by Christopher Bacas
In Novokuznetsk, our hosts, the “Symphony Society”, a group of music-lovers, artists and bon-vivants, met us at the station. Among them, an accordionist with impeccable skills. Isolated in this far eastern town, he was hungry to play and produced his instrument soon after we arrived at the venue. His knowledge of Jazz repertoire was limited, his ears and virtuosity were not. I quoted “Stranger in Paradise”. He took that quote, a small section of a much longer work by Alexander Borodin, and seamlessly connected it to all its' original modulations and permutations. He nodded to me to join him and continue what I started, but I begged off, thoroughly schooled.
After the gig, the Society brought us to their clubhouse. It was rustic; a cross between a hunting and fishing lodge and an instrument shop. The table settings included a troika of bottled beverages: red wine, white wine and vodka; roughly a bottle per guest. The starters came on huge circular platters: pickled local vegetables (domestic produce from a brief, intense growing season): cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and carrots; roasted peppers, eggplant, beans, cured meats, cheeses and home-smoked local fish. Dill sprigs punctuated the glistening rows.
Toasting commenced, with vodka tumblers refilled on the turn. After two toasts, roughly six or seven ounces of liquor, I was finished. Thereafter, I held the glass to lips and tilted my head back; miming what the others did. The booze brutally burned my lips. Whenever a club member came to refill my glass I turned away and nodded my head, then glanced up to see his disapproving look. When the main courses, roast fish and meat with starches and more garnishes arrived, I was plenty drunk. Servers hefted tray after tray to the table.
The contents of a heavy baking pan made everyone excited: brownish jello, riddled with tiny bubbles. I held out my plate for a piece. A server placed a three inch square on small plate. A porcelain pot filled with mustard plopped down next to my utensils. The jello wasn't a sweet, after all. Close up it appeared greasy. I dabbed mustard onto the plate. The attention in the room shifted to me. My fork cracked the surface of the jelly and a jagged piece broke off. I lifted it. The table roared. When the jello hit my mouth, it released a woody, salty taste and stalled on my tongue, cool and heavy. My face sent the room into convulsive laughter. I had just eaten salo, pure rendered pork fat, wood-smoked. Finishing my healthy portion would be difficult. I had already been rained out on vodka, now I was going belly-up on pork fat. The other guests took turns asking if I liked salo , if I'd eaten it before, if I was going to finish mine. I hadn't eaten anything quite like it, that was true. The small plate stayed next to my place-setting, lonely and neglected; symbol of a weak constitution and jaded tastes. For the record, mustard didn't help.
Our final Eastern stop, Novosibirsk, a frontier town with a glorious history producing heavy armaments, received much support from the government. Shostakovich founded the music school there, ensuring even children of factory workers would have an opportunity to study the masters of European music with gifted teachers in well-appointed facilities. One of those early students, now a well-known pianist and sometime musical partner of my host, came to take us sight-seeing. He had a child-like demeanor and gave me a trio CD he made called “Bach for Fun”. On the back cover photo he'd stuck his tongue out and spread his arms wide. With him as guide, we saw the local “castle” and other historic features. At lunch, I ordered my new favorite food, solyanka, a soup with salami; the happiest marriage ever. Back in my room I napped in early darkness, then took a bath. Filling the deep tub with hot water took forever and felt extravagant.
My colleague knocked to signal our ride waiting outside. I collected my horns and headed down. He asked if I had rested. I told him about the sleep and relaxing bath. He looked concerned.
“Did you clean the tub?”
“I rinsed it out”
“You didn't clean it first?”
“I mean, I used hot water and splashed it around before I started filling it”
” My wife would kill you. Didn't you learn anything? Do you want to be sick?”
He closed his eyes,tilted his head down and shook it slowly side-to-side.
“How would I get sick?”
“You could get hepatitis”
“Yes. It happens, you know”
“I won't do that again”
We drove on in silence.
The hall was new and smelled of carpet glue and sheet rock. Our hosts' hospitality and camaraderie were warm, as always. After the concert, I stood in the lobby with the other musicians. Out of an undifferentiated roar, two female voices:
They waved from across the lobby: my public.
