Saxophonist Igor Butman, `the Wynton of Russia,' Plays New York

Patrick Cole,
September 11, 2006

Russian jazz saxophone player Igor Butman smiles with confidence when you call him the Wynton Marsalis of his homeland.

Butman, 45, relaxes in the green room at Dizzy's Coca-Cola jazz club in Manhattan after a sound check and ticks off the names on his personal list of celebrity friends. He's hosted his own television show in Russia; he runs a Moscow jazz club that lures the world's best players; and he's got Bill Clinton's phone number. 

Butman is trying to persuade the Russian government to fund a jazz performing arts complex like Jazz at Lincoln Center. If he succeeds, he says, his quest to properly promote the art form in his country would be virtually complete. 

I met with the jeans- and boots-clad Butman while his drummer, the jazz fusion pioneer Lenny White, and Butman's pianist and friend from St. Petersburg, Andrei Kondakov, wolfed down plates of salmon and salad while eavesdropping on our conversation. 

Cole: Your admirers include President Clinton. Was he on the guest list for one of your shows? Butman: Yes, he's on the guest list, but unfortunately he's in Asia. He sent us a bottle of champagne last night. I saw him in February when he came to the 75th anniversary (birthday party) of Boris Yeltsin, and I performed with him at the Kremlin. Every time I perform for him, for some reason I'm really inspired or maybe I'm really nervous. They wanted me to play one song and then they wanted me to play more and more. Even Boris Yeltsin, who was tired, said, `Igor, play more, yeah!' 

Voice of America 

Cole: People call you the Wynton Marsalis of Russia, or some people call Wynton the Igor Butman of New York. Will you collaborate in the future? Butman: Oh, I hope so.

Cole: You two obviously know each other pretty well.

Butman: I knew about Wynton way before he knew about me. I remember I heard this guy on the Voice of America, and I was blown away. Then I saw some videos of him at the Pori [Finland] Jazz Festival He's just nine days older than me. I have many records of his. When he came to Russia and we were playing a jam session, it was like God was walking from the stairs. He came into the middle of the jazz session in a white suit. We became really good friends immediately.

Tough Lives

Cole: It's tough being a jazz musician here in the U.S. Is it tough being a jazz musician in Russia?

Butman: It is. Anything that has to do with art is really rough and really hard. At this moment in Russia, I'm lucky that I have something -- that's why people call me the Wynton Marsalis of Russia -- because I have some connections. I opened a club where many, many jazz musicians came because people didn't believe the club could survive. It survived for seven years. No one believed that I could get Jimmy Smith, the Yellowjackets, Ray Brown, Michael Brecker, McCoy Tyner.

Cole: Are you making a good living? Butman: I'm making a pretty good living playing music. I'm known. I'm participating in a television show, ``Stars on Ice,'' in Russia. It's a figure skating competition with stars; people skating with Olympic champions. I'm a hockey player. I used to play for the Russian Red Army team, so I'm a pretty good skater.

Cole: When you come to New York, what do you do besides play music?

Butman: As soon as I come to New York, I call my mother.

Cole: When did your mother come here?

Butman: I brought her here in 1990. I didn't want to help build communism. I knew they were not going to succeed with my country, and I wanted to play music and learn. And they didn't succeed without me. As soon as I left, it collapsed.