Boriss Bannykh — a bass player who made the golden years of Latvian Soviet jazz
Stories on freedom of jazz, jazz behavior, adventures of the Soviet times and timeless music
I remember those times when I was still in school in, maybe, 11th grade, and one of my friends invited me to tag along to listen to some live music on the Dome square. The young me didn’t really have a clear concept of live music back then, I thought it to sound only in the opera or in a choir. Sometimes at a stadium, when some hot shot star turns up in our small country to stir things up and then leave again to our own choral devices. I couldn’t fathom the idea of live music in a bar. But I still went there, just out of pure curiosity. So we came, and there’s this band playing. Turned out that my friend knew some of the musicians, so during the break they joined our table and we started conversing, joking. And right across me — a man, all serious, with a smoking pipe, with a humorous sparkle in his eyes. So, the time spent amazingly and I went home. Same evening me and my family are sitting in a kitchen and I’m telling them about my night — can you imagine? I’ve been to a live concert and there was this amazing bassist, a joker, really, his name’s Boriss Bannykh! And then I raise my eyes to my parents and see that theirs are round as moons. Where did you say you’ve met him? I, all confused, started explaining again, that it was on the Dome square, the cafe… And then they started talking. Turned out that Boriss is a legendary bassist, that my parents have attended as many concerts as they could just to hear him play, that he had played with a lot of excellent musicians, and jazz, and the Allegro restaurant, and MODO, and Gunārs Rozenbergs, And Vadim Vyadro… The list goes on.
So then after a while (and I really don’t want to count the years) I enrolled into the Academy of Music, jazz department, and I’m sitting at a lecture by Indrikis Veitners about the history of jazz in Latvia and… There’s Boriss again! Shame on me for not believing my parents in that faraway 11th grade, although to be fair, the jazz itself was a meaningless thing to me way back then. But now, today, when I know what I know, what this person did, played, created, how much he influenced our jazz and the development of it, I have to say that I’m proud to know him. I was lucky enough to get a chance to share a cup of coffee with him and chat for a couple of hours about everything and anything — his life, music, opinions, beliefs, memories, and when I went through our conversation later, I decided not to leave anything out, so that you could enjoy all this precious information as well. So… enjoy!
So, you’re originally from Chernivtsi?
I was just born there. That’s the only thing I have in common with that city. I think that my family had lived there for no longer than two years. After that my dad was sent to… I don’t really remember where, but we lived in a lot of different places.
I remember that my brother was let out to play on a rope, because he was prone to running off. My parents just tied the rope to his leg and let him play in the yard but that didn’t stop him, son of a gun… One time when he ran away, it turned out that some soldiers were passing by and saw a boy is on a leash, they felt sad for him, so they untied him and took him with them. We were close to not getting him back.
After that my dad enrolled into Kharkiv academy, so we moved there. (Marshal Leonid Govorov Air Defense and Radio Engineering Academy). After graduation he was sent to work in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), so we went along. We used to rent apartments all the time, we’ve moved for maybe 20 times. Survived some impressive floods — we used to live in a half basement space, once I looked out the window and saw a log float through the yard… After that they gave us a room in one of the best neighborhoods in Petrograd district. The house was very beautiful, a historical building. That’s where I spent my childhood, I started school there, which I attended for four years, when my fifth begun, after two weeks we moved to Moscow. There we got a room right away, they never gave apartments at that time. We lived there for only a couple of years, then Gagarin flew to space, currency changed (10 rubles turned to 1…), and there I met my musician friends, such as drummer Zhenya Kazaryan, a pianist Zhenya Rosenblum, although this one didn’t get very far in life… Valeriy Katsnelsohn, he later became a famous saxophonist. So, we met and started playing jazz.
