The Jazz Orchestra of the Lithuanian State Conservatoire

By Oleg Molokoyedov

In the early 1970s, an optional jazz class was established in the popular music department of the Lithuanian State Conservatoire. Everyone wishing to play music of this genre came together in the big band led by the multi-instrumentalist Vladimir Chekasin, a member of the Ganelin trio, which was officially called the Jazz Orchestra of the Lithuanian State Conservatoire.1 While working with students, he developed an effective method of teaching the technique of jazz and band playing. The band played mainly jazz standards at their sessions. Chekasin found an intriguing way of blending traditional and contemporary jazz into a uniform colourful texture. Rehearsals by the big band were always noted for their creative atmosphere, and became a laboratory for the most radical ideas. His artistic pursuits were manifest in a lively programme collage with the witty title “Is this Possible?”. The programme consisted of original arrangements of popular standards, compositions by Duke Ellington, Neal Hefti, Viacheslav Ganelin, Arūnas Navakas, and the head of the orchestra himself, interspersed with spontaneous tsunamis of Chekasin-style clusters, unexpected consonances and link-ups of different groups of instruments of the big band. The juxtaposition of different styles, manners and epochs was used for good purpose.
In less than five years, Chekasin brought together a group of students and colleagues that still constitute the elite of Lithuanian jazz. The student band began to play on a par with the best big bands in the Soviet Union. Having finished their studies, the students of the talented teacher worked all over Lithuania. The saxophonists Petras Vyšniauskas and Vytautas Labutis, besides Chekasin himself and his talented students, were soloists with the band. The rhythm group consisted of members of the first quartet: the pianist Oleg Molokoyedov, the percussionist Gediminas Laurinavičius, and the bassist Leonid Šinkarenko. Before long, the big band became a sensation in the Soviet Union. It was invited to perform in the capitals of the Soviet republics, at festivals in Riga, Leningrad, Tbilisi, Tallinn and Kiev. The band gave more than 100 concerts in Lithuania, and gave several performances in Moscow and elsewhere. It was a unique band in aesthetic, psychological and pedagogical terms. In other words, it was an band that, if necessary, could become a chamber ensemble, a quartet, a sextet, or Dixieland.
Čekasin’s band sensationally took top place in Soviet jazz surveys, leaving behind the bands of Oleg Lundstrem, Konstantin Orbelian and Anatoly Kroll. An LP by the orchestra, recorded in 1986 during the Osenniye Ritmy festival in Leningrad, was released with incredible speed for that time.2 In the same year, Chekasin and his big band won the Grand Prix at the Birštonas Festival.
In time, the conservatoire students found it increasingly difficult to combine their studies with work and touring. The maestro also had a busy concert schedule, with his trio, and in duets with Oleg Molokoyedov, Leonid Chizhik, Anatoly Babyi, Sergey Kuriokhin, and other famous musicians, with his quartet and his sextet. Less and less time remained for the big band.
However, the band prepared three large programmes, representing a wide range of jazz styles, from blues to ragtime and avant-garde: swing, bebop, Dixieland, cool, Latin jazz, including some rock, jazz-rock, and even early punk, as well as different folk elements. In addition to the above-mentioned “Is this Possible?”, the most complex composition by Chekasin is "Ulijona", a monumental piece developing the theme from a Lithuanian folk ballad. This composition was recorded during a concert at the National Philharmonic Hall in 1983, and was performed and recorded at the Birštonas Jazz Festival in 1986. The composition was released on an LP of winners in the festival that year. In "Ulijona", Chekasin tried to implement his idea of “spatial music”, which was new in jazz at that time.
The third composition, a concerto for voice and orchestra by Konstantin Petrosian (1985), was recorded at the Vilnius Recording Studio. It was released by the Soviet label Melodiya and by Leo Records in Great Britain. The vocal part was performed by the Armenian singer Tatevik Oganesian, acclaimed as the best vocalist in the Soviet Union. Petrosian’s concerto is a piece of compositional jazz that had no rivals. It skilfully combines early Armenian sharakan liturgical chant with the contemporary means of expression of a big band. At the Vilnius Recording Studio the score was supplemented by the expressive cadence of the Chekasin Quartet, and improvisations by the band's soloists; therefore, the big band was the soloist’s equal partner.3
In the late 1980s, a powerful movement of youth musical clubs swept through Lithuania. Jazz lost some of its social significance. The Singing Revolution advanced more democratic requirements: one had to be together with others. Chekasin and his big band actively joined the mass events in the National Revival movement: he gave concerts with the cult band Antis, and made recordings. During that period, Čekasin’s projects with proponents of progressive rock such as Boris Grebenschikov, Yury Shevtchuk, Piotr Mamonov and Sergey Kuriokchin, one of the most radical Russian musicians, the author of a series of musical/theatrical happenings called “Pop Mekhanika”, and other musicians, won him fame in Russia.4
The Čekasin quartet performed in almost all major European festivals of new and universal jazz. Despite its distinct stylistic affinity with the trio, the music by the quartet was different, first of all in the rendition of the rhythm group. Besides, Chekasin made wider use of neo-syncretic and postmodern music trends. The syncretism of the Vilnius school of  jazz was manifested mainly in the fact that some programmes had theatrical elements.
 The suite Nostalgia is similar to the compositions by the trio in its form, but stylistically it is different from the esoteric compositions by Ganelin, and appeals to a wider audience. The five-part suite has two titles Nostalgia and Memories. There are also two versions of the piece, acoustic and electronic. The acoustic version of the suite was played more than 500 times on tours by the quartet of Chekasin, Oleg Molokoyedov (p), Leonid Šinkarenko (b) and Gediminas Laurinavičius (dr); an electronic version was recorded at the Vilnius Recording Studio. In the West, it was released by Leo Records, and for the Soviet market by the Melodiya label.5
In Western Europe, the quartet of Chekasin, Vytautas Labutis (as), Oleg Molokoyedov (p) and Arvydas Joffė (dr) played both versions of the composition. The music from the suite was used in the cult film of the perestroika period The Taxi Blues by Pavel Lungin, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990.
(In this collection, an abridged and edited version of the suite is recorded, with the author’s permission.)
In the late 1980s, the Vilnius jazz style was a showcase for Lithuanian jazz. This was confirmed by the success of Lithuanian musicians at festivals in Zurich and Vienna. At the latter, the musicians from Vilnius occupied the stage of the Museum of Polytechnics for two full days (although still under the flag of the Soviet Union). In 1988, the Chekasin quartet celebrated its triumph at the Munster Jazz Festival in West Germany, when it played an encore for one hour, keeping the audience standing.
Summarising the tendencies in Lithuanian jazz of the 1980s, we can assert that two jazz cultures formed at that time. They were different in stylistic, historical and aesthetic respects, and even geographically. Traditional American jazz was performed in Klaipėda and Kaunas, while Vilnius gave birth to a trend whose aesthetic approach was based on new European jazz. These two tendencies developed concurrently, according to the principle of quite comfortable dualism, and did not merge until Lithuania regained its independence and turned to the free market. This topic deserves wider discussion, and is analysed in the article “Two Cultures”.6
We can only regret that it was impossible at that time to record the most spectacular performances by Lithuanian jazz musicians, which took place in cities of the Soviet Union, and particularly abroad. We have to rely on the memories of contemporaries and recordings from Lithuanian National Radio and the Vilnius Recording Studio, which, fortunately, contain the best examples of Lithuanian jazz, almost unknown to wider international audiences due to the long cultural isolation and lack of information.

