My Russian Diaries by Jim Cullum Jr — Part 6

Petting the Prussian Cat

Concert hall in Kaliningrad.

In spite of some travel struggles, your reporter is now winding this odyssey toward a happy conclusion. Scrawls in my journal have been handed off to bassist Don Mopsick who has equipped his laptop computer with wireless gadgets, and all he needs to do is press the "Go" button and you and we of the band are one!

I am not much prepared for advances beyond the Morse Code, so this is quite a marvel to me.

Anyway, here’s the latest news from the front: when we last parted, things looked a little bleak. But on this day the Russian pilots do fly on time, and we do make it to Kaliningrad.

When we arrive it’s grab the bags, get on the bus, get to the hall, hold a sound check, meet the press, go onstage, play our hearts out, people go crazy, flowers come on. We hold an after-concert television interview, get back on the bus, go to a Chinese restaurant, tell Joe Venuti stories to our hosts, get to the hotel, stagger in, slam the doors behind us, and the umpire yells, “Safe!”

All this would be normal, except that for the first time in my life, I play one concert on Tuesday night, travel all night and day, get there just in time on Wednesday night to go on stage without so much as a cat-nap, and do it again. This I think is a feat of staying awake and delivering that rivals Lindbergh.

That’s not all. Your faithful American jazz band gets up there at Kaliningrad and swings as red-hot a jazz performance as is to be had. Unlike jazzers of old, we do this with no artificial stimulants other than Moscow Airport stand-up-and-drink-it-down coffee.

Taking bows in Kaliningrad.

Kaliningrad is quite different from other Russian cities. For 700 years it was Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia. As a major center of WWII action, the place was pretty well flattened, first by British bombers, then by Russian tank assault. When the smoke cleared, the Russians ordered 25,000 German residents shipped off to Germany and changed the name to Kaliningrad. These days it is seriously Russian, but it is far more European than any other Russian city. There is a mix of ethnic Germans, Poles, Russians and others. The streets are smoothly paved, there are good expressways, etc. and generally, while the marks of communism are still around, it looks and feels more prosperous.

Our concert is held at an ancient church converted to as impressive a concert hall as one might hope for. On the stage, built over where the altar originally stood, there is a bright red Blüthner nine-foot grand piano.

At first, this crowd is a bit more reserved than our previous Russian audiences, but as we stomp along with the band swinging and driving so hard, they go into a frenzy, just like the others. There is a long standing ovation and bows and all that.

A couple of the local concert presenters say, “Your pianist, Jim Turner, looks like an American spy.” It is said with a laugh and smile. Jim, who is famous among us for never smiling, is wearing dark glasses against the spotlights.

Steep tiled roof in Svetlogorsk.

The ultimate good sport, Jim plays along, saying, “My name is Turner, James Turner. Shaken, not stirred, please.”

Following this concert our schedule presents an oddity—a day off. Our Kaliningrad sponsors are so knocked out that they suggest we check out of our hotel and they will take us on a 20-mile jaunt over to the seat of the region’s old-world delights called Svetlogorsk. They check us into a swanky hotel and escort us around town. It is, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Dee-lightful!”

Untouched by the war, Svetlogorsk is loaded with old German houses, shops, hotels and restaurants. Some new buildings have been added. They are faithful to the original style, which, in addition to being quaint and German-looking is distinguished by extremely steep tiled roofs.

All this is set in the woods, with low hills that fold down to the Baltic Sea. The beach is clean. The white sand, forest and, of course, the sea stretch on and on in every direction to the horizon.

I am quite taken with Svetlogorsk. Natural charm is just on the place, and I am certain that no chain restaurant operators will ever find their way here.

Baltic Sea, Svetlogorsk.

"The Prussian Cat."

To seal this ban in perpetuity, I come upon a very nice kitty-cat that is purring around one of the narrow streets. This next adjective will betray my age—this cat is swell! There is an old legend from the Königsberg days that if you come here and pet the Prussian cat, you will have good luck! In fact, we learned that President Putin has just been around here petting the cat. Your friends in the jazz band all pet the cat twice.

American pre-bebop, improvised swinging hot jazz is, for me, our greatest cultural treasure. When it swings and it is driving there are very few who will turn away in denial. I think the few that might turn away already have pre-determined their aesthetic attitudes.

In Russia, most have never heard anything like it. That was the greatest fun of the tour: seeing the questioning look in their faces turn, in the course of 2 or 3 pieces, to fascination, then to joy.

Valeri Grohovski, the consummate gentleman and professional, has won our deepest possible admiration. Added to his charming stage personality and other talents, he performs world-class classical piano music and world-class jazz. To combine all these qualities in one individual is so rare that in my experience he stands alone.

With Valeri joining in on a feature and some two-piano numbers, we played nine concerts in a 17-day period. We traveled almost the entire breadth of this sprawling land.

The Russian tour was for me a highlight of such magnitude, that a lot of this crazy life as a jazz musician seems, for the moment, very well justified.

Signed, Jim Cullum, Your Reporter.