36th Vilnius Jazz Festival. 12-16 October, 2022

Jazz in Lithuania

Bernd Jahnke

Historical background

While the presence of jazz during Lithuania's first period of independence (1918-1940) has been clearly documented, opinions differ very much on its extent and calibre. The city of Kaunas, its capital during that era, was clearly the centre of such activities. In 1940, the first official jazz band was formed by the national radio broadcaster, but was forced to disband a year later after the country's invasion by warring Germany. By 1945, the Soviet-Russian occupiers and Stalin's strict dictatorship prevented any resurgence whatsoever of a jazz scene. It would take over a decade for the first jazz orchestra to appear that being the State Orchestra of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. Placed under the direction of Juozas Tiskus, this outfit was staffed by thoroughly trained musicians. Yet it would hardly be influential on the development of a national jazz scene, and this may be related to its on-going schedule of tours beyond its borders.

For many, the year 1961 marks the coming of age of a "modern" jazz scene. Back then, the country's National Conservatory- known nowadays as the Lithuanian Academy of Music - organised a conference on issues in jazz theory and history. The high point of this event would be a concert, and of its participants there would be a 17-year old pianist by the name of Vyacheslav Ganelin - founder of the now legendary 1980's Ganelin trio. From then on, the jazz scene was to flourish, especially in the capital of Vilnius: new activities were now set into motion, musicianship was steadily improving and the abilities to improvise were more self-assured. By the mid sixties, pianists Ganelin and Oleg Molokoyedov were fronting their own bands and shaping the course of the music nationally. Amongst their many appearances at that time, these two musicians would be highly acclaimed during the 1966 and 1967 editions of the Tallinn Jazz Festival in Estonia. The real breakthrough would occur in 1970-71 with the coming together of the Ganelin/Tarasov/Chekasin trio, the alleged instigators of the Vilnius Jazz School.

The Current State of Jazz in Lithuania

During its period of Soviet domination, Lithuania was known to be the jazziest of all Soviet Republics, a status, which it still enjoys since the break-up of the Union in 1989. Jazz and improvised music occupy a worthy position in the country's cultural spectrum and are perceived on an equal footing with other art forms, thus enabling it to achieve a rather broad level of public acceptance. Especially noticeable are the relatively considerable numbers of well-trained musicians, many of whom had benefited from special programs and opportunities provided for in the former Soviet Union. Also worth noting is the fact that most of these players have a marked preference for contemporary and experimental strands of improvised music. Conversely, 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.

Leading figures

The now legendary Ganelin trio came about more by chance than by design. Its percussionist, Vladimir Tarasov, settled in Vilnius in the late sixties, leaving his home of Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia. Meeting up with the pianist, he would soon be working with him in a duo setting. At a concert performed in the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk, they would meet a local saxophonist, one Vladimir Chekasin. On the strengths of many shared interests, the reedman would decide to move to Vilnius, hence giving birth to the trio. They would then strive to develop their own means of musical expression, independently of Western European input and any of the predominant American trends. By 1987, the group was to split up after fifteen years, the pianist emigrating to Israel , his associates deciding to pursue their own respective projects, albeit still collaborating on occasion in small and large ensembles.

Tarsov would then turn his attention to his self-titled ATTO solo percussion performances while composing music for both film and stage productions. In recent times, he has set up a number of sound installations throughout Europe and the U.S. , his American projects done in conjunction with artist and former compatriot Ilya Kabakov. Beyond that, he is a regular with the Lithuanian Art Orchestra and two other multi-national ensembles, i.e. the Baltic Art Orchestra and Russian Art Orchestra. This latter group of some fifteen musicians enables him to devise his own pieces combining improvised and compositional concepts alike. Tarasov plays with the Moscow Composers Orchestra, not to mention a host of other international projects as well.

As founder of the Lithuanian Academy Big Band , Vladimir Chekasin is now greatly responsible for the training of that country's new musical talents. In fact, almost all musicians of note at the present time have gone through that school. An on-going part of his own work has been his long standing partnership with Oleg Molokoyedov, preferably as a duo, though in variously configured quartets from time to time. He is equally involved on the international scene and develops his own larger scaled projects, which frequently incorporate theatrical elements. Beyond that, he is also making a name for himself as a composer.

Since emigrating to Israel a decade ago, pianist Ganelin has devoted himself to solo or small group projects. In recent times, he has been appearing more regularly in Lithuania, both in solo performances or as part of a trio with saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas and percussionist Arkady Gotesman, a native son now living in Israel as well.

The break-up of the Ganelin trio would usher in a new generation of musicians with ideas of their own. Both Vysniauskas and fellow reedman Vytas Labutis would now make their move towards centre stage and give full expression to their musical aspirations. Beyond its free jazz inclinations, the music was now going through a new phase of development, one where musicians were starting to incorporate elements of the Lithuanian folk tradition. The precedent here was first set in the 1980's in a band comprised of Vysniauskas and Labutis on the front line, with Leonid Shinkarenko on bass and Gediminas Laurinavicius on drums. Other musicians have pursued this path since then: trombonist Skirmantas Sasnauskas and pianist and composer Tomas Kutavicius do not only use folk melodies in their performances but native instruments as well. Also of note here is Vysniauskas's collaboration with vocalist Veronika Povilioniene, a singer possessed with a vast knowledge of her country's musical traditions and celebrated as the queen of its folk-singers. Apart from his regular involvement in free music, Vysniauskas is a man of wide ranging interests, a further indication of that being his occasional gigs with a string quartet.

