"I would not exchange money for music"

Oleg Lundstrem is no longer with us. But for those who knew him he was a legend. They say that in the 1930s, before Manchuria's occupation by the Japanese, his jazz band performed at the last competition of the emperor, before the monarch fled the country. But Oleg Lundstrem, with his band, which is the oldest jazz band in the world, played up to modern times. Last year, at the respected age of 89, he was awarded the 'Triumph' prize.

"Spy Violinist"
Lundstrem lived in the Valentinovka district of Moscow, popularly known as the artists' settlement. At home he wore a green, Chinese dressing gown and carried an antique, eagle-headed, walking stick.
He was born in Chita into a family of amateur musicians. His great-grandfather was from Sweden was a scientist of silviculture during the Tsarist era and was director of the Zabaykalye forests. When he was five years old, his father was invited to work as a teacher for the East China railways and he moved with his parents to Harbin. Once,when he was 17, he saw the record "Kind Old South" by Duke Ellington in a music shop and, later, found one of Louis Armstrong's records; from then on his was stricken with the jazz bug.

Oleg Lundstrem

In 1935, Lundstrem and two of his musicians, fleeing from the Japanese army, went to Shanghai and joined the secret service. In the city at that time there were forty competitive big bands, among them 'Ataman' Oleg Lundstrem's "Young Hearts Players". In the media he was known as the Far East's 'King of Jazz'. After the war he moved to the Soviet Union. Before leaving Shanghai he was warned by embassy staff that he could be suspected of being a spy in Moscow, and be shot; but he ignored the warning and settled in Kazan. A decision of the Central Committee, however, spoiled everything: it stated that jazz was not necessary for the people of the Soviet Union. Oleg Lundstrem took work as a violinist in the local opera and ballet theatre. It was nine years before jazz could be played openly and, for the succeeding forty years, Lundstrem toured throughout the world. Alla Pugachova, Irina Ponarovskaya, Irina Otiyeva and others sang with his orchestra.

On the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of his orchestra, it was recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest-serving jazz band. Today we publish the last interview he gave to our reporter just a few days before his death.

Oleg Lundstrem

Commissionaire - Ambassador?
Oleg Leonidovich, they say that Duke Ellington in his later years, gave you his blessing - is it true?

When Duke Ellington came to Moscow in the 1970s, I decided to present him with one of my own records. At the Composers' Union our members corralled Duke into a corner of the room - I was introduced to him. He smiled and said, "Ah, Mr Lundstrem! Before coming here I was warned that there was a Russian orchestra in Moscow led by a man with a Swedish surname." Later, at a reception at the US Embassy, we were received with great respect. The Ambassador kissed my wife's hand. She thought, however, that he was the embassy's commissionaire! I was taken to Ellington again and the Ambassador himself interpreted. I said, "Mr Ellington, I still have your record, "Kind old South". Collectors have offered a lot of money for it, but its rightful place is the museum in Chita. They are going to have a 'Lundstrem Street' there. Ellington replied, "Very interesting! A Russian from Baikal (Ellington thought that Siberia consisted of Lake Baikal and bears) heard my music and decided to be a musician."
Oleg Lundstrem

Then he clasped my shoulder and continued, sadly, "But that was all a long time ago." He was a generation - 18 years - older than me. A year later he succumbed to liver cancer…

Were you appreciated by the Russian government?

I was always in secret opposition to the government. I never agreed with Gorky and Khruschev that, "Jazz is the music of the overfed." There were, though, some exceptions. An episode involving Primakov was one of them. When the orchestra went to Tbilisi, Primakov was 14. The concert in an open-air cinema was packed. They even broke down the fence. Primakov himself climbed a tree to listen to the concert. At the time there was a showing of the film, "Sun Ballet Serenade", but we weren't aware of it and we began the concert with music from the film. I wish you could have been there! Later, Primakov became a fan and expert on jazz - we introduced him.
…In his later years the maestro lived in restricted circumstances. He lived on a retainer wage from the orchestra and often recalled his teacher's words: "I have never exchanged music for money."

Oleg Lundstrem

Eleven years short of a century
The big, old house where Lundstrem lived was one of the local landmarks. Although there were few visitors he received phone calls from all over the world. In the evenings, Lundstrem would sit in front of the fire talking to the maid; it became a ritual and even when his mind was, "full of flats and sharps" he stuck to it. In the mornings he played piano. His later arrangements (released on record) were based on Central Asian folklore and Mingrelian lullabies; he called them "Bukhara Variations" and, "In the Georgian Mountains. Lundstrem had this to say about the house: -I bought the house from the well-known singer Isabelle Yuryeva. Stalin gave this settlement to the artists and she built the house here in 1938…I bought it together with my brother and members of the orchestra. Now my nephew and his wife and six children live here, too. This is our summer house. It was my fate not to have children. By nature I am a sportsman - I was a record holder in rowing - but at work I am a scientist by approach. It can be difficult to reconcile these two aspects, but I have discovered a compromise. Every day I practise Tibetan exercises, like acupuncture I energise particular points in my body; I do this on an empty stomach, before breakfast. Then I meditate for an hour in my armchair. I have never even caught a cold from those around me.

Oleg Lundstrem

Don't you find life boring?

I take a philosophical approach. I am now reading a very interesting book by Vernadsky called, "Nosfera". My wife used to say, "You are a great optimist". I have begun to appreciate time and to use it productively. It's about time! Towards the end of his life, Utyosov said of himself, "The man standing before you is 13 years short of a century", but I am 11 years short of a century… When I was 60, I understood that the meaning of life is life itself. The meaning of our existence is what you are given. The Chinese believe this gift to be from 'eternity', Europeans believe it comes from God. I believe more in 'eternity'.