What else was there to play? Just songs? Pop music, as you call it… It wasn’t our first choice. And then my father was sent to Voronezh, so my friends used to visit me there, they’d come straight from Moscow. It took only one night on the train, very comfy. We’ve also learned how to travel cheap! Almost… When you board the train from Voronezh to Moscow, you should take the ticket for the trip to the closest stop, if I recall correctly it was Griazi, in the common coach. You board, show your ticket and hop on to the baggage shelf, then you snooze until Moscow. By the way, I bought my drums in Moscow, it was quite a story. Valeriy Katsnelsohn called me once and said — go to Moscow, now! There should be «Premier» drums in the store tomorrow! So I went straight to my parents and begged them to give me some money, I was 15 then.
Then we formed a school band and went to play at the South of the country, in Tuapse, there used to be a recreation center «Nebug» On the piano we had Viktor Shulmann, he became very popular afterwards, he even brought Visotsky to the States with a concert.
It was an interesting gig. It was June when we went to Tuapse. So, imagine that, the bunch of us went to the railway station «Kurskiy» to buy us some tickets, and there is such a crowd, it’s impossible to wrap your brain around! This huge area inside the station reminded me of a trolleybus during rush hour, you had to squeeze yourself in the crowd in order to get to the ticket office. Katz managed to drill himself to one of the windows, but there were no tickets to Tuapse. So Viktor Shulmann said — wait here, I’ll be back. After half an hour he comes back and says: Where is the window Nr.17? There! But it’s closed… It’s ok though, gather around me and don’t let anyone get into our circle, the window will be open in a jiffy and they’ll start selling those tickets. So we made a tight circle around Viktor, people around us are mighty mad, screaming — what do you think you’re doing just standing here?! Let us pass! Let us through! And then, after some 10 minutes suddenly the window is open and a woman leans out of it screaming — tickets to Tuapse in window 17! And all these people around us started pushing us, trying to break our circle and get their own ticket. It felt like our bones were rubbing together from the pressure. Quick thinking on Viktor’s account — he collected our money in advance and was the first one at the window, so we got our tickets after all.
And so we went to Tuapse. All in all we gigged there for two months. But we didn’t work for money, we worked for food and accommodation. We used to sleep at this huge porch of this old house with columns, on the recliner beds in the fresh air. We also managed to go to Sochi a couple of times, not paying for the tickets… Youth…
How did you start playing double bass?
Back in Voronezh, there I am walking down the street — Prospect of Revolution, minding my own business, and there he is, Sergey Martinov walking towards me. A very good double bass player. He used to work for the orchestra of Anatoliy Kroll, so he looks me up and down and says — your paw is meant for double bass! Why are you wasting time playing drums? Change the instrument, while you’re still a beginner, I’ll help you! Well, if Sergey Martinov says so, you just do it, no arguments. So I did what he told me to do. He was just back from some jazz festival in Tallinn, Jazz 67, I think, or maybe 66, they did a recording of the concert and there was this composition of his called «The Song» («Песня»), where he sang in unison with the double bass, and then a third up. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VR6yJ3RercU) And every time I went to his place for a lesson, I would take the double bass from the corner of the room, grab the bow and start drilling this «Song», totally stoked! And he used to wail — not that one, not again! Be damned the day I approached you! And I used to play and play, until my fingers blistered.
But did you really want to play double bass yourself?
I wanted to play jazz, and if such a personality as his thought that I had a double bassist’s soul….
But moving on. After some time my dad retired from the army. My mom has been to Riga for a couple of times and loved it to bits, so we decided to move to Europe. Exchanged our flat for one in Riga and made the move. It was 1966, I had already finished school and was in the middle of entry exams into Voronezh University. I was told to go study chemistry, because the dean was a huge jazz fan. I even passed, but we moved and my dad got a job at Riga Technical University. Even though none of his 50 works were published (everything was classified, since it was the property of the military), he still got the spot. I, on the other hand, was accepted as a candidate. I didn’t last long though. After two years, right about the time we started learning organics, I realised that it’s all too much for me, the formulas are too long. I also got a lot of gigs, so I wrote an official letter — please release me from the studies. And they said — well, if you’re not going to study, go to the army. Army it is then… So once again, here I am, walking down the street, and a mighty fine musician approaches me — Viktor Avdiukevich and says — are you, by any chance, going to serve in the army? And my answer is — yeah, I guess so… And then he says — to you want to play in the division orchestra? Let me get your details, I’ll arrange everything. So that’s how I ended up playing in the army band. What did I get out of it — a sacred responsibility to play my instrument every day. The soldiers would come into the hall at around 10 a.m., and I had to already be there. So that’s what I did. One of the sergeants used to joke with me — Bannykh! What, are you still sawing that base of yours? Yes, sir! Let me know when you succeed!
