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Moving to Riga in search of freedom

Zanda Loceniece

An essay on a jazz pianist Aleksandr Smirnov by Zanda Loceniece

Writing about Aleksandr can be compared to a walk through a forest that you don’t really know but are certain that you need to find something that is certain and safe. Stopping by each familiar sprout and with each one moving deeper and deeper into the wild. Like a magical world that you weren’t fortunate to live in, that undiscovered Narnia that you really wish to take a peek at. Thankfully my path was crossed by some significant people that helped me to slightly open the Iron Curtain and sample the magical world of jazz music from the 1980’s and 1990’s, and Aleksandr Smirnov isn’t such an anonymous person to me, but rather someone I know of and admire.

In order to find information about the outstanding pianist I had to seek help from different people. I am grateful to each and every one of them, who shared their time and knowledge, who agreed to partake in the conversation that started with a simple question: «Do you know anything of?…» A special thanks goes to Daria Smirnova, Aleksandr’s daughter, and Irina, his wife, for sharing newspaper cutouts and pictures. I now understand the urge my grandfather had to preserve articles about Latvian achievers, maybe there will come a time when this information will come in handy for someone just like me and we will be able to help in their research. I have to say that most of the articles were in Russian, so I needed to seek help in that. I appreciate all the help provided by Dace Šūpule to get over the language barrier. Also my gratitude goes out to Indriķis Veitners, Staņislavs Judins and Viktors Ritovs, for sharing all the information they had. Every piece of the puzzle, every tiny memory is significant and helps to paint a picture of who Aleksandr was as a person and as a musician.


Aleksandr Smirnov was born in 1949, on July 27 in Kaliningrad, he was the only child. The family was known to represent specialists from many different spheres of life. Aleksandr’s mother was a medic, father a sailor. Aleksandr was fond of music, so his parents enrolled him into a music school for children to play the piano. Later on he continues his music education in a college, which now can be compared to a music high school education level. But it didn’t all go as smoothly as he’d hoped — after graduating from children’s music school in 1966 and enrolling into music college, he had to be enlisted in the army, that coincidentally fell onto his third year of college studies. He was fortunate enough to be assigned to the air force battalion school, where there was a music department, and he fulfilled his required service simultaneously graduating from music college.The years Aleksandr spent in the army got him acquainted with jazz music. It was there, in the lineup of a local military brass band he saw a man standing by the bass drum and listening to something unintelligible. As Aleksandr once said in an interview: «I’ve heard jazz, but I don’t understand it. I tried playing it, but I couldn’t manage. I was quite good at classical music and I liked it.» He got lucky in the army and met a trumpetist and a band leader named Viktor Avdeyev. The moment they didn’t need to play the required repertoire, a bunch of like-minded people got together and played some jazz tunes. During the first rehearsals Aleksandr had only one thing to say to that: «Guys, your music makes my head hurt!» But after a while he realised that his playing started sounding decent and that he can manage jazz in time, so he started listening to recordings — megaphones, different albums, all the while being amazed with the fact that musicians could play like that. In time he began transcribing Coltrane solos. He started diving deeper and deeper into the structure of jazz music and soon enough became addicted and never let go. Right after the army Aleksandr wanted to enroll into the Academy of Music to study jazz, but it was impossible since it was the music of Americans and thus unwanted in the Soviet regime. In 1971 he started working in Kaliningrad’s filharmony popular music ensemble, because there was no such thing as a jazz band in any official structures, so he had to make due with playing Soviet pop music in cafes and restaurants. With the same lineup he participated in his first festivals in Saint Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

As we all well know, life isn’t all work and fun, there’s always a time when love crosses our paths, and this love Aleksandr shared with Irina. Irina was a doctor and they met at some dance event. Only two weeks later they exchanged their wedding wows. After the wedding the newlyweds moved to a small seaside town by the name Zelenogorsk, not far from Kaliningrad. Being married meant Aleksandr gained more responsibility, now taking care of the family, but he definitely wished to tie his work life to music. Due to the fact that there was no opportunity to study jazz officially, he had to teach himself, but he was very motivated. Viktor Avdeyev, with whom he got closely acquainted in the army, gave him a job in his big band. Several other significant acquaintances took place at the same time in Kaliningrad. One of those meetings was with a New York based saxophonist Sergei Gurbeloshvili, who later on invited Aleksandr to join his quintet. Oscar Peterson’s, Bill Evans’ and Erol Garner’s solo transcriptions helped Aleksandr in improving his own playing technique. As soon as he started playing in the big band the time of festivals came. One of the first festivals Aleksandr took part in was in Gorkov, that is where Aleksandr heards Vadim Vyadro quartet for the first time. Vadim’s music enamored and enchanted him from the first notes.

