Red and Hot

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Although this historical account of the popularity of jazz music in the Soviet Union seems at first to deal with a rather limited subject, it in fact encompasses a much broader topic, illuminating the complex question of the relationship of a totalitarian regime to the popular, sometimes undesirable, tastes of the governed. To a much greater extent than many other studies of life in Russia under the Communists, Red and Hot reveals the enormous impact that government control can have on the spontaneous desires of the people.

The author of this analysis of the relationship of jazz to the ideals of the Communist state brings to his work impressive academic credentials as a social historian and as a serious amateur jazz musician. S. Frederick Starr has been secretary of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, Scholar-in-Residence at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a cofounder of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, and is now the president of Oberlin College. His work shows a thorough familiarity with American popular music and with the quality of day-to-day life in contemporary Russia. Even though Starr’s book probably began as a study of the fate of the strange, irreverent phenomenon of twentieth century popular music, it becomes a chilling analysis of what it means to live under the oppressive yoke of Russian Communism.

The history of jazz in the Soviet Union is in fact a history of two different phenomena—the avid acceptance of the gradually evolving musical form by the people and the oscillating attitude of the government toward the popularity of the music. The development of the first of these phenomena parallels to a great extent its evolution in the United States. A central thesis of Starr’s account is that jazz represents a deviance in music. As a form of rebellion against established norms, its inception in the United States was accompanied by a series of other deviances—in dress, in hairstyles, and in various anarchistic behavior patterns. It appealed at first to a wide public, but as the music became more socially acceptable, it was transformed on the one hand into the “sweet” style of the hotel ballrooms, and on the other into the more sophisticated, intellectualized “cool” style that had a very limited audience. As the initial devotees of this music grew older and became part of the established social order, the “authentic” progressive jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s was replaced by other anarchistic, rebellious forms of jazz—the rock and roll of the 1950’s, the hard rock of the 1960’s, and the punk rock of the 1970’s. In the United States, the survival of the early forms of progressive jazz and the revival of interest in those forms and in the sweet big-band sounds are limited phenomena with elitist, intellectual, and nostalgic overtones.

The development of the popular acceptance of jazz in the Soviet Union parallels its counterpart in the United States to a remarkable degree, except that each stage of the process was delayed by several years. The delay, of course, was the result of the government’s attempts to suppress the spontaneous tastes of the public, and this is the other history that Starr tells in Red and Hot. The account of the Communists’ attitude toward jazz is extraordinarily complex, for several reasons. In theory, jazz was an invention of the people, an authentic expression of the experience of the working masses. It was, then, an ideal form to be cultivated for the benefit of the proletariat. In practice, however, American jazz was popular in that sense only in its very beginning. Although it developed out of the blues forms of the oppressed black, it very rapidly became the domain of the prosperous middle-class participants of ballroom society and the cool clubs. Also, it was an American phenomenon, which made it questionable as an acceptable form to pervade Russian society. An additional problem was its obvious sexual connotations. Jazz was for dancing of a deviant sort. It represented a rebellion against the etiquette of the nineteenth century ballroom, but its liberated, Dionysian display of sexual energy evoked images of bourgeois decadence.

For several reasons, the advent of jazz offers the opportunity to do what Starr does so well in Red and Hot. Because it is raucous and unbridled and impolite, jazz encourages the kind of spontaneous behavior that will surely be judged unsuitable by a government that attempts to create a society in which all people act at all times in an acceptable way. The fact that the Communist...

(The entire section is 1881 words.)