The international language of Igor Butman's jazz

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia,
Febraury 5, 2012

On Monday night, I went on my first “date night” with my wife in Moscow. We went to listen to the Igor Butman Music Group. I had heard his music in the States a bit and, as a former big band participant a zillion years ago (I played trumpet), I have been a fan of that style of jazz for a long time. My father also worked for more than three decades as a musician—alto sax player – so I have been around music, musicians, and musician hang outs for most of my life.

What I heard on Monday, though, was something special. First, Butman obviously is a very talented musician, but even more so, a real spirit. Loved his energy. Second, the musicians assembled in his group were fantastic. I was struck that they were both young and old, but major enthusiasts of an old tradition in jazz. Guys and gals “with chops” as we say in English. A third thought I had was that there would be no way to tell that these were Russian musicians or any other nationality playing one of America’s greatest gifts to the world – jazz. In fact, the audience’s enjoyment would not have changed were they from Russia, America, Ukraine, Morocco, Nigeria, or China. There is something magical about music that transcends other kinds of divides. My fourth thought: it wasn’t always that way here. I remember very vividly sitting in an apartment in Leningrad in the summer of 1983 when my new Russian friend pulled out his “secret” collection of tapes – Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis, and others. In those days, it was hard to listen to jazz , though of course, people did. It was a style of music firmly identified with America. For some, that was a very negative association. For us in the West, however, it was considered a sign of “progressive” thinking. I remember vividly how much attention our Sovietologists gave the “fact” (don’t actually know if it was true!) that Yury Andropov listened to jazz! For us, this was a sign that he was going to be a reformer. Back then, in the Cold War days, jazz was a highly politicized symbol. THANK GOD those days are gone!

In fact, what is most striking to me in my first weeks back is how much integration of our two cultures and economies has occurred since I last lived here 17 years ago. On Saturday night, I watched Americans help the TsSKA basketball team defeat their Polish opponents, and then chatted after the game with Andrei Kirilenko about how the Utah Jazz really miss him. Ovechkin continues to help the Washington Capitals keep winning back home, but I’ve also heard that Americans are now playing for Russian hockey teams. In business, the fact that one of America’s largest companies, Exxon-Mobil, has begun to pursue joint projects with one of Russia’s largest companies, Rosneft, is another amazing sign of how our interests have realigned since the days when jazz was considered a subversive force. And the Exxon-Rosneft deal is but one of thousands examples of American-Russian economic cooperation. Even on some sensitive issues, we now work together. For example, the $5 million reward that my government has offered for information concerning the terrorist Doku Umarov symbolizes a new level of cooperation to fight common threats. To be sure, our governments do not and will not always agree. For instance, we were disappointed yesterday that Russia refused to support the United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria. But an honest recognition of differences should not lead to the false conclusion that we are heading back to the Cold War. That time is long gone, and is never coming back. Our evening with Butman reminded me how far we have come and what greatness we can achieve when our most talented people work together.