Nataly Merezhuk's Jazz on Bones honors underground efforts to keep jazz alive Russian-born violinist Nataly Merezhuk explores the history of jazz in the former Soviet Union in her new album: Jazz on Bones.

Violinist's album honors the underground effort to keep jazz alive after Stalin's ban

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Before the days of digital photography, X-rays were developed onto a thick, plastic-like material. Doctors clipped them to tables that projected light through the back of the image, revealing the inside of the body. But during the Cold War, X-rays were used to illuminate something else.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) A lullaby of birdland, that's what I always hear when you sigh.

FADEL: That's a bootlegged recording of Ella Fitzgerald. It was etched into the surface of a discarded X-ray and sold on the black market during a time when jazz was illegal in the former Soviet Union. This recording was on the image of a rib cage.

NATALY MEREZHUK: The hospitals at the time were actually overflowing with used X-rays because of World War II.

FADEL: That's Nataly Merezhuk. She's a Russian-born, classically trained violinist. She's been studying the period in the 1940s and '50s when Joseph Stalin outlawed jazz and other forms of Western music.

MEREZHUK: Initially, I found out about this history by hearing different slogans that existed in the Soviet Union. Like, there's one - first, he's listening to jazz, and next thing, he's going to sell the motherland.

FADEL: Oh, wow.

MEREZHUK: Yeah. It's fascinating that when my grandparents were my age, they would not have been allowed to listen to this music or they would have been sent, you know, to prison for that. And currently, I'm able to make a career out of it.


FADEL: Nataly Merezhuk has just released an album of violin jazz that pays tribute to the underground effort to keep the music alive in Russia. It's called "Jazz On Bones."

MEREZHUK: Recording studios, they had fronts, usually, and at the time, it also popular to record just voice memos on little postcard records that you could send to your family or something like that. So during the daytime, that's kind of the fronts that they would have. And during the night, usually, they would take an X-ray, and they would cut a circle out of it. And then they had these machines that would cut the record into the X-ray.

FADEL: And they're incredible to look at. And your album is named for them, "Jazz On Bones," right? How did you go about choosing the music that you have on this album?

MEREZHUK: In the beginning of my exploration of this history, I chose songs that spoke to me as a Moscovite that were popular during that Soviet era. But it was basically a blend of my love for Moscow, longing for it and exploring its history.


FADEL: You have a tune called "Windows Of Moscow" on there. Can you tell me about that one?

MEREZHUK: Yeah. So it was composed in 1960, and it was originally an instrumental tune. And then it became a tune with lyrics. And it talks about a person walking through the streets of Moscow and looking up into the windows and making up - thinking about what are these people up to? And I wish I knew them.


FADEL: You're a classically trained violinist. Let's talk about when you discovered jazz.

MEREZHUK: I've known about jazz all my life. I did not have any interest in playing it until about 2017, when I found a really friendly jam session centered around Django Reinhardt's music. And it opened up the possibilities that I could see, the sounds that I could make. And I have always loved improvising. So I was really excited to find something new.


FADEL: You mentioned Django Reinhardt. If you could talk about his jazz arrangements and maybe how that inspired you.

MEREZHUK: Sure. So Django Reinhardt was an incredible guitarist. He was born in Belgium. He was the initial person that allowed me to discover violin in jazz.


MEREZHUK: One of his musicians in this band was called Stephane Grappelli, who was an incredible violinist. And so if you explore the catalogue of music that Django produced, you can see that there are many tunes that are inspired by classical compositions. And in my album, I included one - it's called "Liebesfreud," or "The Joy Of Life."


FADEL: You talk about your love of Moscow, the city where you were born, and you're also Ukrainian. And this is a really difficult time, the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And since the war started, you've been looking in to the links between Soviet jazz and Ukrainian folk music. Could you talk about what you learned?

MEREZHUK: Yes. I discovered that a lot of these people at the forefront of Soviet jazz were Ukrainians. And one person amongst those was Leonid Utyosov. He was actually a Jewish man from Odesa. And I think it's really important for Russian people to look clearly at the important people in our history and to understand their backgrounds and to understand that a lot of different cultures and people contributed. And it's important to respect their identities.

FADEL: Nataly Merezhuk's debut album is titled "Jazz On Bones." Thank you, Nataly.

MEREZHUK: Thank you.


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