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Jazz Corner: When Putin Summoned His Favourite Jazz Sax Player from Mumbai

Igor Butman was on an India tour when he was flown back to Russia for a day for a party. He was back on tour in Gurgaon the next day

Sunil Sampat Mar 22, 2022

Igor Butman during his performance at Tata Theatre, NCPA. Photo: Narendra Dangiya

With war clouds hovering menacingly over Europe – once again (you would think they might have learned from their escapades in 1914 and 1939), bad times and a terrible, uncertain future hovers over mankind.

I am willing to wager a lot in saying that no artist, musician, painter, writer or poet has ever waged a war at any time in the history of this earth. They are, in fact the ones to heal the wounds, to soothe jangled nerves and bring relief to the wicked fallout and misery of war. Who are these troubled souls who have gone into other people’s homes and claimed them – by foul, violent means?

Some years ago, a famous and very popular Russian jazz saxophonist, Igor Butman had come to India for a three-concert tour. With him was the beautiful jazz vocalist, Fantine (part Russian, part West Indian!), an accomplished young jazz pianist and others to complete a jazz sextet.

Butman had played before in Mumbai and New Delhi. He had been very popular with audiences in both cities as he played a mix of well-known jazz numbers with a popular tune thrown in to stir up the audience.

His concert tour of India in 2014 comprised of one show in Mumbai at the NCPA, another in New Delhi and a third in a hotel in Gurgaon (Gurugram).

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That was the plan but during his Mumbai gig, something strange and quite unprecedented took place. Butman got a phone call from Moscow, from none other than President Vladimir Putin. The supremo was throwing a party in the resort town Sochi for a few friends, and he summoned Butman to the venue to play for the entertainment of his buddies! Butman was to leave that very night from Mumbai. There was no room for discussion, much less for negotiation. When Shri Putin calls, you just go, comrade.

Butman surprised us all by saying that he would be back for the concert in Gurgaon the day after, missing just the New Delhi gig. Surprised, we asked how this was going to be logistically possible. “Mr. Putin is sending his private jet to take me to Sochi and then bring me back to New Delhi after his party,” was Butman’s matter-of-fact response. Speak of friends in high places!

True to his word, Butman was back for his third India concert. Needless to say, the New Delhi organizers were neither impressed nor happy about Putin’s intervention in the schedule that saw the Butman band without the leader playing to a disappointed New Delhi audience.

Trumpet playing jazz great Arturo Sandoval, pained by the plight of the Ukrainian people has composed and played a piece called “March to the indomitable Ukrainian people”.

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Sandoval can perhaps feel the pain of the Ukrainian people. His plight was somewhat similar in being steamrolled by a strong dictator. He was born and raised in Cuba and as a young person was jailed by the Fidel Castro-led government just for listening to jazz on the radio. Cuba had banned the playing or even listening to jazz, seen as a tool of imperialism. Subsequently, Sandoval was able to defect to the U.S.A. He lives there now. Dizzy Gillespie was his mentor and remains his inspiration to this day.

And speaking of Gillespie, the ultimate comment about jazz, war and such matters came from him. He had said, “If everyone in the world listened to jazz, there will never be another war!”

Why don’t people listen to this great wisdom and put on their jazz records?

Maybe Igor Butman wasn’t playing jazz for Putin bhai that day in Sochi A case of not just jazz by the bay.

Sunil Sampat is a jazz critic and Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone India. Write to Sunil at [email protected]

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