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Russian Jazz

Beneath the winter fleamarket nude
Reclining in blue shadow
A trumpet man from Karlivka near Donetsk
Dissects the smouldering silence

Watched by a dusk of Armenian, Tajik, Russian eyes
Lightbulb front-row foreheads
Screwed cautiously into red woollen New Year polo-neck sweaters
Communal beat, congregated at the bandstand’s discreet elevation

Portly pianist from the conservatory
(a cartoon plutocrat stolen from the yellowed
pages of an archived Brezhnev-era Pravda)
Stained shirttails ousted, grimaces loudly into receptive ivory

Claw-fingered punctuation, hammering
Nodding, shows teeth at the dark drummer’s cautious orthodoxy
—an Eastern be-bop, the soul constricted
By glottal stops

Polka dot saxophonist’s baritone bell raised
Arched gleaming now street-level takes aim
At the gathering blizzard beyond the steamed panes

Lank, track-suited bassist hunched
Like yesterday’s washerwomen over his mournful charge
Grinning, wringing old guts dry

And then homeward, out along Nevsky Prospekt
Snow piles swim in restless grand Christmas lights
Nikolai Gogol’s ragged ghost hunched in the shadows
Stamping the city from the soles of his boots

Midnight metro’s suburb-bound death rattle
Into the frozen sodium-bright all-night kiosks of the island
Stacked breads, smoked cheeses, beets and kvas
Brass kopecks sing nocturne choruses in the registers
of post-Soviet grocery stores

Then up darkened, complaining stairs
Into the flat where warmed icicles
Whisper unseen, electric
Joining courtyard drains

Gas flame
Chewing patiently, blue gold
At charred underside of squat saucepan
Tea and argument

Ancient linoleum
Tight trap window
Holding wheeling barrage of fresh snow
Stifling silent cobblestones beneath
While words escape with steam of long-spent samovars
Tangling high above the snowdrift rooftops of the quarter
Above glittering silver courtyards, the great avenues which punctuate the dead canals

The dull gold of the onion dome churches
Where unlit incense waits in the darkness among the icons
Rigid dreamless spires of a sleeping port on the Neva Delta
The sloping red bow of an ice-breaker

And further
Long, tired bridges beneath us
Lock hands across the city
Connect the white islands, restate the urban theme
Forgotten ships’ lanterns sway to long-gone Slavic sailors’ songs
In the ceaseless, frozen memory of the glacial Neva River

A plaintive solo filling this great story-littered imagined night
With the great, the celestial, the improvised

Will Studdert is a historian and author of the newly-released book The Jazz War (I.B. Tauris, 2018), which is based on his doctoral research on jazz and propaganda in World War II. His short story Horst-Wessel-Stadt won The Reader Berlin’s 2014 competition, and he is currently working on an historical novel. In his spare time, he is singer-songwriter with the British punk band Zatopeks. He lives with his family in Berlin.


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