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Yuri and Arkady

Russian Guys in Jazz Heaven

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"All I'm hearing is Spanish. One in three peoples is speaking Spanish," Arkady Petrov says on the beach at Olive Park. "I'm hearing Carlos. Ricardo. I thought this was supposed to be Polish city. Like Poland. How come I not hear any Polish here? Where are the Poles? Where do they live?

"And where are the gangsters? Where are the Colt .45s?" Arkady mimes a gun with his fingers and says, "Rat-a-tat-tat. Where's Al Capone?"

Arkady, a Soviet music critic and radio personality, is visiting Chicago with his friend, Yuri Saulsky, a Soviet composer for theater, film, and ballet, and a jazz arranger. Soviet jazz experts involved in organizing the Moscow Jazz Festival, they're here as guests of the city for the Chicago Jazz Festival.

"Yuri is like Leonard Bernstein of Soviet Union," says Arkady, who is the author of Yuri's biography.

This afternoon Yuri, who looks like Mickey Rooney with a lot of white hair, has gone to the hotel to rest. But Arkady, who looks like a cross between the Frugal Gourmet and Lenin, wanted to fulfill his lifelong dream of swimming in Lake Michigan. "Two weeks ago, I swim in the Volga," Arkady says. "Now I will go home and tell my wife and everyone I see I swim in Michigan Lake."

They were not interested in the jazz being performed on Jackson Boulevard this afternoon. "We are not so young," one of them said, bowing out of an invitation to go there. "Jackson Street is too much, too heavy for us. The weather here today is like weather in Africa. Of all the interesting things going on, the more important actions is in the evening program, right?"

Arkady is enjoying his swim. He tells people on the beach the Russian word for waves. He wants to know the length of the lake in kilometers. He wades out to shoulder depth, and a young female lifeguard in a rowboat tells him he must stay in shallower water. After an hour and a half of swimming and walking on the beach, it's time to head back to the hotel to get ready for dinner and the festival.

"We being controlled every minute, every second," he says. He has a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face. He is enjoying himself. Arkady says he and Yuri think Chicago is like "another world...the 21st century...maybe the 22nd.

"Maybe this is what Mars is like," he says.

They are like Russian Sunshine Boys. Yuri and Arkady have been on the go ever since they arrived, after a 30-hour trip from Moscow, in the wee hours of the morning of day one of the fest. As the city hosted its kickoff pub crawl on Wednesday night, the eve of the festival, fest organizer Penny Tyler of the Mayor's Office of Special Events paced the floor at Andy's, one of the pubs.

She was distracted by news that the Russians, who had been invited so they could take a gander at our local musicians for possible inclusion in future Soviet jazz fests, had had a major airline mixup in New York; at that time they may or may not have been on their way to O'Hare. As it turned out, a Russian-speaking stranger at the airport in New York happened to walk by them at a phone booth, and upon hearing their extremely limited English, helped them get things straightened out by phone with the special-events people in Chicago. But at the time Tyler didn't know that.

Once they got to Chicago, it turned out that the real problem was a lack of spending money. The Soviet government had refused to exchange their rubles for dollars, but being troupers--and optimists--they came anyway, ready to depend on the kindness of strangers. Strangers like the Hyatt Hotel and Rich Melman--the kinds of strangers City Hall can contact in a pinch.

"Yuri is convinced that women run Chicago life," says Dialla, a 33-year-old Russian interpreter from Streeterville who is on hand to help Yuri and Arkady during their stay. Today--day one of the jazz fest--happens to be the 14th anniversary of her coming to Chicago. Director of Special Events Kathy Osterman is swirling around the city's hospitality tent, adjacent to the bandshell, with her beau, radio and TV personality Bruce DuMont. "Where are the Russians? Where are the Russians?" she asks frantically. After the ticket snafu in New York, everyone connected with the fest worries about the Russians.

