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Was jazz banned in the Soviet Union?

Heli Reimann has researched jazz in the Soviet Union. Her research journey with jazz disproved the claims: no directives actually banned the music and nobody went on the streets with jazz.

Years ago, before my academic involvement with jazz, I knew that those who played jazz in the Soviet Union betrayed their homeland or a similar popular phrase: “Today you play jazz and tomorrow betray your homeland (motherland?).” A slightly different kind of sentence replaced the word jazz with saxophone: “Today you play saxophone and tomorrow betray your homeland.”

This phrase, supposedly reproduced in official Soviet discourse (although I never encountered it in any Soviet era document or periodical), warned against the dangerousness of jazz – if you played this music you became a betrayer. The word homeland, in fact, has a special meaning in  Soviet discursive practices, signifying a particular holiness frequently praised in songs and poems. Those who fought for it were surrounded with a heroic aura but those whose actions were regarded as betrayal obtained the status of criminals. Although, it was never clear what the betraying actually meant in the conditions of Soviet unpredictability.  

Later, I read from numerous writings and interviews with musicians that jazz was forbidden in the Soviet Union. Both academic and non-academic discourse often interpreted jazz as something at odds with totalitarianism and those who were involved with the music were said to use it as weapon in fighting for freedom and resisting the Soviet system.

My research journey with jazz, however, disproved those claims: no directives actually banned the music and nobody went on the streets with jazz.

Yet, there is no doubt that the most complicated era for jazz was the late-Stalinist period. While taking on the associations of friendship between the Allies during WWII, jazz began to attract negative criticism in public discourse during the Zhdanovshchina decrees. Then, along with all Western influences during the rising Cold War, jazz was deemed out of alignment with the new politico-ideological discourse. “The hysterical swing and hot music writhing convulsively with a throaty broken rhythm and absence of melody – this is what is considered to be ‘real’ jazz,” announced Serafim Milovski  in his article About Jazz Music in 1946.

Or two years later Sovetskaya Muzyka mocked jazz with a caricature saying, “Mister Spike Joans organized a sensational jazz orchestra featuring a goat. Who needs emotions and melody in our atomic century? Sing, goat, a requiem to art.”[i]

Sovetskaya Muzyka`s jazz caricature with saying, "Mister Spike Joans organized a sensational jazz orchestra featuring a goat. Who needs emotions and melody in our atomic century? Sing, goat, a requiem to art."
Sovetskaya Muzyka`s jazz caricature with saying, “Mister Spike Joans organized a sensational jazz orchestra featuring a goat. Who needs emotions and melody in our atomic century? Sing, goat, a requiem to art.”

Despite the official disdain jazz refused to disappear. To serve the great public appetite for dancing many small ensembles playing in restaurants and dance halls integrated jazz into their repertoire. Vladimir Feyertag[i], the most prominent Russian jazz historian, for example, made his living by writing arrangements for two dance ensembles in the early 1950s and managed even to earn enough to buy an apartment.[ii] Estonian jazz group Swing Club, the friendship circle of like-minded persons, established in surroundings inimical to jazz, their own nurturing micro-environment to acquire new knowledge and develop their skills through musical debates and practical learning-by-doing methods during the rehearsals.

The new era in Soviet jazz appeared gradually after the rise to power of Khrushchev and the breaking of Stalin’s totalitarian grip. The Sixth International Festival of Youth and Students in 1957 signalled a turning point towards an opening up of Soviet society to the rest of the world. Jazz received some legitimacy due to numerous foreign jazz groups appearing on the festival scene.

A categorical claim against the Soviet ban on jazz was made by Feyertag in his article How jazz was banned in Soviet Union.[iii] “I am totally against the statement that jazz in Stalin’s times or later was banned,” declared Feyertagin the opening of his article. According to him, no official documents prohibiting jazz were issued and no jazz musicians have been oppressed for their jazz activities. As he said in his ironic manner, “six people punished but none of them for jazz. One saxophonist, for instance, was arrested because he communicated with Americans and obtained records and reeds. During the most severe Stalinist period you could be imprisoned and shot just because you existed.”[iv] But the society lived according to a double standard – if something was publicly forbidden or required, it meant you had to obey it, but at the same time, people learned how to pay lip service to ideological clichés while continuing to do what they liked.[v]

Where, then, are the roots of the notion of the Soviet ban on jazz hidden and what makes it so persistent? Why is this phrase constantly repeated by musicians, scholars and lay people? There is definitely no univocal answer to this question, but still some assumptions can be proposed.

Most obviously, the Soviet anti-Western stance underlies the explanation. A simplified view says that the entire Western culture, including jazz, was incompatible with Soviet ideology and consequently met with a low level of tolerance. The trope of “Soviet jazz ban” became part of the strategic narrative for those who sought to tell the stories about the repressiveness of Soviet governance, by which, because of its Western-ness, jazz constantly suffered under the demonic Soviet system. The aura of forbidden-ness, in turn, generated the effect of forbidden fruit – the human desire to obtain the unobtainable, and therefore this increased the enthusiasm of those interested in the music. The desire to overcome restrictions and reach their goal is, in fact, part of the archetypal trope in human story-telling, expressing the courageous acts of heroism to achieve the heightening of one’s self-esteem. Laypersons who have reproduced the phrase “Soviet jazz ban” have often done so for the purposes of producing affective narratives while juxtaposing a heroic jazz against a diabolical Soviet state. 

