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Russian Embassy Hosts Concert with Jazz Great Igor Butman

By Diana Oxner

On Feb. 3, jazz great Igor Butman and his Moscow Jazz Orchestra delighted the audience at the Embassy of Russia with a concert that reflected his philosophy that music can be used to bridge political differences and bring people together.

Russian Ambassador Anatoly I. Antonov said Butman’s “masterful and creative performance of musical pieces from around the world proves that jazz has no nationality; it is a universal language uniting artists and audiences, a bright example of cultural diplomacy.”

Interestingly, Butman, who is considered to be a virtuoso saxophonist and skilled bandleader, has close ties to both Russia and the United States.

Saxophonist Igor Butman
Saxophonist Igor Butman and his Moscow Jazz Orchestra perform at the Russian Embassy.

Born in Leningrad, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1987 and quickly became a major player on the jazz music scene. He even accompanied famous American musicians such as Dave Brubeck and Grover Washington Jr. on a tour of the Soviet Union prior to its collapse.

Butman went on to earn worldwide acclaim — and the respect of peers such as Wynton Marsalis — performing at major venues such as New York’s Lincoln Center, launching his own record label and producing an annual festival called “The Triumph of Jazz” in Russia.

But Butman courted controversy in 2008 when he joined United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party, which has maintained an iron grip on power for years. He also faced backlash for performing at a jazz festival in the Russian annexed peninsula of Crimea.

In an interview with the Diplomatic Pouch, Butman said his purpose in joining the political fray is simply to promote jazz.

Igor Butman Russian Embassy
Jazz saxophonist and band leader Igor Butman, center, poses with VIP guests. From left are: Dr. Naomi Collins; former U.S. Ambassador to Russia James Collins; Jocelyn Greene; Deputy Chief of Mission of the Russian Embassy Artur Lyukmanov; former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle; Dr. Eric Lohr of American University; former U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan John O’Keefe; Monica Fallon O’Keefe; former NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow; and Lisa Vershbow. 

“I’m in politics because I want music that I love to be heard for more people,” he said. “What I do is just to make more festivals, to have more students learn about music since their childhood, learn about jazz. That’s the only political agenda of mine. That’s why I’m a member of the United Russia Party.”

Asked why he joined Putin’s party, which has long been accused of stifling dissent, Butman simply replied: “Why should I go to another party that’s not ruling? So why waste my time?”

Butman said that from his perch inside the party, he’s able to gather musicians, discuss problems, collaborate on ways to increase spending on jazz, including incorporating it into Russia’s educational system, and drum up more support from both the government and corporate sponsors.

Igor Butman Saxiphonist Russian Embassy
Ambassadors from Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and other diplomatic representatives listen to the concert. 

As for his decision to perform in Crimea — and his controversial support of an open letter supporting Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea — Butman said the conflict there is “terrible. I hate this whole situation with Ukraine.”

As for a solution to the stalemate, “I think it will take time. The history of our relationship is so long,” he said. “I think maybe the artists could kind of cool down the heads of politicians who just don’t see any compromises.”

On that note, despite the controversy, in 2018 Butman was awarded the Institute of Sustainable Dialogue’s prize for “a monumental contribution to overcoming contradictions through art” and organizing musical exchanges to bring people of different countries together.

Igor Butman Saxiphonist Russian Embassy
Igor was born in Leningrad but immigrated to the U.S. in 1987 and quickly became a major player on the jazz music scene.

As a sign of how global jazz has become, he pointed out that jazz clubs now exist in countries ranging from Japan to Italy to China.

“While jazz was born in America, it is a genre that transcends borders — and has long been embraced by Russian artists and audiences,” said Susan E. Carmel of the American University’s Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at the embassy concert. “By continuing to emphasize the importance of common cultural bonds — such as our nations’ mutual love of jazz — I believe that events like this one make a valuable investment toward a more peaceful future.”

That was the message Butman conveyed to the audience. “We, people of different cultures, share the same future, same joys and sorrows. And it is through music that we can brighten up our emotional experiences,” he said. “We, as musicians, have one goal: We must unite people. Artists should play and perform so that people of different nationalities, religions and political views overcome their egos and mythical contradictions, and musicians are expected to accelerate this moment, and to help people become happy.”

Diana Oxner is an editorial intern for the Washington Diplomat.




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