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Alex Sipiagin: Burning For Jazz

By Published: April 6, 2009
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Early Days in Russia

In addition to making his own recordings, Sipiagin remains busy on the New York scene—an arena he decided to enter after getting the chance to come to the United States nearly 20 years ago to compete in the International Louis Armstrong trumpet competition that was sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute in Washington, D.C. Trumpet was the first instrument he approached in his home town of Yaroslavl, about four hours from Moscow, taking it up at the age of 13. He was quickly under the tutelage of one of Russia's outstanding symphonic trumpeters and teachers, Mikhael Tsamaiev.

"I lucked out," says Sipiagin. "I got a good teacher right away. It was an after-school program—nothing special, after-school orchestra. In the Soviet Union, at that time, you could find incredible musicians working in high schools. The system worked that way. Musicians had to keep working all the time. So I ended up with this beautiful teacher who introduced me to the trumpet best way." At age 15, he entered a local musical college and jazz music—frowned on by the Soviet government—began to seep through to him via the recordings of friends.

Alex Sipiagin"We didn't have jazz at all in my town, except one guy who was collecting all the tapes and recordings he could possibly get his hands on and hiding them. It was secret information," he recounts. "This guy also played trombone, which is how I met him and how he introduced me to it. He said, 'You want to check out some real music?' In the beginning, it was Dixieland. It was really interesting and exciting and fun to listen to, then try to imitate. Slowly, we learned how to play the simple lines."

"My first introduction to real jazz was from the same guy. That's when I heard Lee Morgan. That was my first real introduction to jazz. It blew me away, how beautiful it was. I never heard anything like this—the sound and the time, completely fantastic. That's when I really got crazy about it."

Sipiagin sought more education and decided he had to go to Moscow for it. He was in the classical department of the Moscow Music Institute, but was able to find more jazz recordings and pick up more about the music he was beginning to love and the American musicians who played it. "There were only a few recordings here and there for the jazz direction," says Sipiagin. "It was really rare in Russia at that time." He received a degree and then served a mandatory two years in the Russian army. After his release, he enrolled at the Gnessin Conservatory in Moscow and then continued classical training and music studies.

In Moscow, "there was a lot more information. I got to hear recordings of Freddie (Hubbard) and Miles. I listened to everything possible—like every musician—transcribing it and doing it." Morgan, Miles and Woody Shaw grew over the years to be his biggest influences. "They are my three favorite guys. Of course, I love everybody else. But they are the Big Three, definitely. They're so focused. They don't have a lot of tricks to make people excited. They play beautifully—focused. They're always about music."

Musicians in Russia had an odd relationship with jazz, due to its identification as an American music. It wasn't illegal, but it wasn't something to boldly bring out front. "It's not like I had to hide it. It wasn't really appreciated," Sipiagin says. At the Moscow Music Institute, "it wasn't called the jazz department, it was called the pop department. Every, brass or wind or pianist tried to play jazz. But you couldn't say, 'I'm playing jazz.' You said you were playing pop. It wasn't really legal, at this point, playing jazz." During his time in the military, for example, from the age of 18 to 20, "I got a few warnings from military guys. 'Be careful with that music. Be careful with this stuff. You know what I mean, right?' I didn't really know what he meant. But I knew it was not really welcome. But I didn't really get in trouble."

Alex Sipiagin

Whereas young American musicians found jazz gigs to play outside of school, for Sipiagin, there were very limited playing situations outside of school. There were many outstanding classical musicians in Russia, but jazz players were not common or well known. "There were a few professional bands, but I wouldn't say the level was that high. I already knew what real professional jazz players were supposed to sound like because I had recordings from the United States.

"There were maybe a few clubs in Moscow, but usually it's not possible to play. Older musicians play there once in a while. We would play sessions in our dormitory every day, in somebody's room. Jam sessions in the dorm was our thing."

Glasnost, meanwhile, continued to work open Russian society. "Then all of a sudden in Russia, like 1990, there was a big jazz festival in Moscow. So many musicians came: Freddie Hubbard, Branford Marsalis, Sun Ra, Buster Williams. All of a sudden, everybody got completely crazy. That's what I remember from my student years."

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