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Saxophonist George Garanian, Russia's Jazz Pioneer, Dies


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George Garanian
Shortly upon his arrival in Krasnodar, Russia, where he was scheduled to conduct the Krasnodar Municipal Big Band during two planned concerts with featured soloist Michel Legrand, the Soviet jazz veteran bandleader, arranger, composer, and alto saxophonist George Garanian was hospitalized in the morning hours of January 11, 2010. According to his wife, Nelly Zakirova, the 75-years-old bandleader suffered a heart attack, which eventually led to his death.

George (Georgy) Garanian was born in Moscow on August 14, 1934. He belonged to the 1950s jazz engineers generation a circle of musicians, mostly graduate and postgraduate students at Moscow and Leningrad's technical and engineering universities, with no background in classical music training, but with sheer admiration of the new, post-WWII jazz styles. Their jazz education consisted of endless careful transcriptions of American jazz stars' solos using not the original American records, which were not legally available behind the Iron Curtain, but either taped transmissions from the Voice of America (and its host Willis Conover, whose special English became the source of English education for those enthusiasts,) or the jazz on the bones records the self-made 78s cut on used X-ray film, with somebody's broken ribs in the background.

In 1958, Garanian became the first Soviet-born soloist accepted in the famed Oleg Lundstrem Orchestra, the Shanghai-based swing band from the 1930s which moved to its members' distant homeland, Russia, after WWII. In the 1960s, he worked in Moscow Radio's Vadim Lyudvikovski Big Band, where he showed a considerable passion for arranging the music. In 1973, the new Soviet Television and Radio Committee Chairman, Sergey Lapin, who hated Western music, fired the entire Radio Big Band and got rid of all jazz in the Soviet TV and radio programming; Garanian, and a few chosen instrumentalists from the former Lyudvikovski Big Band, formed the core of the new studio band, Melodia, which worked for the U.S.S.R's only record label with the same name.

Garanian spent about fifteen years as Melodia's director, arranging music for the country's leading pop singers and singing film stars, and directing the Melodia Big Band for dance albums. He did not play saxophone at that time, but, as director and conductor, made sure that the orchestra, which consisted of the leading Soviet jazz soloists, would record a few albums of his arrangements of jazz standards and Garanian's originals, mostly in the realm of light fusion (closer to disco) sounds.

In post-Soviet Russia, Garanian became one of the busiest bandleaders: in early 2000s, he would simultaneously direct up to four big bands in several Russian cities, including renewed Melodia Big Band, Krasnodar Municipal Big Band, and (from 2003 to 2006) the Oleg Lundstrem Big Band. Garanian toured extensively, mostly with either of his multiple big bands, performing jazz evergreens and/or Soviet song and movie music classics in his own arrangements, very accessible to general public. He resumed his alto sax playing after a 15-years break in the early 1990s, but, obviously, never reached his own former level as soloist, though at one stage (in mid-1990s) he also toured in a piano-guitar-sax trio setting where he soloed a lot.

In 1999, Garanian conducted the Moscow Symphony Orchestra during the Oregon's Oregon in Moscow sessions. Produced by Pat Metheny Group's Steve Rodby, the album received a Grammy nomination, thus partly making Garanian Russia's first non-classical Grammy nominee.

Funeral arrangements were not yet announced by mid-day of January 11.

On the photo by Pavel Korbout: George Garanian conducts his Melodia Big Band in Moscow on October 22, 2009

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