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Pyotr Vostokov: “A Good Musician Is a Good Person“


On January 7, the Orthodox Christmas, the Big Jazz Orchestra, conducted by Pyotr Vostokov, twice performed its special Christmas program The Nutcracker. On that day, we talked to the director of the orchestra and learned a lot about the work of the jazz musician, his teaching experience, and about how one should begin when listening to jazz. 

Do you remember your very first performance on stage? What did you feel then? And what are your emotions when you come on stage now? 

I vaguely remember my very first stage performance, it was a long time ago. I began attending a musical school at the age of six, but I do remember very well our orchestra’s first concert. The fact is, that initially it was a little experiment, we didn’t think of going on. As a trumpet player, I participated in many orchestras, and it was very interesting for me to see what it would be like to form my own orchestra. It seemed nothing would come of it, but at the first concert, practically from the very first sounds, I caught myself thinking that it was going to last. We began to gather together and practice, and a month later we had a second concert; it was seven years ago. Now everything is totally different: at each concert, I firs of all try to fully immerse myself in the music, in order to convey the most important thing – the idea of the arranger and the composer. To convey the essence of the spirit, one should understand very well how it should sound, how the melodic lines are presented. Both working with the orchestra and during our stage performances, I use all my emotions to make it sound just that way.  

When you speak about the Big Jazz Orchestra, you usually say that it is a group of like-minded people. What is more important for you: a musician’s personal traits or talent?

I don‘t separate such things from each other, that’s especially important in jazz music. Even if you are not a soloist or improviser, but an orchestra musician, the personal component is very important, a person should be liked, respected, should be a good interlocutor, it’s very important to me. Only with such people is it possible to discuss something, to ask them to do things in a certain way, as we work on and prepare a program. So, I believe that a good musician is a good person. Some think that somebody can be a good musician, but not much of a person, but honestly speaking, I don’t know anybody like that. There are, of course, guys whom I don’t find pleasant, but technically they are wonderful trumpeters or saxophonists, but we don’t really need anything like that. From the very beginning, I wanted to work only with people whom I consider nice and who “speak the same language.” When the orchestra was being formed, half of the people were the ones I had played with some time before and who shared my musical preferences. The scores required a certain number of trumpeters, trombonists and saxophonists. The very year when we began establishing the orchestra, I began teaching at the Gnessin Academy, so I involved some of my students. Now we have four trumpeters, and two of them are my former students. And, of course, we are all united by common tastes in jazz music. First of all, I mean traditional forms of jazz, though we make quite different programs, but you can’t please everyone, so I make decisions and set the general tone.

Many jazz musicians work with several groups. Can there be any conflict of interests? Is there competition in that community?

It is absolutely normal. It seems to me there is no serious competition in jazz. If there were, it would affect the amount of work a jazz group, be it big or small, gets. As for psychological competition, being a group of rather young people, we want to play better or at least prove we are as good as distinguished groups. The only problem is to communicate it to the audience, to convince them, because it often happens that the spectators are prejudiced in advance: they believe that if it is a well-known name, a brand, it is unquestionable. And it makes for a very good opportunity, because when you need to prove you are no worse, you have to play much better, to make it obvious. We have just one option – to play well. Sure, all concerts are different, but in general we have to show a certain level. And it is good motivation to really grow professionally and creatively.

Who is your listener? What is he like?

At some point I was asked to describe our spectator, and I replied that it was a lovely young girl in a T-shirt with the words Big Jazz Orchestra on it (laughing). But actually, quite different people listen to our music, and in general, jazz music in Russia has a very diverse audience. There are rather many senior people who have been familiar with this music since their youth, but they are not the main part of the audience – which is surprising, as many think that if we play music composed in the 1930s it can only be of interest to old men of about 90. But it is not true, there are very mnay young people at our concerts, and in general – people of all ages. We are a male group, so there are always more women in the audience. It seems to me that people who attend jazz concerts – no matter if it’s in Moscow or in the provinces – are mainly people who are in general interested in good music and art, and want to have a good time. It is not related to their age or social status. We play for everybody.

Jazz, after all, is more related to the American and European tradition. Have you ever thought of making a career abroad?

Naturally, any musician wants to show his art to the maximum number of people, and wants it to be appreciated not only in his own city, but in the whole country and beyond. That is to be expected. Of course, it would be very pleasant to be well regarded at the birthplace of jazz, and I hope it will happen at some point. There are such plans, thoughts, and hopes, so it will happen sooner or later.

You teach at the Gnessin Academy. What kind of teacher are you?

A bad one (laughing). When I was 18, I worked at a music school and I realised that teaching is not for me at all, and I would never work with children, because one has to have talent and a love for it. I have worked at the Academy for eight years; to be sure, there I deal with people who are not my own age, but they are not so much younger than me. They are grown-up people, adults, and they will figure out for themselves what they need in life. A teacher in a higher education institution is more of a curator. I just follow the students’ progress, give them the program, and help them if it’s necessary. They are already working, some of them are married, and they need to know for themselves what they want, and everything depends only on them. I chose such a position, and I think it’s right. There are students who don’t need anything at all, and they won’t attend classes much, but there are others who always want you to work with them. Everything depends on people themselves. I just try to do what I know, try, as they usually say, to impart the knowledge. My task is simply saying what I think and teaching what I know. But despite that, I am not a professional teacher, I don’t design some kind of systems or publish books, I don’t do anything of the sort. I just don’t have time for it, or inclination, I guess.

You are a fan of the musci of the early 20th century, right? And what period is of interest to you in literature or cinema?

To tell you the truth, I am interested in absolutely different periods, different moods, different psychology of life. Both in music and in cinema. I do like classical cinema, of the 1930s-40, for example, the movie Casablanca. I like a lot the cinema and music of the 1980s or the early 90s: how many wonderful and sincere films were made at that time.  Just think of Forrest Gump, for instance, or films with Michael Douglas.

And what about literature?

I don‘t spend much time reading, so it‘s difficult to speak about it. I mostly read professional literature, often in English.

As a person who lives and breathes jazz, what would you advise a person who wants to understand this genre to start with? What should one begin with when listening to jazz?

As with any other kind of music, start with the most popular compositions. Each artistic movement has, for sure, some peaks of mastery. And one should start with things that are unquestionably great. In jazz, first of all, we have to refer to the greatest people in the history of this music – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and their best compositions. As a rule, masterpieces absolutely coincide with the most popular recordings.

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