Writing from Kaunas, Lithuania, the first former Soviet to declare independence from Russia, most recently in 1990, where I spent 5 days with the Kaunas Big Band.
Unlike the usual routine of doing one-nighters, this time I was able to get a good look at
this wonderful country, and get to know several people here. I stayed in a lovely hotel in the “old town” part of Kaunas, where architecture ranged from 13th century gothic buildings to Bauhaus style from the early-mid 20th century,
The Kaunas Big Band is a spirited group of musicians who, through government and private support, manage to play every week and do a variety of projects.
They worked very hard on the music prior to my arrival, which allowed me to come in and deal with the fine points in a detailed way. We played concerts in Kaunas and Vilnius, which were well attended and enthusiastically received. I find real joy in being able to convey the experience I’ve garnered playing in the big bands of Buddy Rich , Thad and Mel, as well as working with the guys in my big bands in NYC, By the second concert the band was really playing well, and a great time was had by all.
As is the case with most of the big bands I work with, the key ingredients to have the band sound really great rests on a few key points: 1. The winds must play with clean, clear, accented attacks (preferably attacking at the same time). The sustained
notes should be softer than their attacks (ala sforzando-piano). 2. The rhythm section should play in an unobtrusive way, supporting the groove and staying out of the way of the written ensemble material. and generally make the music feel good. 3. Big bands need not play loud! If they play softer with accented attacks and softer sustains the music is more transparent, players can hear one another better, and the blend winds up sounding much better.
After the concert in Vilnius we went for some dinner and conversation at a great restaurant in the center of town. Tomas, the bandleader, his wife, a criminal and civil lawyer, one of her colleagues, and the colleague’s dad were at the table. This gentleman had been a former Lithuanian diplomat to the US, and had also been a member of the delegation that negotiated the secession of Lithuania from Russia in 1991. It was so very interesting to talk about music, life and politics with these folks, and get their perspective on things.
While I talked about how our President Obama was having a tough time working with the Republican majority in congress and how much more I preferred Obama’s approach to foreign policy, the consensus at the table was that George Bush’ tough stance on the” axis of evil”, and his unequivocal support of Lithuania independence was preferable in terms of keeping Russia in check. It had only bee 20 years since Russia had occupied Lithuania and made everyone’s lives there quite miserable. Russia sending troops into Georgia a few years back was further evidence that expansion of power is still very much on Russia’s mind. I asked why George Bush had not stepped in at that time to support Georgia’s autonomy. This former diplomat commented that a world war could have resulted if the U.S. had come on too strong with Russia.
Where we wound up with all this was that whether you label a society as democratic, socialist, or autocratic, there are varying degrees of freedom and lack of freedom involved. To the Lithuanian the term socialism has a terrible connotation that harkened back to Soviet domination. To Sweden and Denmark socialism means a humane caring for all citizens. While democracy in the U.S. stands for freedom for all,
It is unclear if in fact the same freedoms are extended to all. The one common denominator is that there is corruption and misuse of power in every government of every country on earth.
This is why far more time should be spent on music and the arts, where people of all countries can collaborate in a joyous experience of harmony and spirituality. Funding of the arts should be bolstered in tough times, not cut. For it is this involvement in the arts that will provide hope, a feeling of connectedness, and a common bond to all peoples of the world. I see this time and time again.
\ I am grateful to have the opportunity to, be a musical ambassador, to play music all over the world that reaches people in a profound way, and circumvents the differences between countries and philosophies. In the end it is all about love, giving, and gratitude.