The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

By David Caute | Go to book overview
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16
All That Jazz:
Iron Curtain Calls

Like the nuclear arms race, classical music was two-way traffic; the Russians arguably possessed classical composers able to inspire larger audiences than the major modernists of the West. This was not the case in the field of popular music and entertainment. The Russians regularly exported spectacular folk- dancing ensembles, the Red Army Choir, and circus acrobats, but the balalaika was no match for the 25–watt electric guitar, the synchronized stamping of a hundred boots no match for a 100–watt PA system. If Western youths wanted balalaikas they could have them—but they didn’t. Jazz, swing, twist, rock, beat, and disco were simply what the people—above all the young people—wanted, East and West; the USSR did not lack fine popular musicians, but the Party scowled, growled, punished, and banned these ‘foreign’ sounds. In the 1930s and 1940s few political leaders regarded young adults and teenagers as a potentially powerful social force, but by the mid-fifties a generation revolution was occurring, and by the 1960s the Politburos and Komsomols of the Soviet constellation were attempting to erect new iron curtains against the sound waves from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was one-way traffic; propelled by a huge demand, this ‘sound of capitalism’ deafened and defeated the elderly guardians of Soviet culture, the Stalingrad generation, as in no other field of performance art.

The first wave of jazz in the USSR ran from the 1920s to the assimilation of big-band swing music—with its analogous implication of sexual emancipation and individual expression—in the 1940s. The Soviet Union’s first authentic experience of jazz (dzhaz) was probably the six-month-long tour by Sidney Bechet’s sextet in 1925. Russian musicians began to imitate the Negro jazz idiom in some of their compositions, and its influence showed in the work of classical composers like the young Shostakovich. But hostility to

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