After the festival Aleksandr met up with Vadim in Kaliningrad and got closer acquainted. This acquaintance inspired Aleksandr to start composing his own music. It was a significant turning point in Aleksandr’s life that gave him the much needed push and he started putting his ideas on paper and showing the listeners something new and unheard of. It also motivated him to listen to even more of the amazing and very significant jazz musicians, such as McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea. Already in 1972 Smirnov had created his own jazz trio and visited Riga and Saint Petersburg with concerts. In Riga Aleksandr yet again met up with Vyadro, who was a resident, but actively worked in other European countries and later moved to New York, participated in several Broadway shows like «Jesus Christ Superstar». Vadim was an outstanding musician, he was even noticed by «The New York Times» where someone wrote: «How unlikely it was that the country, which was relatively isolated from the world of jazz, could produce a jazz musician with such a mature and distinctive personal style that ranges from swing to abstract sonorities of the avant-garde genre.» It doesn’t come as a surprise that such a person inspired Aleksandr so much.

The 1970’s brought a lot of joy into Smirnovs family — in 1973 their first daughter Jekaterina was born and in 1979 their second daughter Darja. Both girls were born in a small Zelenogradsk hospital, where their grandmother worked as a doctor. In 1975 Mrs. Smirnov was given an apartment in Kaliningrad, so the family moved back to the big city. In 1977 Aleksandr started working in Grozny filhanmony. Approximately at the same time he also started his job at the Cherkasy filharmony, and that meant frequent travels to both cities. Due to these same travels he had formed his first band «20th century». The colleagues played Soviet pop music, jazz was a hobby which they managed to sneak into their performances whenever they saw an opportunity. With this lineup Aleksandrs travelled all around the Soviet Union.

He found out more about Rigan jazz life from Vadim Vyadro. Smirnov started listening to Latvian artists a lot, such as Gunārs Rozenbergs, Uldis Stabulnieks and Egils Straume. The freedom of music that existed in Latvia at the time was incomparably large and Aleksandr was very interested in it, because being in Russia at the time was not that easy. This feeling of constant self censure was becoming unbearable. It turned into a psychological pressure that he had to live with every day. Probably that was one of the reasons Aleksandr becan frequently visiting Riga with his band and played in local clubs. Locals noted that he started to sound like Oscar Peterson. He performed in «Allegro» club once then was a frequent guest at the «Vasaras Ritmi» (Summer Rhythms) festival and at some point decided in favor of Latvia and moved here.


Aleksandr moved his family to Latvia in 1982. They settled in Jelgava city. The first years weren’t easy, it proved quite hard for him to find a job as a pianist, so he got a job at the milk factory as a loader. In time he got acquainted with local musicians and began playing in cafes and restaurants, jazz once again became alive. At the beginning he played with a double bassist Ivars Galenieks, whom he thought of as «One of the best double bassists in all Soviet Union».

Later he started performing with his own solo programmes. He enjoyed playing with Boris Bannyh on double bass. When Aleksandr became known among local musicians, he managed to form several outstanding collaborations. One of those was with a famous singer Olga Pīrāgs. Various concerts played together with Gunārs Rozenbergs on trumpet were very exciting in Aleksandrs’ opinion. Aleksandrs about Rozenbergs: «Here, that’s a jazz cat, a true American — it’s a pity his concerts are becoming a rare occurrence.» During his time in Riga he played with a lot of locals, but several of those he sided out as his most favorite, such as Gints Pabērzs on saxophone, Artūrs Kutepovs (the best jazz guitarist of his time, according to Aleksandr), Viktors Ritovs — a wonderful pianist and musician. Aleksandr enjoyed playing and learning traditional jazz — John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chick Corea. But not only that. Another thing Aleksandr was very fond of was orchestral and big band music. He studied symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich, explored the laws of their arrangement and voice leading technique. This in turn expanded his own original music, which he continued writing and arranging beautifully.

