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A Brief (and Broad) History of Lithuanian Jazz: Spotlight on the Ganelin Trio

by admin on April 24, 2017

When Lithuania was known as “The Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic,” it was considered the “jazziest republic of the USSR,” writes Bernd Jahnke of the Vilnius Jazz Society (2015). Even after the reestablishment of the State of Lithuania in 1990, in the wake of fifty years of Soviet occupation, this statement remains true; Lithuanian jazz has developed a rich stylistic history, landing currently on improvisation-heavy free jazz influenced by the melodies of native folk tradition (Jahnke, 2000).

During Lithuania’s first period of independence from 1918 to 1940, the country’s then-capital Kaunas was a center of jazz performance (Drunga). The first national, public jazz band was formed by a radio broadcaster in 1940, but was disbanded in 1941 after the country was invaded by Germany. By 1945, the strict rule of Stalin and Soviet-Russian occupation squelched any possible budding jazz scenes. It took nearly ten years for the next public jazz orchestra, the State Orchestra of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, to appear and gain popularity.

Many Lithuanian jazz musicians and theorists associate the birth of modern jazz in the country with a 1961 concert organized by the national conservatory, featuring 17-year-old pianist, Vyacheslav Ganelin. Ganelin later went on to form a prominent free jazz trio with alto saxophonist, Vladimir Chekasin and drummer, Vladimir Tarasov. The trio’s vibe is melancholy, but eclectic and expressive, seeming to devolve at times only to return together. Since Ganelin’s appearance in 1961, jazz has flourished in Lithuania, specifically in the city of Vilnius. For Lithuanians, jazz occupies a significant position in cultural forums, and has its place among other high arts. Thus jazz has gained wide public acceptance in Lithuania.

The members of the Ganelin trio were frontrunners of this explosion in the popularity of improvisational music, and the exclusion of mainstream and traditional jazz from public interest. They contributed significantly to the development of Lithuanian jazz philosophy which strives to carve a musical niche beyond the influences of Western European and American trends. Bernd Jahnke characterizes the scene thus: “traditional and mainstream jazz is of peripheral interest, as are fusion or rock-jazz for that matter. Also characteristic of the scene is the lack of lasting groups, hence the creation of numerous short-lived musical projects which enable musicians to constantly develop their ideas and thereby create an extremely effervescent national jazz scene” (Jahnke, 2015).

The disbanding of the trio in 1987 made way for a new generation of musicians which constitutes the current Lithuanian jazz scene, which places an emphasis on variety and versatility (the inclusion of unconventional instruments and melodies), and an increased emphasis on traditional Lithuanian folk music and instruments (Jahnke, 2000). It is remarkable thatLithuanian culture and tradition, as affected by their many years under Soviet rule, is expressed through free jazz combined with Lithuanian folk melodies. This style of jazz, utilized by the Ganelin trio, has become the most recognizable and beloved native jazz expression in the country. Lithuanians’ appreciation of jazz speaks to their greater cultural attitudes, as their devotion to their interpretation of jazz has been prominent for decades and still is today.

by Annie Jo Buchanan

References

Drunga, M. (n.d.). Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Encyclopedia Britannica – Mykolas Drunga. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from http://www.lituanus.org/1975/75_3_06.htm

Jahnke, B. (2000). Central Europe Review – Baltic Beat. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from http://www.ce-review.org/00/27/jahnke27.html

Jahnke, B. (2015). Jazz in Lithuania – Press – Vilnius Jazz. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from http://www.vilniusjazz.lt/press/99jil.php

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sid Banks April 28, 2017 at 4:00 pm

I didn’t know anything about Lithuanian jazz, so this was an intriguing read! When you mention Stalin, I looked into that time period and came to learn one million Lithuanians died. It puts a lot into perspective and I can’t imagine the role jazz played to help folks cope & survive.

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