by Chris Bacas
I asked my friend about April weather in Siberia.
“You will need jacket” he said evenly and without article.
Part of a festival celebrating Victory in the “Great Patriotic War” and the incredible efforts at the Far East factories, our gig was booked for springtime. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the trip was rescheduled for late November. To prepare, I read Solzhenitsyn's “Gulag Archipelago”; its' sweep encompassing a full history of the Soviet Police state and camps, detailed etymologies of prison slang, the geography and anthropology of a vast territory and hundreds of individual tales so grim and heroic each merited a film. After more than a thousand soul-burning pages, I could recite countless camp torments in the author's majestic, ironic voice, but was unable to order a dumpling and a soda in his mother tongue, nor read nyet and da in Cyrillic. I had a full beard and hair I could tie in a two-foot ponytail. Friends pointed out my resemblance to Rasputin. Other than a valid passport and some skills as a musician, my qualifications for this trip were slight.
The itinerary filled out with dates in St Peterburg, Moscow, and a few more in the East. We left after Thanksgiving. My colleague, a Russian-born musician who long anchored the most accomplished and well-known jazz band in the USSR, arranged the tour. He'd left his homeland and wife, for work, during the tumultuous months of perestroika; an American musician as his visa sponsor and host. The two men proved incompatible and I offered our second-floor as an alternative. Sharing the Siberian invitation came more of reciprocity and true friendship than musical or entrepreneurial designs. There were plenty of players more well-known or skilled to make the trip. I was lucky.
Moscow in 1999 was a city under construction. From our hotel, I could see the monumental statue of Yuri Gagarin behind criss-crossed crane booms. My colleague explained the cosmonaut's tragic life with a proverb in which, after profound physical and emotional tests, surviving fame is the final arbiter of true greatness. His narration hovered over my failed nap. I never sleep on transatlantic flights, preferring to arrive tired and fall into the local rhythm. The fatigue from the first leg knocked me flat. Unable to sleep, I begged for a hot meal in a restaurant, quickly showing my weak, decadent Western constitution. My partner, a veteran of five-thousand far-flung one-nighters, opened a can of tuna, unwrapped biscuits and made hot tea with a small electric coil. I gobbled up a chalky protein bar as appetizer. We stayed in the room. It was like camping.
Later that day, I met up with the pianist for our Eastern tour. He was witty, a highly skilled player and a graduate of the former Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys. His degree, the equivalent of Master's, in Quantum Physics, never landed him a job. A potential employer, noting his surname, mumbled anti-Jewish insults and tropes under his breath all-the-while conducting their interview. Already gainfully employed playing restaurants and in demand for tours and accompanying gigs, Pianist walked out and never looked back. From this and my roommate's stories about Soviet life and the artists who navigated it, I learned that as a community, musicians' struggles, survival and aspirations to mastery, read without transposition.
Our warm-up gig was in the American Embassy in Moscow; the function, a reception for returning staff. Their work continued in the background. I spoke with a beautiful young woman about her duties. Her English, impeccable as any BBC broadcast, comforted me. Would she return home for the holidays? My question confused her. I repeated it.
“I'm Russian. I live in Moscow.” she said, clearly annoyed.
After the gig, in the Pianist's apartment, we did what musicians do: talked about music and played records for each other. In those days before software ate the world, I saw how few CDs he had access to and offered him any and all of mine.
The next day, I took the overnight to St Petersburg. The Lenningradski station looked big enough to swallow a fleet of 747s and still have room for dessert. The platform where I boarded was massive, too. My mind plunged into Solzhenitsyn's world of “Stolypin cars” packed with hopeful, brilliant, doomed men. A ticket bought a bed in a compartment sleeping four in two wide racks of bunks. Cabin mates were two youngish men and an elderly woman. I greeted them primitively and climbed to an upper bunk. There was a window behind my head, locked and cold to the touch. After a series of announcements, all in Russian, we were underway. I was exhausted and still couldn't sleep. During boarding, the cabin was cool from outside air, but now it rapidly heated up. I worried about my horns stowed in a bin under the lower bunk. It would be easy to grab them and take off. Sweating in the close air, I stripped to my undies and kicked the covers completely off. Dimly, I could see the elderly woman's face near the edge of her bunk. Her eyes were open. Could she see me? With the angle and feeble light from the window, it was impossible. I writhed in the heat, finally removing my underwear. Then, I heard the woman's voice begin. Uncomfortably exposed, exhausted, baking in waves of dry heat, her thick, scratchy sound bore into me over and over. No one answered her. I couldn't move toward the edge for fear she would have the angle to see me nude. As we rolled on, her voice continued, mingling with rattling carriages and crossing bells. Unbelievably, I slept.
I woke up on the long, grinding approach to Petersburg, announcements blaring. My bunk mates were packed and sitting up. The woman, who never acknowledged me, moved slowly and precisely, gathering her belongings. I'd passed 7 hours in a dry sauna, my body both limber and spent. Hoping no one would divine I'd been naked all night, I dressed with small, furtive movements. On the platform, two bright young ladies, somewhat skilled in English, met me. They asked what I wanted to see in their town. The Hermitage, acres of marble packed with the priceless haul of aristocratic wealth, was too much. The multi-colored domes of Savior on the Spilled Blood glowing against a grey sky, we headed to the State Museum of Russian Art. Dotted with ice, the Neva river slid under arched bridges and past hulking marble buildings. Peter envisioned his northern city as rival to Venice and ordered canals dug off the river. He built parks around the waterways, populated with classical sculpture. Above their pedestals, those statues slept inside slatted wooden boxes secured with padlocks.
At the memorial in remembrance of war dead, an eternal flame billowed low in vicious wind gusts. A weekday bride and groom, her arms bared in a strapless dress, his face raw above a tux shirt, happily took their vows, kissed, posed for photos and swept off. It was impossible to imagine this city surviving for years under constant siege. Yet, the numbers on the markers were stunning, numbing.
My chaperones got me to the club early. As guest with the house band, I felt important and far, far from home. The trio was strong, its' bassist playing with a saxophonist's facility.The pianist and leader, Andrei, wrote masterfully. He knew exactly the sweet spots for tenor saxophone and his melodies built, line by line, into perfect arcs. His face lighted in a shy smile as he handed me pages, each hand-written in blue ink. We could have made a whole night of them. In the small club, thick smoke and powerful lights made a bright haze. My black cashmere jacket, brought to keep me warm, felt like a stainless-steel enclosure, I finally hung it over a music stand. The dirty air constricted my breathing by degrees, but there wasn't a fix for that. I was intoxicated by the music all night. There wasn't going to be a victory lap, though, we'd have a small window afterwards to make the station.