The Smirnov family spirit was described as one with tendencies to independence. When the year 1990 came and Latvia began collecting signatures to separate the republic from the Soviets, Smirnovs were one of the first to sign in Jelgava. Aleksandr was among the brave ones in the barricades in 1991. They never did things just because people around them did the same, the self respect was the leading quality in everything they did. Also in music. Smirnov was pedantic, independent, self assured and with a huge respect towards music, because it wasn’t just a job. Music was something that influenced every transformation in the family, if it needed the family to adapt, they did it. Each small concert in a cafe was perceived as a serious performance. Appropriate attire and attitude — that was guaranteed with this artist. All scores written in neat handwriting, stored in folders, and are still there, in Jelgava, where he also spent hours practicing, which in turn made the neighbors angry. Each training session started with Bach, then Chopin’s etudes and only then jazz.

Both Aleksandr’s daughters attended music school in Jelgava. Jekaterina studied flute, Darja violin. After graduating Jekaterina turned to painting and later on to French linguistics, but Darja still plays and currently holds the position of the deputy concertmaster in Latvian National Symphony orchestra. When Darja was little, Aleksandr often tried teaching her how to play Mozart and other classical composers, and she wasn’t very fond of that, because that wasn’t Aleksandr’s main focus and she thought better not to intrude in each other’s specific work.

Aleksandr was also a huge fan of sports. He played football and did karate training in karate, but every day kept himself in shape with the help of running. He enjoyed reading, in fact, his Jelgava home looked like a library. He also enjoyed visual arts and even painted sometimes.

While practicing music Aleksandr often recorded himself. His relatives say that he was a very passionate man and often became irritated with his own recordings, which drove him to breaking the buttons on the recording device. His wife couldn’t remember the exact number of recorders they bought because he broke the previous one, but said it was impressive.

Aleksandr was an active participant in Latvian jazz life — he has his own trio with Ivars Galenieks on double bass and Māris Briežkalns on drums. In 1994 he worked in Latvian Radio big band as a second conductor and wrote arrangements for it, until the band was liquidated. Another collective where he played was «Volo» big band. These two big bands were the perfect place to express himself the way he wanted — writing his own arrangements. Apart from the rehearsals musicians also met up in each other’s apartments to play jazz and just to spend time with each other in a friendly environment. Apart from these jobs another big proposal was issued to Smirnov — in 1990 Liepāja Symphony Orchestra asked him to make arrangements of several Christmas tunes and also some Latvian folk tunes. All in all the concert was based on Aleksandr’s arrangements. The arrangements were a bit far from «easy listening» because he himself was fond of intelligent and even complicated music which seemed exciting and interesting to professional musicians, but not very easily embraceable to an ordinary listener. He always strived to succeed in impossible jobs, and not only in music. His daughter Darja remembers that this concert was one of his greatest achievements. The pay was also very impressive and allowed the family to acquire a new washing machine!

Then the year 2001 came when Riga celebrated its 800th anniversary. To honor this event Aleksandr wrote several jazz tunes for a duet of himself and his daughter Darja on violin. The new program was performed on the Dome square.

The last 15 years of his life weren’t as colorful as prior. An active musician in his younger years, he received a head trauma playing football, when a ball hit him in the head which resulted in a short term loss of consciousness. This trauma from the past resulted in a hematoma, thickening of the blood in the brain, which led to another illness that showed itself when Aleksandr was in his 50’s. At first his left hand lost part of its mobility, which was crucial for a pianist. He had to play less because he just couldn’t maintain the same intensive life rhythm. For a person that held music above everything else in life it was a shock. Then in 2002 he received a job proposal from a music college he graduated from in Kaliningrad. He was given a job leading a local big band and giving lectures to young students. Aleksandr realised that it was his chance to stay in music, so he agreed.

He went to Kaliningrad on his own, wife and daughters stayed in Latvia. He had worked there for four or five years and then passed away on May 13, 2007. Buried in Kaliningrad, where he was well known and loved, it could be seen in his funeral that was attended by over 200 people.

