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St. Pete Jazz Scene Mourns Loss of Pioneer

Published: January 16, 2014 (Issue # 1793)



  • Natan Leites carries an American flag at Pulkovo Airport to welcome jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to St. Petersburg in 1999.
    Photo: for SPT

Jazz promoter Natan Leites, who was a fixture on the Leningrad and St. Petersburg jazz scene for more than 50 years, died at the age of 76 on Dec. 30, 2013. He was cremated on Jan. 5.

For nearly 50 years, Leites headed the Kvadrat Jazz Club, Russias oldest surviving jazz association, which organized concerts and festivals, produced albums, held lectures and published a typewritten magazine containing information about jazz music at a time when it was officially discouraged by the Soviet state.

A true jazz aficionado, Leites was at the center of everything that happened on the local scene, inspiring and educating generations of musicians.

I first came across something resembling jazz music at the Mayak Club on Krasnaya (now Galernaya) Ulitsa, Leites said in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times in 1997. They played music there starting from the Stalin era at some dance nights and stuff.

The trendiest and best-known was a band led by [Izrail] Atlas. Generally, people danced a lot after the war, in the 1950s and the early and mid-1960s. It became a growth medium for so-called Leftfield ensembles. I heard something of the kind for the first time in around 1952.

I became acquainted with [genuine] jazz in the late 1950s; I thought it was good music, I liked it even if it had been terribly abused [by the Soviet authorities] since the early 1950s, especially after [Viktor] Gorodinskys book called Music of Spiritual Poverty, which came out in 1951.

The conversation took place at Leites small apartment in the only Khrushchev-style building on Kazanskaya Ulitsa, which was packed with all sorts of audio equipment, records, tapes, books, magazines and manuscripts.

According to Leites, he was not a political dissident, being first and foremost attracted to the music, rather than to its political overtones.

I was quite a red or pink person at least I believed in socialism, he said.

Too many now say that they opened their eyes awfully early. It couldnt be so. The whole country was in a kind of jar. Only diplomats went abroad, no-one else.

In school you were taught that the steam-engine was invented by the [Russian engineers] Cherepanovs, that all things were done by Soviets or Russians, that we lived better than anyone, because we had no unemployment. We saw nothing.

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