Our conductor there was Yaakov Raskin, he used to arrange classical pieces for the wind orchestra. 60 people, all of them pretty serious musicians, some were really outstanding. We played everything there — Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. In the «Symphonic Dances» I had a solo in the 3rd part…
Why did you study chemistry and not music?
My mother said I had to have a serious profession, a stable one, and if I wanted to do music, I could do it in my free time. A musician is not a profession…
In any case, after two compulsory years of army I was released and went on playing gigs. Sometimes I played with my brother, he was a trumpet player, Aleksandr Bannykh. We did a recording in Holland together with his band. Everyone who got a chance to listen to this recording was in awe. The arrangements were outstanding! Sashka did them all. When we did this recording, we were promised a percent from every copy sold. In the end we did the recording, but the label never released the record. We got our money for the recording session and with that it all ended. I have a CD, and this CD is almost unique. Maybe someone has another copy, but I’m almost certain, I’m the only one who does.
We didn’t play together with my brother too often but we did have a couple of tours — one to Holland and Germany, and another one to France. My brother had this ensemble — New Moscow jazz band, and the bassist from that band emigrated to Canada right before the trip, so my brother asked me to go instead. I said yes without any hesitations, so there I was between cities for a while — living in Riga and rehearsing in Moscow. And then in August of 91 we went to France. A small city, only 6 thousand people living there, maybe three streets. The festival… I took a look at the program and my jaw dropped to the floor — Winton Marsalis, Gerry Mulligan, DeeDee Bridgewater, Joe Pass, Modern Jazz Quartet with the original lineup! Went out to the square, there are hundreds of people mulling around, and then there is that old man waving «Good Day!» to me. His face seemed familiar, but I just couldn’t place him… When I came back to the hotel and took a look in the program, there he was — Stefano Grappelli! I’ve met him for a couple of times during the festival, every time he greeted me politely. Why me? Who knows…
I even have a newspaper from the festival — La Repubblica, there was this artist who drew a collage of all the musicians in the festival, our band was amongst them.
There was this musician in our band, Seva Danevich, he played baritone saxophone, so he made us special bow ties, blood red ones with a golden pin in the middle — sickle and hammer. It was excruciatingly hot outside, maybe 43 degrees, we decided that we won’t torture ourselves with dress shirts, but rather to wear ordinary T-shirts with the bow ties. And when those Americans saw our bow ties, started whining right away — please, give them to us! It would be such an amazing souvenir! And we always declined, said we can’t because it’s our uniform. And so we reached the end of the festival, there’s this afterparty where we all gathered, someone doing the speech, and then we stand up and with a grand gesture present those bow ties to the festival. They were histeric with excitement!
After the party we went back to the hotel to get some sleep, but in the middle of the night someone started banging on my door, calling for Igor, our manager of sorts, who was the one who got us this French gig. Turned out there’s a Putch in the Soviet Union… Imagine that — the same moment everything was happening in Moscow, Russian musicians in France were taking off their sickle and hammer bow ties off and giving them away to Americans… That’s one hell of a coincidence, I think…
So we gathered all together in a hotel room and started surfing through our options — what to do next. Become refugees and stay here, in France? Then we’d have to go to Paris, stand in line for an eternity, and we didn’t know that for two days in a row Russians were admitted first, without any queues… I listened to the guys for a while, how they argue, and said — guys, I’ll support anything you decide. If you think about it — I’m not really one of them, they all were Moscow residents, and I’m from Riga. My head began to hurt, so I left them in that hotel room and went for a walk. So I’m back on the same square where Grappelli used to greet me just days ago, and I see a beer pub. I go in, order a beer, give the bartender my money, but suddenly there’s an old man slapping the bartenders hand away, screaming — won’t take his money! He’s Russian, there’s a tragedy in his country! Just like that…
But that isn’t important. The festival was over, all those guests gathered around Igor, wanting to invite us to play more concerts. So we went on, traveled for a while. The festival itself was amazing, magical. I’ll cherish that memory for the rest of my days, how I shared a stage with Winton Marsalis and Modern Jazz Quartet, and how Stefano Grappelli greeted me.
