Jazz singer conquers Russia's racial bigotry

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, give or take a week or two, Tim Strong had a chance meeting with Aretha Franklin. He was an awkward and unknown 18-year-old, one of nine children from a blue-collar family in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. She was... well, the Queen of Soul.

An aspiring musician, with an unusually powerful voice, he was sitting at the piano at a rehearsal studio in New York when Franklin wandered up and asked him to sing. Suddenly overwhelmed by nervousness, he declined. "I made a lot of mistakes back then, and that was one of them," he recalls.

Since then, both his nerves and his career have taken a turn for the better. They have done so in the unlikely setting of the former Soviet Union, where jazz was once banned as subversive, and black artists were - and still are - few and far between.

After moving to Moscow three years ago, where his wife was posted as a diplomat with the New Zealand embassy,Strong, 45, has become an acclaimed performer who pulls crowds in clubs and concert halls across 11 time zones.

Acclaimed is no exaggeration. Not long ago, 10,000 people turned out to see him in Akademgorodok. The Moscow Tribune newspaper has hailed Strong as "arguably the greatest jazz singer in Russia today". Art Troitsky, a Russian commentator and music critic, says he is the greatest blues performer in the land. "Not since Paul Robeson in the late 1940s has an African-American singer created such a sensation in what was once the Soviet Union," declared Newsweek.

This is no small achievement in a society where attitudes to race range from ignorance and low-level xenophobia to the rabid views of the small, but growing far right. Abuse and attacks against black foreign students are depressingly commonplace; a few months ago, a US marine was badly beaten by young racist Russians in a Moscow park.

Tim Strong could scarcely have failed to be aware of such problems but he says he has never experienced any threatening instance of racism directed specifically at him. There have, however, been moments of outright crassness: for example, seeing his dreadlocks, Russians tend to ask if he is Whoopi Goldberg's brother.

"People in Russia are just not sensitive to race," he said, sitting in his spacious apartment in central Moscow. "I remember I was in a mafia- type joint and this guy asked me to `sing those nigger songs. You know the ones,' he said. Songs like `Summertime'.

"But, you know, I have been walking on this tight rope all my life. I have seen everything from the ignorant but well- meaning to the downright insensitive on both sides, both black and white. It is just garbage that comes out of cluttered minds."

Nurtured for years in the jazz, blues and theatre scene of New York, Strong is a protege of the drummer-vocalist jazzman, Grady Tate. But he has also become something of a pioneer in his own right within a society starved of his kind of work.

For years jazz was banned by Soviet leaders, who regarded it as subversive and a threat to the empire's high art. Music fans were forced to make illicit and primitive recordings using old X-rays stolen from medical clinics. And even relatively late on in the USSR's history, when the Party was relaxing its controls, jazz and rock still had a reputation for being shady, a symptom of Western decadence.

As late as 1974, plans to open a new jazz cafe in Gorky Park foundered because the Communist top brass disapproved, ensuring that Moscow remained without any public place offering live jazz or rock. Even when the cafes began to vibrate to the rhythms of Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, the Russians - ever fearful that individualism would corrode the principles of Communist collectivity - remained cautious.

Hedrick Smith, in his 1975 book The Russians, describes attending a jazz lecture that was illustrated by musical extracts. About 1,000 young people filled the hall. "Not once did a single head bop in rhythm. Not one pair of fingers was snapping or clicking to the music. No feet were tapping. No spontaneous applause broke out. People were studious, immobile, unexpressive."

Some of this retentive approach is still to be found even in today's liberated Moscow. "There is a handful of Russian jazz musicians who can truly swing," says Strong. "But for the most part there is still a very austere approach, to put it politely. It is just a rhythmic thing. Black people have taught the world how to swing, but the Russians were so far removed here for so long, that they have come along the slowest."

However, they are making progress. At a recent performance by Tim Strong in Moscow, the crowds, young and old, seemed to be swinging along just fine.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Governance Manager (Solvency II) – Contract – Up to £450 daily rate, 6 month (may go Permanent)

£350 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently looking...

Recruitment Resourcer

£18000 - £22000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Recruitment Resour...

Sharepoint Technical Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is a dynamic, fast-growing, fa...

HR Business Analyst, Bristol, £350-400pd

£350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried