Misha Piatigorsky: Invent Your Own Bicycle

Jason Crane By

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If you want to learn how to play jazz, you've got to invent your own bicycle.
Misha Piatigorsky Russian-born pianist Misha Piatigorsky fled from behind the Cold-War-era Iron Curtain with his family to make a new life in a small New Jersey town. He started out as a classical pianist before discovering jazz. Since that discovery, he's moved from bebop to Brazilian to groove music, melding them all seamlessly on his record, Uncommon Circumstance (Misha Music, 2007). Jason Crane, AAJ contributor and host of The Jazz Session, spoke with Piatigorsky in April 2007.

All About Jazz: All but one of these tunes are your compositions, right?

Misha Piatigorsky: Actually, all but two. One was written by my father.

AAJ: Let's start there. Your father was a theater composer, right?

MP: Yeah, in the Cold War in Russia, he was composer and musical director for the Taganka Theatre, which was a really cool theater in Moscow which put on a lot of progressive plays and musicals about the West, and jazz-rock operas—that kind of stuff.

AAJ: Was it an underground theater?

MP: A little bit underground, but it was very well known. It was a really nice gig for him. He had a good time.

AAJ: Did you first become exposed to music and composition by watching what your dad was doing?

MP: After I was born, my father started writing songs for me as a kid. He started writing children's songs alongside what he was doing at the Taganka Theatre. He started collaborating with a bunch of lyricists, really hip lyricists in Moscow. And he started writing these children's songs for me to sing that had a lot of double meanings—political double-meanings about going to the West. This was during the Cold War when we were all behind the Iron Curtain.

This is how I started being exposed to all these songs. He and my mom would sing them to me, and he would play them with his friends. I think when I was five years old, I performed some of these songs on the Moscow national television [channel]. The song that is on the record Fishing Boats was one of them, one of the songs that I've known from my childhood. I thought it was the right thing to do to include it on this record.

AAJ: Does it have lyrics?

MP: Yeah.

AAJ: Do they have a double meaning?

MP: It's a metaphor. The Russian title means something like, "What are the boats feeling melancholy about?" That's a loose translation. The lyric is about when the boats go out to sea, what are they missing? There's a lot of hidden meaning in that song. All of the songs he was writing had that sort of double meaning in conjunction with the West.

AAJ: You were born in the early 1970s, and you started playing piano when you were about five. Did you start with classical piano?

MP: Everyone starts with classical music. I was classically trained until I started discovering jazz on my own. My dad made it very clear that he wasn't going to teach me anything. That is, if I wanted to learn anything, I would have to discover it on my own.

AAJ: Why do you think he did that?

Misha Piatigorsky MP: I think he felt that that's the right way to do it. If you want to learn how to play jazz, you've got to invent your own bicycle. I totally agree with him. At some point, he hooked me up with a teacher and said, "OK, now it's time for you to go study with a jazz pianist." Because he's not really a jazz pianist. As a kid I would watch him sit down at the piano and play Beatles songs and sing Beatles songs. He's from the Beatles generation. I was always very jealous of the fact that he could do that. I would play the same songs for half a year—I would learn my Rachmaninoff and my Chopin—and that's all I was able to do.

AAJ: You and your family came to the U.S. when you were eight?

MP: Yes.

AAJ: Why did you do that? Was that your father's decision?

MP: I'm a Russian Jew. Russia is a very anti-Semitic country. It always has been. At some point, I came home from playing outside with the kids—I was like five or six years old—and I came up to my father, and I asked him, "What's a 'dirty Jew' mean?" My dad said, "Why?" I said, "The kids were calling me that in our backyard." So that's when he looked at my mother and made the decision that it was time to go.

The going process was extremely difficult. You had to apply for a visa to leave and you had to wait. We waited for two years to get permission to leave Moscow. In that time, you can't work. You lose your job. You become an enemy of the state. So my father had to stop working at the theater, and my grandfather was supporting us for about two years. But then we got the acceptance to leave, because my parents had no "secrets," and then we went to the West.

AAJ: When your family was asking to leave, were they asking to leave permanently?

MP: Of course. You become an enemy of the state and you're asking to leave for political or religious reasons. We were political refugees.

AAJ: So you were seeking political asylum in the U.S.?

MP: All the immigrants at that time were considered political refugees.

AAJ: Who came to the U.S.? Your mom and dad and you and...

MP: My brother. My parents kept waiting and waiting and waiting to get permission to leave, and they weren't getting it. They wanted to have another kid, so my mom got pregnant. She had my baby brother, who's eight years younger than me, and a month later we got a letter saying, "You have three weeks to leave. Pack your bags and get the hell out."


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