And then the separation happened and I didn’t go to Moscow…
Let’s get back to Riga then! What happened after the army?
After the army my friend Vadim Vyadro helped me get a job with the Radio orchestra, and Vitaly Dolgov vouched for me as well. I met Vadim at some jam sessions. It was him, in fact, who taught me to play music. And not just any music, but his own. His music was very interesting, free, you play what you want to play! Of course, it depended on what the others played as well. We used to work in the «Allegro» restaurant, that opened its doors in January 71. Aelita Fitingoff, Igrik (Igor) Tsinmann, Fima (Yefim) Pustilnik, Boriss Bannykh, Aleksandr Bannykh. «Allegro» used to host some jazz evenings, that’s where we «rehearsed». We started playing at «Allegro», then Boldirev joined us, then Naum Perifirkovitch. Naum lives in Israel now, in our recent correspondence he wrote to me — you won’t believe it, but I teach Americans to play jazz! Everything has just settled with our quartet, but suddenly Naum decides to move away. So what were we to do? There was no such pianist in Riga as him. So Vyadro says — let’s play as a trio then! So, the pressure grows, me and Boldirev, who played drums, have more responsibilities in the band, not only the rhythm. And how Vyadro filled the space with his saxophone! Once after the concert we asked someone — how does this sound without a piano? OK? And the answer was — yes, everything is totally fine, you can’t really feel the lack of piano! That’s how we were left in a trio. We traveled for a bit, were in the friendly countries for a while. Everywhere we went Vyadro impressed the hell out of the listeners.
Back to the Radio orchestra. I worked there with Boldirev, and Alnis Zaķis was our conductor. That’s how we ended up with Raimonds Pauls — through the radio. It was a stupid job, being honest. You come to the rehearsal, they throw a lead sheet (or, in my case, a chord chart) on your music stand. You say — what’s that? And they answer — well, it’s a song. But what’s the tempo? What’s the style? Uhm, well, the intro is like this, and then the verse is in an «um-tsa um-tsa» style, and then in the chorus you should play some disco. That’s how a composer explains his writings… Well, me and Boldirev used to glance at each other and then go straight to work — let’s play this riff here, and that line there… So we record the rhythm section first, then the horns, then the strings, and only then the soloists. We didn’t record all together simultaneously, it was too complicated. Only the recording of «Laura» in 78 was done «the proper» way, but that was later on.
So that’s how we used to work. Then one day I see Pauls coming into the room and sitting in the far corner. He just sat there and observed for a while. We suffer, he watches. Then he leaves. The next day he comes again, the story repeats. On the third day it goes all over again. And then he approached me and Boldirev and proposed to work for him in the Philharmonics. He said that the salary is 190 rubles for 15 concerts.
190! Soviet engineers had only 120, but a musician in Philharmonics 190?
120 rubles was an average musicians fee. But with Pauls there were concert tours, work with live listeners, not just recording sessions, trips abroad. They didn’t want to let us go from the radio. Telling us — the Party thinks you should stay! But hey, was the Philharmonics in another Party? No. So we quit and began rehearsing with Pauls. We were placed into a vocal instrumental ensemble category, we had Nora Bumbiere and Viktors Lapchenoks as soloists. We also had Ziga Liepinsh on the keys. We took part in the Soviet music competition, shared the second place with the «Samotsveti» band, the first place, naturally, got to the «Ariel» band. It is considered to be a very grand achievement, because in the same competition Alla Pugachova got the second place, and not the first, that one got a singer from operetta named Chemodanov.
