Summer Service Grant | Blue Notes Under Red Banners: A Summer of Soviet Jazz

In summer 2016, Ryan Gourley (Brown ’17) received a Summer Service Grant from QuestBridge to pursue his project: Jazz behind the Iron Curtain: Preserving the Legacy of a Forgotten Generation of Musicians. Through his research, including visits to jazz hubs in the former USSR and Eastern Bloc, Ryan aimed to preserve the jazz music culture from this era while exploring his own interest in the topic.

Ryan Gourley (Brown ’17) in Saint Petersburg, Russia

The relationship between national identity, cultural identity, and musical practice pervaded my thoughts as I traversed my way through Western Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania this summer. My research had me in search of the remnants of a time when the production of jazz was a national issue; a time when an invisible iron curtain split the European continent between those who lived under red banners and those who did not.

Far away from home, yet comforted by my encounters with friendly locals, I spent most of my time visiting museums and jazz clubs, collecting media, and taking notes. My goal centered on understanding the contexts in which musicians produced jazz in Eastern Europe following WWII, and how the creation of this music contributed to separate identities apart from that of the Soviet ideology. This research will now culminate in an interactive website that I will create under the guidance of Musicologists Dr. Dana Gooley and Dr. Anne Searcy, Ethnomusicologist Dr. Joshua Tucker, and the Brown Russian Department in my final semester at Brown this fall. Check out in early January, when everything will be published!

The Jazz Philharmonic Hall in Saint Petersburg, Russia
The Jazz Philharmonic Hall in Saint Petersburg, Russia

My journey started in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where, in addition to my research, I brushed up on my Russian at the Liden & Denz Intercultural Institute of Languages. Living there for two months allowed me the time to really dive headfirst into Russian culture, visit Moscow, and really get to know the spirit of Russia’s Venice of the North. Following my time in Russia, I flew south to Azerbaijan, where I met my best friend from high school, Josh Greenfield, and together we made our way through the Southern Caucasus and northward through the former Soviet Bloc. Most of my interactions with locals occurred in Russian, and the kindness of the people I met astonished me. I can confidently say that our travels went off without a hitch.

A jazz mural in Vilnius, Lithuania

The project comes at a time when geopolitical tensions today begin to resemble those of the Cold
War, and the need for cultural understanding is high. The phenomenal music of the jazz musicians who worked in the Soviet sphere of influence all too often goes overlooked in the history books and forgotten in the jazz corpus. By presenting my research online for free with recordings and interactive media, I hope to help preserve the legacy of these musicians and promote an understanding of these regions, which are so often misunderstood and misconstrued by the media.

I plan to continue research in this area in graduate school and spend more time in Eastern Europe in the future. I am very grateful to QuestBridge for supporting me in my endeavors this summer and can’t wait to share all of my research soon!

– Ryan Gourley, Brown ’17