Privaatse ja avaliku dünaamikast hilisstalinismiaegses Eesti džässikultuuris / The dynamics of the private and the public in Estonian jazz culture of the late Stalinist era


  • Heli Reimann Helsingi Kunstide Ülikool / University of the Arts Helsinki



džäss, Nõukogude Eesti, privaatsus, avalikkus, jazz, Soviet Estonia, private sphere, public sphere


Käesolev Eesti hilisstalinismiaegset džässi käsitlev artikkel väidab, et dualistlik mudel avalik/privaatne on ebapiisav džässi kui kultuurilise praktika mõistmiseks nõukogude ühiskonnas ning vaatleb kultuuri toimivana kolmes sotsiaalses ruumis – avalikus, mitteformaalses avalikus ja privaatses. Avalikus riigipoolse kontrolli all olevas sfääris eksisteeris džässikultuur avalikus meedias ja riiklike džässorkestrite tegevuses. Mitteformaalses avalikus kultuuriruumis tegutsesid džässmuusika huvilistest koosnevad amatöörorkestrid. Kõige privaatsemana, avalikkuse eest suhteliselt varjatud kujul arenes džässikultuur fanaatikutest sõpruskondade seas, kes muusikat kuulasid ja selle üle teoretiseerisid; samuti oli privaatne muusikaliste oskuste omandamine mitteformaalse õppimise kaudu.


The article aims to discuss the significance of jazz culture in Estonia during the late Stalinist era. In order to explicate the functioning of jazz as a cultural practice, the private/public division is employed while it is suggested that employing a ternary typology in which culture is seen as functioning in the public, the informal public and the private cultural spaces are best suited for conducting the analysis. The division makes it possible to: (1) show how jazz as a cultural practice functioned in Soviet sociocultural space; (2) to approach jazz culture as a whole, simultaneously creating a differentiation between different forms of jazz as a cultural practice; (3) to determine to which extent Soviet power succeeded in the regulation/ideologisation of jazz culture; and (4) to avoid a dualistic mode of thought that would oppose the private and the public.

Jazz culture existed in two forms in the state-controlled public sphere. One of them comprised the discourse of public media and the other consisted of state jazz orchestras. The discourse of public media is discussed on the basis of the articles that were published on the topic of jazz in the cultural weekly Sirp ja Vasar (Hammer and Sickle). It is in the journalistic discourse that the dynamics of the anti-jazz activities of the state authorities of the late Stalinist era appear as the most obvious; jazz gradually disappeared from the public scene as the political climate changed. In journalistic coverage, jazz was primarily turned into a tool of the ideological battle with the West that was led by pro-Soviet rhetoric and stayed separate from the actual music scene.

There were two state jazz orchestras during the period observed – the Jazz Orchestra of the Estonian State Philharmonic and the Jazz Orchestra of the Estonian Radio, and these functioned as part of the Soviet system of regulated and controlled cultural activities. The orchestras followed an all-Union pattern of institutionalisation according to which professional orchestras would be affiliated with local concert organisations and radio broadcasters. The sphere of activities of the orchestras was limited by their institutional affiliation. While the jazz orchestra of the philharmonic was a collective that mostly offered entertainment on all-Union concert tours, the Jazz Orchestra of the Radio was broadcast live twice a day in the 1940s. The orchestra reform that reflected the change in the ideological paradigm influenced the activities of both orchestras, bringing along changes in their names, repertoires and rosters.

The amateur orchestras active in the informal public sphere belonged to a cultural scene that was relatively less strictly regulated  in comparison with the public sphere. The activities of amateur orchestras were institutionalised as well – generally, they would be affiliated with an institution and were thus guaranteed space for rehearsals, some of the musical instruments and professional leadership. The orchestras were obliged to perform on state holidays and at events arranged by the host institution. Still, amateur collectives had a considerably greater freedom as concerned the organisation of their activities in the field of music. An important mode of activities was playing on dance nights; the moonlighting or haltura performances, as playing at dances was colloquially called by the musicians, constituted an important source of additional income for them. The activities of amateur orchestras were less strongly influenced by the changes related to the anti-jazz campaign of the late-1940s. Although obligatory ballroom dances were included, also “forbidden” pieces stayed in the repertoire; neither were saxophones excluded from among the orchestras’ instruments. Inventiveness, ritualization, humour and an ability to manoeuvre around in order to enact their musical goals were of vital importance in the daily lives of the musicians.

The example of the collective named Swing Club can illustrate the activities of musicians in the private sphere – among a circle of friends who were musicians and jazz fanatics. In a society that was anything but supportive of jazz, a microenvironment was built up in order to gain new knowledge and hone the existing skills in which discussions of music took place and musical experiments were made. Under the circumstances of Soviet scarcity, Estonian musicians had no access to records and radio and were the primary source of music. It was with the help of the radio that information was obtained about the latest trends in music and new repertoire was acquired. The main method of learning music was imitation, which is a typical mode of learning in the practice of jazz.

On the one hand, the ternary division of the private and the public enables us to see how jazz could exist in the Soviet sociocultural space; on the other hand, it makes it possible to approach jazz culture as a whole and speak of its different forms of manifestation. The journalistic discourse that traditionally should function as a reflection of and on the jazz scene rather turned into a mirror of the political situation under late Stalinism. Jazz became a tool in the battle against America and capitalism. As musical culture, jazz mostly appeared in two forms; as entertainment-oriented concert music and dance music. Considering the traditionally practical and theory-avoidant nature of both jazz as well as jazz musicians, Estonian jazz was exceptional due to the intellectualisation of the music in theoretical discussions. As an evidence of this tendency, the almanac of the Swing Club is a unique document that also deserves attention in a broader context of jazz history in general. 

Late Stalinism can be considered politically the most intolerant period in Estonian jazz history, when disappearance was immanent for the whole of jazz culture. Yet this did not happen, as also shown in the present article. Although jazz had been virtually obliterated from the state-controlled public sphere by 1950, it still survived on the more private, less controlled cultural scenes. The thoughts of Ustus Agur expressed in an interview concerning the activities of the Swing Club in the late 1940s and early 1950s can serve as proof of this:

We were rehearsing underground in the very sense of the word. As luck would have it, the control was not strict and we never had to cross paths with the officials. The director of the Sakala House of Culture, Fred Raudberg, supported our activities. Although he was a communist and aware of what we were doing, he protected us and helped us to keep our activities in secret. And he was honest. He was red on the outside and white on the inside – ’a radish’ as we would say in those times.

The situation in which jazz had disappeared from the public scene, yet lived on in private spaces can be referred to as a Soviet paradox. Aleksei Yurchak speaks of Soviet life as a paradoxical simultaneous existence of positive and negative values (Yurchak 2006: 10). In the case of jazz, we can figuratively speak of its simultaneous existence and non-existence – although jazz was forbidden, it could not be silenced. 


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Heli Reimann, Helsingi Kunstide Ülikool / University of the Arts Helsinki

Heli Reimann – PhD, muusikateadlane, järeldoktorant Helsingi Kunstide Ülikoolis (Sibeliuse akadeemia). Tema praeguseks uurimisvaldkonnaks on džässi ajalugu Eestis nõukogude perioodil.


Heli Reimann – PhD, musicologist, post-doctoral student in the University of the Arts Helsinki (Sibelius Academy). Current research area: history of jazz in Soviet Estonia.