We became good friends with the guys from the «Ariel» band, and after the competition they said — and so it begins, gigs, better rates? We were confused for a bit there, what rates? We have our fee, we don’t have rates… And they say — ask for rates! A fee for each concert! And so we went to the head of the Philharmonics, said we’re quitting. The head looked at us with a knowing look and said — what do you want? We — well, we want rates and a name for the band! The head — why don’t you like the one you’ve already got? I think that «Raimonds Pauls ensemble» sounds pretty decent, don’t you agree? But we stood our ground, because Pauls didn’t really want to go to Russia, and how would that look if «Raimonds Pauls ensemble» performed without an actual Pauls in it? So he himself created a name «MODO», which translated from Italian as — way, manner.
We were in Russia once, at the USSR composers gathering, they rolled us off the stage, literally. We played one of Raimonds’ tunes caller «Rock’n’Roll», a very popular tune in Latvian language. There on the stage was some kind of a moving platform, all the musicians were placed there, and the soloists (Nora un Viktors) were at the front stage. So, here we were, playing the second verse, and suddenly we could feel ourselves moving, floating… Boldirev almost dropped his cymbal at the sudden movement. That’s how they rolled us off of the stage. Nora and Viktors turn around, and we’re just not there anymore, and after that they turned off the sound and microphones as well. Said —it’s a bad tone to play your rock’n’roll silliness at the USSR composer gatherings. What could we do? Nothing. Eat your tongue and keep quiet. But with an attitude like that it’s no surprise that Raimonds never wanted to go there anymore. But we got the name and continued working.
At the same time «2R+2B» (Raubiško, Rozenbergs, Bannihs, Boldirevs) band was formed. And suddenly I receive a call from Tbilisi, asking me if I can get a band for the festival. At that time we had a guitarist Veso Bakradze working with us at the Philharmonics. It was hard working with him, he was a phenomenal guitarist, he composed amazing music, the one that sounded unique, but he had no scores whatsoever. So what if all the scores are in his head, how are we supposed to go to Tbilisi? They don’t ask just anyone to play there, it’s a respectful festival… So, we asked our Ziga Liepinsh with his academic background to transcribe everything. Quite a work he did there. But it all worked out just fine. We rehearsed the tunes, sounded good! We decided to go with two bands. «2R+2B» — pure jazz, and this band with Veso — jazz rock. We also had Vladimir Vainer on alto saxophone then. Leonid Nidbalskis went with us, because no jazz trip could happen without his involvement. I took both instruments with me — a bass guitar an the double bass, and off we went! It was in March of 78. We looked… interesting, to say the least. Just imagine — my pile of afro-ish hair, Raubishko, who’s almost 2 meters high, people lost their jaws…
When we played with «2R+2B», people were amazed, they applauded, screamed, whistled. Then we played with Veso — same story. We had everything planned out — arrangements, drum solos, interesting tutties. A job well done! I remember someone said — you’ll never get noticed there. But oh boy, how we played! Latvian Radio did a live broadcast from the festival, I even have the recording. And then there was this newspaper — «Soviet Culture» («Советская Культура»), it was a very serious issue at that time, they wrote that our rhythm section — Bannykh and Boldirev, are the best in the whole Union!
And then in the same 78 I got in a car crash, that’s how my time with MODO came to an end. After the crash I was rehabilitating, it was a hard and long process. Raubishko and Rozenbergs came to visit me once, asking how I was feeling, and what could I say? I was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t work, had the disability pension of 120 rubles. The doctor said to be active, but what kind of activities could one find at home? How many times does an apartment need to be vacuumed? Apart from cleaning, the only thing I could do was walking my kid in the park. And then those two said — why don’t you come back to the Radio? Pauls said to approach you. Oh the joy. A dumb job, but at least on a regular basis and I got to play the base. So naturally I said yes.
