you happy living this huge, jazz-filled life? Do you consider yourself a happy man?
Do you know what my late wife used to call me? "You're an incurable optimist!"

Arkady Petrov

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