The women approached us; not young and dressed for ladies' night. Both had deep tans, thick eye make-up and plenty of cleavage. I smiled and bowed slightly. They giggled, each revealing a couple missing teeth. I thanked them. More smiles. They spoke Russian to my bandmates. Smiles all around. I showed them my CD.
“Very nice” one said, handling the disc gingerly.
“Congratulations” the other said, looking at her friend's manicured fingers on the jewel box.
I thanked them. More smiles. The lady who complimented the record turned and spoke to her friend, who maintained eye contact with me. After a minute, she said 'Good night', firmly, without looking away.
They backed away a few steps, then turned and headed for the doors. My colleagues
looked over at me, their eyes wide.
“The ladies left”
“What did they say?”
“They said 'good night' “
My bandmates shook their heads, speaking Russian. My colleague turned to me while the other two continued to talk.
” Listen, when I brought __________here, he didn't know how to talk to people. They asked me what was wrong with him, maybe that he was gay.”
“I said hello. They didn't have much to say.”
He frowned “This is Siberia. People expect something.”
“You are musician. They expect something”
We flew to Moscow the next day; my last gig that evening in a nightclub. The music director of the club was brother of a Brooklyn colleague. A powerful player and renowned jazz musician in Russia, the director accompanied an ambitious ex-KGB agent and nascent politician on his travels around the now fragmented country. Beneath the club, a legendary Moscow theater presented great Russian repertory in masterful productions. Upstairs, real gangsters entertained rail-thin beauties; the house musicians inhaling canyons of their cigarette smoke. With a fierce young Moscow drummer, from the house big-band, we hit hard. I played a long duo with the drummer that ended with me drenched and spent. Immaculately dressed, the flat heads and their bored molls never acknowledged our presence. The chief showed up, tenor in hand, and we dueled Cold War style to general disinterest. The director was author of some of my concerts there and I thanked him. He was as much politician as musician-giving local cats work, propping up an official image, all while ducking thugs. I tried to digest his embrace of criminals for artistic survival; never guessing twenty years on, he would carry water for one of the most powerful and autocratic leaders in the world; reaping patronage on a kingly scale.
While packing for departure from Sheremetyevo airport, my hosts discovered a glitch. Large amounts of currency and other assets were reported pouring out of the country in valises and money belts. With my passport and travel history, I fit the profile. I'd heard horror stories where, aghast at hunks of engraved gold and silver walking toward waiting planes, agents snatched instruments and held them for hours or days. My splotchy saxophone wouldn't attract eyeballs. For the cash, a solution came via my drop-offs in 1980's Times Square. No sane person walked through “the beast” late at night. Thieves picked off the vulnerable with impunity. When the band manager handed over my pay, salary plus whatever Union bread accrued, sometimes more than thousand bucks, I'd pocket ready cash for my train home and breakfast, then roll the rest of the bills tightly. That cylinder slid into my underwear, folding the waistband until I was sure the money wouldn't pop out the sides and down my leg. For my Moscow getaway I added a shoe for more storage. Despite those preparations, Russian customs' agents ignored me and I boarded easily.
I arrived home with short-term narcolepsy; napping daily after both breakfast and lunch, once passing out bolt upright on a Greyhound, newspaper spread in my lap. After a week of dangerous blackouts, normal sleep resumed. My trip was not normal, though. In Krasnoyarsk, a backstage visitor asked, maybe facetiously, if I was “occult”. On stage, with my thick beard, long hair flying and Janus-face expressions, I must have appeared a phony holy man in a dark suit. Actually, I was a pilgrim.
Across the invisible tombs of thirty million souls, I rode time zones like a conveyor belt to where chunks of galactic ice seared the sky, crushing entire provinces of trees. Wonder never dissolved in my exhaustion and bandstand frisson; it formed sediment that scuffed like stirred sand. With that grit still rotating inside, I haven't returned yet to the Wild East; the place where the world goes when it wants to be alone.