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Passion against rule(r)s

by Jaani Länsiö

Estonian musicologist Heli Reimann has come a long way, from a country village in Soviet Estonia via Florida to the University of Helsinki. As a musician and a scholar, she immersed herself in Estonian jazz culture in the Stalin era, delving into the reminiscences of musicians of the time and their underground jazz parties.

The Soviet Union was a society of strict discipline and rationing, with an outward appearance of a homogeneous culture and Communist harmony. In reality, both the people and its leaders were fragmented into several layers, and- ubiquitous official surveillance notwithstanding- the culture thriving in this context was far more pluralist than anyone dared admit.

“As always in the Soviet Union, you had to distinguish between the official version of events and aspirations and what was really going on. What people said on the record never had any bearing on real life,” says Heli Reimann. She has focused on this phenomenon in her doctoral research, and she also has personal experience of it in her life history.

Reimann grew up in a tiny country village near the market town of Tapa, 80 kilometres from Tallinn. Entertainment was scarce in the backwoods. Instead of playing and games there was the family piano, which Heli at five years old was getting very familiar with on a daily basis. At the age of 15, she relocated to Tallinn, alone, to study at the Conservatory.

Reimann never did become a star pianist. She had pretended to be a disciplined musician to please her mother, but inside her was a free, improvisational soul – though not a jazz musician. Reimann does not like to use that term because it is too genre-bound, but considering how she describes her approach to music it is difficult to describe her as anything else. In the late 1980s, Reimann made a bold move, abandoning the piano for her true passion, the saxophone. She became the first woman sax player in the history of the Tallinn Music Academy.

Reimann came to Finland and the Sibelius Academy in 1997, and in 2002 she went to study at Florida State University on a scholarship. She was inspired to study jazz and managed to get admitted to the only university in the world with a master’s degree programme in jazz studies, Rutgers University. Seven years ago, she embarked on her doctorate at the University of Helsinki, titling it Jazz in Soviet Estonia 1944 to 1953: Meanings, Spaces and Paradoxes.


From friends to fiends

Inspected last autumn, Reimann’s doctorate covers a period beginning in 1944, a time when the superpowers USA and the Soviet Union stood shoulder to shoulder, poised to crush the Axis powers. In the elation of winning the Second World War, jazz came to symbolise transatlantic friendship and the joint effort to rid the world of Fascism, the freedom of the music echoing the freedom of the people. Or so it was thought. The friendship proved to be temporary.

In 1946, the free world was shut out as the political and cultural life of the Soviet Union was shaken up by Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov, who in his notorious Zhdanov Doctrine declared that the world was divided into two cultural camps that were opposed to one another. This immediately jeopardised the position of all artists perceived by the Central Committee to be practitioners of imperialistic culture. Jazz was tolerated for a while, in principle, because being the music of black people it also represented the culture of the working class.

Two years later, another bombshell fell. The opera Velikaya druzhba (The Great Friendship) by Vano Muradeli (1948) was seen as a threat to the pure culture of the Soviet Union, and an even tougher decree was issued, casting a deeper shadow over Soviet artists. Jazz orchestras were now recast as entertainment orchestras, sax players were dismissed, and even amateur orchestras were only allowed to play waltzes or pas d’Espagne for dancing.

In a further turn for the worse, in 1950 a boycott of the entire genre of jazz ensued. For a three-year period, the word “jazz” was never once mentioned in the print media. The former symbol of freedom was now musica non grata. However, out of sight did not mean out of mind, and reports of the demise of jazz were very premature indeed.


Bubbling under

Although the official Soviet Union considered jazz dead and buried, musicians passionate about the genre would not take this lying down. They retreated from the dance pavilions and set up shop in secluded basements. Estonian musicians were in fact saved by the huge geographical size of the Soviet Union. Despite proclamations banning jazz, the Soviet authorities never managed to exert as firm control in Tallinn as they could in Leningrad or Moscow. As far as is known, not a single Estonian was sent to Siberia or killed because of jazz.

Moreover, Estonian jazz musicians had pet moles in the government who espoused their cause and protected them from the more officious authorities. These people were known as ‘radishes’ – red on the outside but with a musician’s heart on the inside. They turned a blind eye to the underground enjoyment of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. When the first-ever jazz festival in Tallinn was held in 1949, there were two bands, publicity was by word of mouth, and the venue was – what else? – a basement.

Long-range radio was the only way of gaining access to Western music. No records of Western music were made, and the only place in Estonia where one could record music was the studio of the State radio, which naturally was off limits to jazz. There was nowhere to buy sheet music, so musicians wrote their own, sometimes with considerable ingenuity. Whenever someone picked up jazz on a radio, a phone ring sprang up immediately: even with only a single radio picking up a transmission, the sound could be conveyed by phone to multiple listeners. There was always a colleague somewhere with music paper, a pen, a keen ear and a quick hand.

Thanks to these intense and intrepid musicians, jazz never became Sovietised. Remaining true to its roots, it assimilated some folk music influences and settled into local Estonian culture.

After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, the culture sector began to revive slowly, and in 1957 the Moscow World’s Festival of Youth and Students brought jazz in from the cold. Ten years later came the Tallinn Jazz Festival, a four-day event with more than 120 musicians that was the largest jazz event in Soviet history up until then. An extended quieter period followed, and it was not until the 1980s that jazz could be said to have become completely free.


Jazz is not greener on the other side

It may be surprising to realise that Reimann’s experiences in Communist Estonia and the capitalist USA are very similar.

“A big country always exerts a grip on the individual, and the mood is very patriotic. In the USA, everything revolves around money. It is just as much of a brainwashing culture as the Soviet Union used to be,” says Reimann. Not many people there knew anything about Estonia, and she often encountered bizarre prejudices. “You mean people play jazz in other countries?” was a common question posed when Reimann talked about her research. “l hope that my work can help correct these misapprehensions.”

Reimann has already begun a new study, extending her time perspective to 1968, the year of the Prague Spring and a new clampdown.


Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Photo: Kari Kuukka / DocImages