Jazz and Smirnov

Writing about Smirnov and his relationships with jazz I realized that it was a music that caught him and never let go, starting from the moment he dug deeper into Coltane’s improvisations. It wasn’t important that he didn’t study jazz academically, because it just wasn’t possible at the time, he wanted to play it and that was the most important thing. He didn’t study arranging, his schooling consisted of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Rozenbergs.

Aleksandr’s play wasn’t overly embellished with things he considered unnecessary. He was able to fill the space masterfully with silences, breaths. Aleksandr was an introvert, that also reflected in his playing style, but from time to time even his emotions managed to overflow and turn into an unexpected explosion of pianism. His playing style is very delicate and thought through, which one can hear listening to the albums «Rainy Day» and «Kur tu teci», his music was discreet and reticent. But his big band arrangements on the other hand demonstrated aspirations towards modernism. Aleksandr loved his work, his music, which resulted in an outstanding musicianship, that is why I’m so curious as to why there’s so little information on him available.

Here is the incomplete review of his musical activities during Latvian time:

Since 1983 in duo with Ivars Galenieks;
Since 1986 ensemble with Gunārs Rozenbergs and Raimonds Raubiško;
1989 — performance in Rostock, Germany with Egils Straume’s ensemble;
1989-1990 duo with Olga Pīrāgs, performances in various festivals in Germany and Russia;
1990 — performance with Jānis Steprāns (Canada) trio in «Vasaras Ritmi» festival, Riga;
1991-1992 — solo concerts in festivals in Nizhny Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Tomsk and Krasnoyarsk;
Since 1993 — a member of Latvian Radio big band;
1994-1995 — second conductor and arranger in Latvian Radio big band;
1994-1997 — session musician and arranger in «VOLO» big band lead by Bruno Jurgenberg, a CD «Elza» with Olga Pīrāgs and Inese Greste on vocals; this big band often played Aleksandr’s arrangements, one tune should be mentioned separately — «Elza» by Uldis Sebris, dedicated to Uldis’ daughter. A music video was made for this specific song, which is the very first jazz tune with its own video (unconfirmed). «VOLO» big band played a lot in different concerts, even in the International Sports Dance competition, providing comping for the dancers. «VOLO» big band has been a great place to practice for many noticeable local jazz musicians, such as Zintis Žvarts, Deniss Paškevičs, Indriķis Veitners, Aleksandrs Akimovs and etc.
1995 — Galenieks — Smirnovs — Briežkalns trio participated in concerts in Latvia, Norway, in the opening ceremony for the Latvian embassy in Stockholm, Sweden;
1995 — CD «Rainy Day» with Galenieks on double bass and Briežkalns on drums;
1997 — «Latvian Stars» concert in «Happy Days» jazz club in Helsinki, Finland;
1997 — «Kur tu teci» CD;
1997 — active collaboration with Artis Gāga on saxophone;

Special stories

A quote from his only personal interview: «If there’s ever a chance to go to New York, you have to have at least 500 standards in your pocket. You can get inspiration and new ideas only in America, a place where jazz roots are. We, musicians, have to look up to America, concerning the musicianship, but in reality we will never reach their level. […] A lot of people wreck their brains on how to get the people to attend jazz clubs. But maybe the problem isn’t that great. You have to be honest in your music, use the baggage of knowledge you have and create new tunes. […] When people don’t know the tradition, they call it their own jazz. »
«Вечерняя Рига» (Evening Riga), November 2nd, 2001. — «JAZZ-KLUB»

Aleksandr’s daugher Darja was my greatest consultant while preparing this material. Thanks to her, I was able to find out more about Aleksandr not only as a musician, but as a person, how his everyday life looked like. My knowledge of him became deeper. Darja told me a lot of interesting stories about Aleksandr, but one of the stories seemed especially enticing to me:

«I like a story my father told me once, which makes me proud of him. During one of the concert tours he and his friend were playing chess, were very involved in the game, didn’t really notice anything around. After a while a famous poet, actor and performer Vladimir Vysotsky enters the room. He stands and waits for a while, then starts shuffling on his feet, tries to attract attention, let everyone know who exactly entered the room, because he was fond of being acknowledged and when people asked for his autographs. My dad and his friend looked up and got back to the game in a second, after a while Vysotsky lost his temper and said in a loud voice — I am Vysotsky! And my dad answers — And I am Smirnov! That’s what my father was like and I started behaving like him in time and I’m really glad about it! »