Underlying the interpretation of the status of jazz in the Soviet Union is the biased way the Cold War era East-West confrontation was presented. As German scholar, Rüdiger Ritter,[vi] appositely says, in the Cold War discussions of “Us” (meaning “The West”) as opposed to “them” (meaning “The East”) and the seemingly objective Western public or cultural diplomacy is projected onto the bad propaganda of the “East.” A similar Western bias is part of the jazz rhetoric, which tried to present jazz as a “secret sonic weapon” in the hands of the citizens in “unfree” countries fighting for their freedom with banned American music. The American jazz strategy initiated by Eisenhower in 1954, consisting of jazz ambassadors tours and the Voice of America Jazz Hour, was indeed expected first to call the “unfree” citizens to revolt against their communist regimes. Yet their intentions failed since the citizens, instead, fulfilled their American dream with the music. But the ideas of jazz as banned music in the hands of Soviet freedom-fighters as a Cold War remnant is still part of the jazz discourse.

In addition, the trope of the “Soviet jazz ban” can be related to the implicit premise of the argument that popular artistic expression in the totalitarian or authoritarian Soviet era was predominantly oppositional.[vii] This politically driven discourse tends to be reproduced without reflection by scholars, whose moral perspectives begin with the superiority of Western democracy. It accords with the “heroic” model whereby certain musical actors, supposedly rebelling against conditions of oppression, are interpreted as morally superior examples of homines politici.

In sum, the trope about the “Soviet jazz ban” is a powerful myth framing Soviet jazz. Although the music was never banned by official decree, as Feyertag confirmed, it encountered erratic levels of political tolerance. The way jazz manifested itself was dependent on numerous variables, ranging from the ideological particularities of the period and the Cold War climate to the tastes and moral courage of individuals providing infrastructures, and simple indefinite factors, such as chance. An important identifier of the myth of the jazz ban is also the fact that it was produced by the Soviet era itself,  but is evoked within retrospective discussions.  

But in general, the Soviet era was full of contradictions. The Russian pianist Boris Frumkin has said very aptly “Vsjo bylo tak no nje tak vsjo bylo i tak bylo.” This means that during the Soviet era, things could be not only in one or another way but also in a third way.

Heli Reimann

The author is a visiting researcher at Uniarts History Forum.

[i]Sovetskaya Muzyka 1948 (5): 90.

[i] Feiertag, Vladimir. Istoria dzhazovova ispolnitelstva v Rossii. St Petersburg: Skifija, 2010, 153.

[ii] Interview with Vladimir Feyertag (b. 1931). 10 March 2018.

[iii] Feyertag, Vladimir. Dzhazovye zametki, chast 1. Kak zapreshchali dzhaz v SSSR, 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2021. https://specialradio.ru/art/id538/.

[iv] Interview with Feyertag.

[v] Feiertag, Vladimir. A pochemy dzhaz? St Petersburg: Skifija, 2018, 177.

[vi] Ritter, Rüdiger. Between Propaganda and Public Diplomacy: Jazz in the Cold War. In Mario Dunkel, Sina A. Nitzsche (eds.) Popular Music and Public Diplomacy: Transnational and Transdisciplinary Perspectives. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2018, 95–116.

[vii] Klenke, Kerstin. Popular Music and Politics in the Karimov Era. New York: Routledge, 2019. 

Dynamic interpretations of the past

The Uniarts Helsinki History Forum blog regularly publishes comments on topical themes and initiatives regarding the history of performing arts. The blog posts are written by researchers affiliated with the Uniarts History Forum. In their texts, the researchers shed light on both their own academic projects and the fields of arts and history research in general. The blog “Dynamic interpretations of the past” is a publication (ISSN 2736-9986). Editorial board: Anne Kauppala (editor in chief), Kaarina Kilpiö, Vesa Kurkela, Markus Mantere, Saijaleena Rantanen and Johanna Rauhaniemi (editorial coordinator).

Taideyliopiston Historiafoorumi -tutkimuskeskuksen blogissa julkaistaan säännöllisesti puheenvuoroja esittävien taiteiden historiantutkimuksen ajankohtaisista aiheista ja aloitteista. Blogikirjoitukset kertovat niin tutkimuskeskuksen tutkijoiden omien hankkeista kuin yleisemminkin historian- ja taiteentutkimuksen kentän ilmiöistä. “Dynamic Interpretations of the Past” -blogi on julkaisu (ISSN 2736-9986). Toimitusneuvosto: Anne Kauppala (päätoimittaja), Kaarina Kilpiö, Vesa Kurkela, Markus Mantere, Saijaleena Rantanen ja Johanna Rauhaniemi (toimitussihteeri),

I Konstuniversitetets Historieforums blogg publicerar vi regelbundet kommentarer och initiativ om scenkonstens och musikens historia. Våra bloggtexter är skrivna av de forskare som är affilierade vid Konstuniversitetets Historieforum. Texterna belyser såväl forskarnas egna akademiska projekt som forskningsfälten kring historie- och konstforskning i allmänhet. Bloggen “Dynamic interpretations of the past” är en publication (ISSN 2736-9986). Redaktionsråd: Anne Kauppala (ordförande för redaktionsrådet), Kaarina Kilpiö, Vesa Kurkela, Markus Mantere, Saijaleena Rantanen and Johanna Rauhaniemi (redaktionssekreterare)

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