Jazz stars: Alexander Tsfasman

Today our traditional column "Jazz Stars" features a story about Alexander Tsfasman (1906-1971) -- Soviet pianist, composer, orchestrator, conductor, orchestra leader, publicist and public figure. Tsfasman was one of the founders of Soviet jazz and led several jazz ensembles; moreover, he was the artistic director of the All-Union Radio Jazz Orchestra (1939-1946).

A selection of music composed and performed by Alexander Tsfasman is posted in the museum Phonothèque.

Alexander Tsfasman was a legendary and charismatic personality in the Soviet jazz -- pianist, composer, orchestrator, conductor, and bandleader. He was also a publicist and public figure. Tsfasman was the only Russian jazzman who signed the organizational record of the International Jazz Federation.

Alexander was born 117 years ago, on December 1, 1906, in Zaporozhye. The father of the future musician, an ordinary barber, played the violin by ear. Young Sasha, mirroring his father, started playing the violin at the age of seven, but soon was carried away by playing the piano. At the age of 13, he won the first prize at the Regional completion in Nizhny Novgorod for his performance of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 in A Minor by Franz Liszt.

In 1918, Tsfasman entered the piano department of the Music College in Nizhny Novgorod. From 1920 to 1923, he served as a pianist and percussionist in the symphony orchestra in Nizhny Novgorod. In 1923, the future composer moved to Moscow and entered the piano class of Felix Blumenfeld in Moscow Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1930. A career of a concert pianist with challenging works of Russian and world classics attracted him. During his studies, the young man began composing music and was introduced to jazz.

Frank Withers' “Jazz Kings” sextet with Sidney Bechet performed in Moscow in 1926. Alexander was fascinated by the rhythms of jazz, its unusual sound, and many opportunities for experiments in the sphere not yet known to Soviet musicians.

In the spring of 1927, a new octet, “AMA Jazz”, led by a 20-year-old virtuoso pianist, gave a concert at the Artistic Club in the capital. It was Sasha Tsfasman. The enigmatic acronym "AMA" stood for Association of Moscow Authors.

In 1928, the “AMA-jazz” broadcasted over the radio -- the first time Soviet jazz sounded were on the air. At the same time, the orchestra of Tsfasman recorded the first domestic jazz gramophone record in the studio on Kuznetsky Most. On one side of the shellac disc, the popular song “Hallelujah” by Vincent Youmans sounded, on the other -- "Seminole" by Harry Warren. Rather large period of Alexander’s life and education fell on the years of the New Economic Policy (NEP), when the country's cultural and artistic liberation came to fruition. Western dances, close in rhythm to authentic jazz, were then in vogue. Early in his career, the musician was already composing jazz in its early forms, ragtime and instrumental blues. Moreover, unlike the earlier Valentin Parnakh jazz band, demonstrating mainly the eccentricities of the new "noise" genre, the ensemble of Tsfasman was exclusively musical and was built up with trained musicians of the highest level.

In 1929, Leonid Utesov created “Thea Jazz”, a theatrical orchestra that premiered in Leningrad. Utesov was fascinated by jazz after attending the Ted Lewis orchestra concert in Paris. Utesov became the front man (the lead singer) of Soviet jazz. Tsfasman was the first professional jazz musician in the country that graduated from the Conservatory. What his fellow musicians learned by "self-training", Tsfasman learned through classical education.

Along with American jazz standards, the repertoire of Tsfasman's orchestra repertoire included many of his own compositions. One has only to recall well known from the gramophone recordings "Jimmy", "Happy Rain", "Happy Day", "Expectation", or the legendary tune "A Failed Date" - "So Tomorrow! In the same place at the same hour...". The concerts opened with the wonderful piece "Sounds of Jazz," which became the orchestra special feature. “The parting” of Jerzy Petersburski, performed by the Tsfasman Orchestra, is a musical symbol of pre-war times. Since 1933, Alexander had been touring regularly all over the country.

From 1939 to 1946, Tsfasman headed the jazz orchestra of the All-Union Radio Committee, which also employed his musicians.

During the Second World War, Tsfasman learned to play the accordion in a month, and with his brigade gave more than 90 concerts for the front line troops. In 1944, Tsfasman composed one of his best works, the “Intermezzo for Clarinet and Orchestra”, and he sent the sheet music to the composer to whom he dedicated the piece - the famous American clarinetist Benny Goodman - who performed it on many occasions with enormous success. In the same time, Alexander received sheet music for George Gershwin “Blue Rhapsody” and performed it in 1945 at the Hall of Columns with the Symphony Orchestra.

After the war, the darkest period began for jazz orchestras. Their performances were cancelled, the orchestras themselves were renamed in "pop", and Western repertoire was banned. The "fight against cosmopolitanism" began. Tsfasman had fallen on hard times as well -- he was fired from the Radio Committee and the orchestra was disbanded. As in his youth, Tsfasman worked in the Hermitage Garden, assembling a new small instrumental ensemble for new tours and new recordings.

“The Khrushchev Thaw" in the country a few years later opened a "second wind" for Tsfasman. The thaw that came to the country a few years later and Tsfasman caught “the second wind”. He wrote new instrumental and song opuses, recorded discs, was invited to compose music for cartoons and then for full-length feature films. One after another, movies were released with his music: "Merry Stars" (1954), "The Secret of Beauty" (1955) and "Behind the Shop Window" (1956).

In the last years of life In recent years, he lived mostly outside the town; he played tennis, and devoted himself to growing roses. Occasionally, Tsfasman would host a quartet of prefers: Igor Moiseyev, Sergei Obraztsov, film director Ivan Pyryev and the owner of the house. Alexander Tsfasman lived only 65 years, and became famous as a leader of brilliant jazz orchestras, a virtuoso pianist, and vibrant and distinctive composer. His cheerful songs, dances and musical miniatures are still listened to in our days. Listening to the recordings, one notices not only the clarity and coherence of the ensemble playing and the mastery of the soloists, but above all a deep sense of jazz rhythm and jazz specificity.
Alexander Tsfasman died in 1971 of a heart attack.