Off topic — why is your instrument painted?
My double bass was very old, all the paint wore off in a lot of places, so I decided to repaint it. Went to the store, bought some paint, never knowing the color! So it was sort of unintended.
For how long have you had this specific bass?
From the moment I came to Riga, so since 1966. All this time I’ve been playing the same instrument. When I bought it, the griff was bended in the wrong direction, so it needed repairs, but before it was done, I had to put the strings very high…
What do you prefer best — double bass or bass guitar?
Double bass, off course. It’s a live instrument. I started with it. A guitar is a guitar, you select the sound and the volume, it will do as you please. But the double bass has its own soul, character, it’s acoustic and it’s alive. Closer to heart, I suppose.
Why is jazz special?
It’s a free music, you play what you want to play, way you can come up with. You have the theme, and then you express your opinion on it, what you think and what you hear. There’s more freedom in this music. In classical music you play exactly how everything’s written. No way in hell you play something else. Here you can play whatever you think necessary. Especially in the kind of music we played with Viadro and «2R+2B». You can also hear it in the «Puspuda sāls» tune. A crazy tempo that we took together with Boldirev, you get tired — play pauses. Of course, every stop is in the context with the music. This music, and not the jazz standards, is free. This music, sadly, can’t last forever, but I still listen to it with pleasure.
Which are your favorite recordings? Which recordings impressed you the most?
That one goes back in time. My first jazz recording that I listened to was the one of Clifford Brown «Study in Brown», maybe I like it so much because of my brother, who’s also a trumpet player. I think Clifford is the best trumpetist in the world. This album is still the one I hold as a model to measure up to. Everything I listen to, I still compare it with that album. Sometimes unintentionally.
I like Igor Butman orchestra a lot, he has the best musicians there. Dolgov, by the way, did a lot of arranging for him. He had his own style, his language. Dolgov is Dolgov.
What do you have to do to become a good jazz musician?
You have to learn your instrument. You have to play it outstandingly! Unfortunately I can’t say the same for myself, that’s why I have to adjust myself according to my abilities. But if you can play your instrument, you can play whatever you want, whatever you think is interesting.
Jazzmen have their own view on life, on things, they do everything their way. Once I went to Moscow together with Viadro, so we’re walking down the street and I accidentally bumped into someone. That man started screaming — look where you’re going, you son of a gun, open your eyes! Are you blind or what?! I got all shy on him, didn’t know what to say, and then suddenly there’s this booming voice like from the sky — Viadro with his arms open wide, coming up to that man, saying — Father, oh father! The man was so shocked, that is was his turn to be stunned into silence, and then he just rushed away not sparing us a backwards glance. It was a totally unexpected move on Viadro’s account, but completely like him, a totally jazzy behaviour. They, together with Dolgov, were the same, like a pair of boots, one inspired another and they had all kind of ideas constantly running through their brains. Exceptional people.
Have you ever imagined yourself doing something else, not music?
No, never. From the moment I discovered music in my childhood… And I did that, by the way, as an act of defiance of sorts. I was a very bad singer, when I was little. My brother, on the other hand, sang from the crid. My mother once said — Borenka, sing me something! So I sang — owowooooo…. Ok, no more singing for me.
And then my parents’ friends came to visit, and there was this boy — Mishenka, they asked him to play something on the piano. He did the «Für Elise» tune, it was the most popular tune amongst the kids in the music school, and everybody congratulated him on how good he was. And me? I got envious, so I just sat there, jealous. My mother played some piano as well, so when no one was home I went through her score collection and found that Elise and started learning, guessing the notes. Some I found by ear, I used to count the lines, ask different people to help, but not the members of my family. Somehow I mastered the tune. Once, later on, when I was already able to play it decently, my mother entered the room and was shocked to see me by the piano. And then it was my turn: Oh, Borenka! My talented boy! So gifted! My, oh, my! Who taught you to play? And I did it all by myself.