Oleg Molokoyedov (1947–2022), a pianist, jazz critic, composer, pedagogue and publicist, studied composition at the Lithuanian Conservatoire (under Professor Antanas Račiūnas), and journalism at the Latvian State University. In 1970, he began collaborating with Chekasin, becoming a participant in many of his ensembles and projects. From 1981, he taught jazz improvisation and piano in the popular music department at the Balys Dvarionas Music School. Together with Chekasin, he developed an original methodology for teaching jazz improvisation. He is one of the founders of the Vilnius Jazz Quartet. In 1989, he was elected editor-in-chief of the jazz federation magazine of the former Soviet Union.



1 Muzikos enciklopedija, Vol. 1. Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidybos institutas, 2000, p. 280.
2 A можно ли так? C60 25691 009, Melodiya, 1987.
3 In the article “Oh, It was Like This: From the Memories of a Jazz Veteran” (Publika, No 3/4, 1992), Liudas Šaltenis wrote that in 1985, while on holiday in Armenia in the autumn, he discussed with Petrosian at the Creative House in Dilijan the problem that had not been solved of performing a concerto for voice and orchestra. The work was written for the soloist Tatevik Oganesian. The big bands of Helsinki Radio, Lundstrem and Orbelian declined to perform the concerto: the score turned out to be too complicated for them. Šaltenis advised Petrosian to try Čekasin. The maestro was greatly offended by the fact that he was offered a group of students, but Šaltenis brought a copy of the score to Vilnius. Chekasin became interested, and more than a month later the premiere of the concerto for voice took place at the Kaunas and Vilnius Philharmonic Orchestra (editor's note, Rūta Skudienė).
4 Moshkow, Cyril. “Russia“, The History of European Jazz. Equinox, 2018, p. 417.
5 C60 23447 000, Melodiya, 1986.
6 Молокоедов, Oлег. Две культуры, Геликон, 1989, p. 30–33.