She finds them munching free Fluky's hot dogs and drinking Special Export, the center of attention at a big, round table. Dialla tells their tablemates that they had lunch that afternoon in Chinatown with a Russian-speaking local radio personality. Then she rolls her eyes at the questions people are shooting at her, questions she is expected to translate: "What was the name of the restaurant?" (They don't remember.) "What did you eat?" (They don't know what it was called.) "Did you like it?" (Yes.) "Do they have Chinatowns in Russia?" (No.) "Do they have Chinese food in Moscow?" (There is one Chinese restaurant in Moscow.)

"This visit proves what an international city Chicago is," says Osterman. "It is very important for the Russians to see our city. And one day we will go to their jazz fest--but not at city expense, of course."

Osterman and Tyler have made Quinn Heraty, from the Office of Special Events, the Russians' official hostess. "In our office, our job is to do as much as we can for people," says Heraty, the youngest of four daughters of a cop from the northwest side. "I love to do that. Last night, at 2:30 AM, when we were driving from the airport to their hotel, they just couldn't believe the tremendous contrast...the skyline, that they were looking at Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world. And they couldn't get over River North and Water Tower."

Dialla breaks in. "Are the musicians paid, Quinn? Arkady wants to know." Evidently the Russians are having trouble understanding how the festival can be free to the public. Where does the money for all the expenses come from? Someone holds up a bottle of Special Export and says, "Sponsors."

"Oh-h-h-h," says Yuri. "Light, Light." He points to the label on the bottle. "'Light' pays the musicians."

Arkady says (in English--his English seems to improve each day of the festival), "In Soviet Union, the public pays admission for festival. And it is indoors."

Dialla is again called into service. Someone wants to know if the pair saw Benny Goodman perform in Russia in 1972.

"His parents were born in Russia, yes," Arkady responds blithely.

Someone else wonders if Zoot Sims ever jammed with any Russian musicians when he made a visit there a while back.

"This was not recommended by the American Embassy," says Yuri through Dialla. "They were like our bureaucrats in the old days."

Arkady and Yuri have become anxious to take their seats for the show with the other jazz-fest VIPs. Though they can't wait for opening-night headliner Miles Davis, they seem to thoroughly enjoy the acts that precede him.

"It's a lovely way to spend an evening," says Arkady via Dialla about Freddy Cole's musical tribute to his late brother, Nat.

Marcin Januszkiewicz's Chicago Coalition makes them feel at home, Dialla explains as Arkady helps Yuri fasten his name tag to his nautical-style white jacket. During Sun Sounds and the Cheathams, Yuri and Arkady are toe tapping, finger snapping, and head bobbing to the beat.

When Tyler comes onstage to announce the program, Yuri and Arkady are full of smiles. "Penny! Penny! Yah . . . yah. Penny!" They giggle at each other because they recognize her--their sponsor.

Arkady takes feverish notes. Interspersed are stick figures of the musicians playing their instruments. He has trouble reading the names in the program, and asks Dialla for help. But by the time Miles Davis is onstage, jet lag (it's four AM in Moscow) has taken its toll, and Yuri and Arkady are out cold--eyes closed, chins on their chests. Dialla, who studied music as a child in the Soviet Union and knew of Yuri and Arkady as famous music mavericks, apologizes for them. "These sounds are very familiar to them," she says.

On Friday afternoon, Yuri and Arkady were supposed to have lunch with a local businessman 80 floors in the air at the Mid-America Club in the Amoco Building, the world's fifth tallest. Instead they were forced to dine with him at a nearby French restaurant, in a basement. Arkady explains why they couldn't eat at the Mid-America Club: "My official suit is at home." He puts his hands to his bare throat like a necktie.

Yuri is wearing a suit, but Arkady has on blue jeans and a "Moscow Black Music Festival" T-shirt. (Other days he's worn a T-shirt depicting the characters on a famous Soviet children's TV show.) They're waiting in the lobby of the Hyatt for a cab to take them to Oprah's Melman-backed restaurant, the Eccentric. "Last night," Arkady says, pointing, "a white pianist sat at that white piano and played the sweet sounds of background music."