Another leading figure of the new Lithuanian jazz scene is saxophonist Vytas Labutis. Apart from his steady gigs with Chekasin and Tarasov, he pursues his own interests as well. Minus Vysniauskas, he played with his partners Shinkarenko and Laurinavicius as a trio, a unit which served as the basis for other groups like the Vilnius Quartet with pianist Molokoyedov or the quintet "Gone with Jazz" with pianist Arturas Anusauskas and the highly touted singer-flutist Neda Malunaviciute, clearly a name to be reckoned with as part of the country's new generation of performers.

In that same generation , saxophonist Liudas Mockunas and Danielius Praspaliauskis are up and comers, as are guitarist Juozas Milasius and the improvising percussionist Dalius Naujokaitis. An unconventional musician to say the least, Naujokaitis has confounded and knocked local and foreign audiences off stride since the early part of this decade, most often in tandem with guitarist Milasius, but sometimes with Labutis, Kutavicius or Vysniauskas as added attraction. Other names worthy of mention within this contingent of newcomers are trombonist Vytas Pilibavicius, bassist Eugenijus Kanevicius and trumpeter Valerijus Ramoska, both of which are now making their mark on the development of the country's national jazz scene.

Lithuania's presence on the World Stage

The first breakthrough occurred in 1967 when the Ganelin trio took the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree by storm. Soon thereafter invitations were pouring in from Eastern and Western Europe alike. A high point would be its extensive 17-city tour of North America in 1986. As pointed out previously, both Tarasov and Chekasin travel around Europe extensively in a variety of contexts, the former making regular visits to the States and even an occasional to China.

The Petras Vysniauskas Quartet, for its part, landed on the international circuit in the mid-eighties thanks to a number of festival performances in Eastern and Northern Europe, thus opening the doors for its members to be part of groups active elsewhere in Europe. Vysniauskas for one was invited to play at Amsterdam's October Meeting of 1991, at which time he would encounter such leading European improvised music figures as cellist Tristan Honsinger, saxmen Evan Parker and Steve Lacy, drummer Han Bennink. Since then, he has been working steadily with players in Germany, Switzerland and France.

During the present decade, both Vysniauskas and Labutis have been constantly involved in several international groups, one of these being the Jazz Baltica Ensemble, an orchestra of varying personnel which performs every year at the Salzau festival in Northern Germany. In 1995 both saxmen were chosen to represent Lithuania at the festival in Perth, Australia, performing with vocalist Povilioniene and Dalius Naujokaitis. These musicians were also heard in North America during the Ford Montreux Detroit Festival and in a concert sponsored by the New York Anthology Film Archives.

Of the previously named musicians, Naujokaitis has been living in New York for the past three years. When not leading his own Second Street Free Jazz Ensemble, he has been involved at the Anthology Film Archives, working with Jonas Mekas, an experimental filmmaker of Lithuanian origin.

The National Concert and Festival Scenes

Performances of foreign musicians are more of the exception than the rule, these being limited to large festivals. The most significant of these is "Vilnius Jazz", a yearly event first established in October 1988. Over its decade of existence it has acquired a unique profile for its ability to bring musicians from all over Europe, Asia and even the United States, with a special spot granted to its home-grown talent. The basic motivation of this event is to bring musically productive artistic endeavours to the attention of the public. In this sense, it measures up to similar festivals in Mulhouse, France; Nickelsdorf, Austria ; Varna, Bulgaria ; or Victoriaville, Canada. By the some token, Vilnius Jazz has developed into an important meeting point for Eastern and Western cultural ventures alike.

Founded in 1991 by Jonas Jucas, the Kaunas Jazz Festival is a yearly event held in April. While its musical standards are of a high calibre, the more experimental facets embraced by the national scene are downplayed in its programming. As such, it is more geared towards a broader audience, having attracted headliners like John Scofield, Charles Lloyd, Elvin Jones or Jan Garbarek. With its own emphasis on the mainstream, this festival serves as a nice compliment to the one in Vilnius.

The oldest festival in the country is a biannual event taking place in the city of Birstonas. Founded in 1980, it is solely focused on national talent, with special emphasis given to younger musicians. Also worth mentioning is the Sing Jazz Festival, held every November in the town of Panevezys, an event which, accordingly, is exclusively devoted to jazz vocalists.

As for a club scene, it is now expanding, Vilnius and Kaunas leading the way, but more venues to be found in the coastal cities like Klaipeda and Palanga. In Vilnius, for instance, the Music Club Langas in the old quarter has become the musical hotbed for the improvised music scene, providing a venue to present new projects once or twice a week. Beyond that, there are numerous restaurants, bars and cafes that offer live jazz, not to forget many concert halls and theatres which open their doors to the music as well.

Final thoughts

This overview of the Lithuanian jazz scene does not pretend to be exhaustive, of course, but it merely highlights some its most representative facets. Recordings and media input have been overlooked here, while the problems concerning the training of new talent have been glossed over. All of these considerations are important in order to better understand the broader picture, but they can only be better appreciated in more extensive overview of the subject matter at hand.

This story is published through the courtesy of the Jazz Institute of Chicago