Vitaly Komar and Alex Melemid’s first collaborative art show at the Blue Bird Café, Moscow, USSR, 1967.
“Today he is playing jazz and tomorrow he’ll betray the Motherland.” - Soviet era saying
The Blue Bird Café (Sinyaya Ptitsa) on Chekhov Street in Moscow opened in 1963, one of two jazz enclaves in the city. Students, nonconformist artists, writers, and musicians gathered there to listen to jazz and hold small unofficial art shows. A well-known quartet that frequently played there featured sax player Igor Itkin, pianist Mikhail Kull, bassist Alexander Chernyshev and drummer Vladimir Lesnyakov.
Painters Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who founded Retrospectivism, held their first collaborative show at the Blue Bird in 1967 upon graduating from the Stroganov School of Art and Design. Other artists who displayed their paintings and sculpture at the Café in the 1960’s were Erik Bulatov, Igor Shelkovsky, Oleg Vassiliev, and Ilia and Emilia Kabakov.
Komar and Melamid described their Retrospectivism movement as featuring “three-dimensional abstract paintings in the style of the old masters and reflects a typical search for spirituality on the part of nonconformist artists working in an oppressively atheistic state.” According to the description of Melamid’s exhibit of life-size hip-hop icons in Detroit, “Komar and Melamid often faced government opposition and harassment.” So much opposition that in 1969 government censors removed their work from the 8th Exhibition of Young Artists in Moscow.
Jazz was tolerated to some degree in the USSR (unlike rock music) and had even been the music of the stilyagi (stylish) youth subculture in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. But jazz came under a new round of unwanted scrutiny in 1968 as ideologically troublesome. In Red Hot and Blue: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union 1917-1991 author S. Frederick Starr describes the Soviet establishment’s hostility toward jazz:
“There was no formal campaign against jazz. Indeed, Brezhnev applauded a modern jazz quartet that performed at his dacha outside Moscow in 1970. But many protectors of Soviet orthodoxy wanted to settle old scores. The jamming of foreign broadcasts, suspended in 1963, was reintroduced in 1968. Fearing unwholesome assemblies of young people, Komsomol [the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, the officially sanctioned youth group for people 14 and older] abolished jazz evenings at the Dream in Kiev and at similar youth Cafés in other cities. The Blue Bird (Siniaia ptitsa), which had opened only two years before on Chekhov Street in Moscow, dropped jazz entirely, and the Molodezhnoe Café cut back jazz to two nights a week. The Pechora was opened on Moscow’s Kalinin Prospect to replace these dens of iniquity; brightly lit and colorless, the Pechora at least provided a setting for open jam sessions, although it closed early.”
Gorbachev’s perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a proliferation of nightclubs and the Blue Bird’s elevated status as a “jazz centre.” The Café continued to be a revered attraction for jazz fans until its closure in 2010.
Above, UB40 jamming with local musicians, including Roman Suslov from polite refusal, at the Blue Bird Café, Moscow, USSR, on October 16, 1986.