At the restaurant, they dine on escargots, steak tartar, Alaskan Salmon, filet mignon, and Beck's beer. They are asked if they've tried the Moscow McDonald's yet. "No," Dialla translates for them, "there are thousands in line. We haven't lost our minds yet. Besides, we tried it in Paris."

"They are international travelers," Dialla adds on her own.

Yuri and Arkady decide to explain the state of jazz in the Soviet Union and how they came to be aficionados.

"Even though the people in Soviet Union have been preoccupied with politics, part of the population has always loved jazz, regardless," one of them says.

The three of them talk and talk among themselves, and Dialla translates an occasional sentence or two. She does say, however: "It is hard for them to be interviewed with their mouths full."

Still, they manage. "Of course, jazz was suppressed for a long time--since the end of the 40s," they explain. "It was considered to have American roots, and to be an art form of the bourgeoisie. The Europeans, of course, have influenced the history of jazz; but in the mainstream, there's always a distinctly American flavor to it.

"We were rebels because we liked jazz, and our families liked it when we were growing up, too. We had classical academic music educations. Our love for jazz developed underground--not officially--and we experienced all kinds of deprivations of jazz. We passed Louis Armstrong records around in 1954.

"Today, Russia is very different. But here--in Chicago--is the motherland of jazz, and there is an abundance of events. And this festival has a magic to it."

Dialla suddenly says that the language barrier is making Yuri irritable. Yuri, however, remains the cool cucumber he's been throughout.

Yuri wants Dialla to ask Quinn about his airline ticket for his departure in three days. Dialla explains that Yuri was worried by the ticket problems they had in New York, but now he feels "a sense of comfort and naturalness." She adds, "They are like little kids in a candy store."

Arkady leans over to tell Quinn a gentle joke. "Chico Freeman seduces woman with his sax," he says. Quinn laughs hysterically. "I think he said Chico Freeman fucks with his saxophone."

Later, Yuri and Arkady take their seats at the festival during the Buck Clayton Swing Band's performance. After that, they hear two familiar groups--the Albert Mangelsdorff Quartet, from West Germany, and the McCoy Tyner Big Band.

During intermission, the Russians visit the hospitality tent for souvenir jazz-fest posters and T-shirts; they also receive free packs of cigarettes, courtesy of a Salem promotion (Moscow is experiencing a cigarette shortage). When they return to their seats, an emcee's announcement that the crowd can purchase Taste of Chicago cookbooks and special-events street banners clearly goes right over their heads.

On Saturday morning, Yuri and Arkady take a complimentary architecture cruise on the Chicago River. On the way to the dock at North Pier, they sing songs they consider truly American--such as "America" from West Side Story.

"You can really get a good history of America through Chicago architecture," Arkady stammers after the hour-long cruise.

During lunch--free pizza with all the toppings at Bacino's on Wacker--Yuri and Arkady say that the vibrations, the impulses, the colors, the rhythms, the restaurants, the transportation--in short, everything about Chicago--are all in the music, in the jazz-fest jazz. "Pizza has a kind of rhythm," says Yuri. And Arkady adds, "It ends up in the music. And taking the extra pizza home is a fine American tradition." Yuri puts a Styrofoam box with two pieces of pizza in it into a shopping bag covered with Russian words.

That night, Yuri and Arkady are treated to a lavish Italian meal at La Strada Ristorante at Randolph and Michigan; the general manager, Michael Mormando, insists he will visit them at his earliest convenience in Moscow. Before dinner, they had a beer at a reporter's apartment, where they happened to catch Buddy Rich playing drums on a video of an old Muppet Show. "Ahhh, Buddy Rich," sighed Yuri, very impressed.

Asked what they think of Sun Ra, who has been a part of jazz fests in the Soviet Union, Yuri said, "Crazy. Crazy. Crazy."

"He is like a zombie," Arkady added.

