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From Be-Bop To Hip-Hop - The Cry Of Freedom

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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In 1986, I was invited to Bombay, India, to cover the Indian jazz festival—Jazz Yatra—literally a "jazz pilgrimage." Restless in a city that had more to offer than I had bargained for and dazzled by the constellation of musicians who had gathered to celebrate the music of freedom I used to wake up early, then make my way to through the streets of a city that seemed alive with a myriad cultures, finally arriving—always early—at the venue of the festival.

Here I remember sitting in the audience, at the edge of my seat as the German small group Association PC, fronted by Alexander von Schlippenbach, stretched its way through Bird's "Donna Lee," then cut into the applause to announce that they were about to be joined on stage by "a special friend." I heard the soft rustling of a dashiki as the tall, bald man, black skin gleaming, glided past me with a pocket trumpet in his hand and strode imperiously onto the stage. Nodding in the directions of the various musicians around him, Don Cherry blew a breathtaking introduction to his composition "Brown Rice," carrying the band gloriously with him as the music moved on.

The energy of that set, the day before, was still buzzing in my head as I flashed my press pass at the gate and entered the on the final day of the jazz festival.

I could hear the music then. It sounded as if the musician was about to launch into a Bud Powell arrangement of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." I thought I would be transported into the smoky environs of the 52nd Street! Then the music changed to a melody that I was unfamiliar with. Impetuous, quirky... like a Thelonious Monk composition... but the lines were not as jagged. Then an unusual segue changed the melodic line and altered the song altogether. At first I thought the pianist was going to launch into a stride melody, but abruptly the music flew away into a fugue-like structure that sliced back and forth from Bach to Bud Powell! I stood, transfixed by the music, afraid that if I moved up to where I was accustomed to sitting I would disturb the beauty of the moments. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Leonid Chizhik and the "Cultural Attaché"

As he played, Leonid Chizhik—for that was the musician at the piano—was, for that brief period of time, flying high above Soviet repression. He had broken free of the confines and controls of communism and with every phrase and run he played he soared higher, further, magnificently free!

But it—like every moment of beauty—the Chizhik "expedition" ended just as abruptly as it began, without my ever knowing what the song was. I did see the pianist get up from the piano stool and walk away to one of the rows of seats in front, just below the stage. Leonid Chizhik, a very large-eyed, slight man, was born in Kischinjev, Moldavia, in 1947. Up until that day in July 1986, I had scarcely heard of him. But then neither had I heard of Vaghif Mustafa Zadeh, the Azeri pianist who had died a few years earlier. And in 1986, Chizhik was then a pianist virtually unknown in the then-Soviet Union (except in classical music circles) despite, I now found out, his mastery of the idioms of the classics and jazz. Not surprising, if you consider what jazz music stood for in the USSR in those years. So I was determined to find out more.

I walked up to the man sitting silently in the chair, now smoking a cigarette, to commend him on the exquisite tune he had played at the sound check and see if I could find out more... I said to Chizhik: "Hello, my name is Raul and I am here to cover the jazz festival. Perhaps..." we could talk a bit more, I wanted to say, but before I knew what was happening, four burly men converged on us.

Chizhik had not uttered a word. Nor was he about to. He sat—as Cézanne would have preferred his models to do—like an apple! What happened from the on was so frighteningly absurd and Kafkaesque that it continues to play back—even today—like a piece of expressionist celluloid, in my mind, over and over again.

What did I want? An enormous bush-shirted Soviet gent demanded of me, as I could see Chizhik turning towards me. But I wanted to interview Leonid Chizhik. The big man took me by the arm firmly. "Why don't you go to House of Soviet Culture and meet Mr. Voroviev, Cultural Attaché?" he said gruffly. "He will answer all your questions." But how, in God's name could any Mr. Voroviev, Cultural Attaché answer my questions? I wanted to know what moved Chizhik to play with such soul. And I wanted to know what it meant to meet at the confluence of Brahms and Monk! I had so many questions, but they all dissolved in my throat. So who was this forthright Russian anyway? Chaperone? KGB? Minder of a "dangerous free thinking" pianist?

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