Mormando is disappointed he can't serve the Russians coffee and dessert, but they have to dash to the fest, where they are to be introduced onstage at eight.

Penny Tyler, nervous as a ferret ("I have a festival to run here," she squawked at silly questions), tells the capacity crowd over the PA system that Yuri and Arkady have traveled all the way from Moscow to hear the Chicago Jazz Festival. "It's the first time they've heard Chicago jazz live," she announces.

They get an incredible round of applause, each clasping his hands in a cheering sign over his head as he's introduced. Yuri kisses Tyler's hand.

"Chicago loves 'em," Tyler says as she heads backstage.

Since they had such a rousing welcome, Yuri and Arkady decide to venture out of the VIP section and into the Chicago jazz-loving crowd. "We want to see the jazz landscape," Arkady says. "We go see how many are here," adds Yuri.

On Sunday, Dialla turns down Quinn's offer to take the three of them to the Polish Festival on the northwest side. Dialla wants to entertain her ex-fellow countrymen herself, so she and her father take them to the North Shore suburbs, to the Baha'i Temple, and for a dim sum lunch at a Chinese restaurant her father helped build in Uptown.

"They are descended from Russian nobility, you know," Dialla says.

On Sunday evening, they arrive at the festival at 5 PM. They're more animated on this, the last night of the fest. Other people also loosen up and come over to chat. Though they've had "backstage" badges all along, the Russians spend a lot of time tonight behind the scenes at the Petrillo band shell.

After the set by Oscar Brown Jr., local drummer Barrett Deems decides to take advantage of perestroika. "They want me to come to Russia," squeals Deems to no one in particular in his gravelly Appalachian twang. "But we gotta figure out who's gonna pay."

Yuri explains to Deems that Arkady is "a jazz critic . . . a jazz critic," but Deems, smoking a pipe and carrying a small American flag, just keeps responding: "So, you're gonna get me to Russia, right? Let's wait for my old lady. She takes care of everything for me."

Then a man named Carlos, director of the Umbria jazz festival in northern Italy, drops by for some halting conversation. Yuri explains to a small gathering that jazz is international and can't exist without contacts between musicians from different countries.

"We make our business here," says Arkady. "Maybe there will be an exchange between Moscow and northern Italy. Maybe Deems will come to Leningrad in November, But who pays for flight, hotel, transportation, the expenses--this we don't know."

Tyler is ecstatic at the contacts being made. "We want our Chicago performers to go overseas for the recognition they deserve," she says.

Suddenly, it's like old home week for Arkady and Yuri. A Soviet defector and old friend, Valery Ponomarev, a trumpet player with the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra, emerges from a dressing room. After they talk for a while, they're joined by another Soviet emigre who plays with the Swedish group Chapter 7.

"If you have anything to do with music in Moscow, you can't escape these guys," says Ponomarev, all excited. "They were my heroes. They're telling me how interesting it is to hear the music they've been dreaming of so long."

Arkady says, "Here, you [Chicagoans] are superstars. You have excellent audience here, and weather, and friendship, and freedom, and humanism."

On Labor Day Arkady is flying to New York for a few days before heading back to Moscow. He's looking forward to the plane ride home. "Flying over Canada," he says, "it looks like Siberia."

Yuri is flying to California, where he will stay for a month. His 37-year-old newly married son, Igor--a former rock musician turned computer-company executive--came to California from Moscow 12 years ago with his Jewish mother, Yuri's ex-wife. Father and son have not seen each other since. Yuri has a new wife and 15-year-old twins in Moscow.

Arkady says pointedly that he has a Tartar wife and a 28-year-old son, who is an architect in Moscow.

Yuri and Arkady want to leave their new friend Quinn with a clever joke she will always remember after they leave.

Recalling their own penchant for beer during their visit, they say: "Always remember, it's OK to drink beer before the music, during the music, and after the music--but not instead of the music."

Dialla translates and everyone laughs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul McGrath.

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