Back in Lithuania's first period of independence (1918-1940), the country was part of swinging Europe. Nearly every Lithuanian town had its own jazz band, and traditional jazz repertoire was performed by prestigious orchestras under the leadership of Mykolas Hofmekleris, Abraomas Stupelis, Danielius Pomerancas. True, the academic public was not particularly enamoured with this type of music, and in 1925 the Lithuanian press was encouraging the country to follow the example of England - to resist jazz music and dancing as being devoid of taste and culture - even to the extent of outlawing it in some restaurants. Today this information not only proves that jazz did exist in Lithuania, it is also an indicator of how alien it was to the Lithuanian mentality - the fact which could probably explain some of the trends in present-day Lithuanian jazz as well. Ultimately, jazz was being played back then, with the first official Lithuanian jazz orchestra (leader Abraomas Stupelis) launched under the auspices of Kaunas Radio in 1940. The musicians improvised freely and with confidence, and the band fulfilled all the requisite jazz orchestra standards. Unfortunately, it survived only until WWII.
After the war, when it became dangerous even to use this name, "jazz bands" vanished from Soviet occupied Lithuania. Jazz was prohibited during the Cold War for being pro-American. The cultural ideology of that period was reflected in such ludicrous phrases as "one step from saxophone to knife", "jazz - the fat man's music", and "jazz players today - traitors tomorrow". Retreated to the underground, jazz became a kind of resistance to what was happening this side of the iron curtain, and a link to what was going beyond - a manifestation of free spirit.
Jazz came to the surface again in Lithuania during Khrushchev's "thaw" period, with a growing number of jazz ensembles and increasingly skilled musicians. Jazz was being played in youth cafes (naturally under the vigilant eye of the KGB), which also became venues for lectures and discussions. Finally, in 1961, jazz was acknowledged in academic circles as well - it entered the Lithuanian State Conservatoire (present Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre) in the form of a three-day student academic society conference dedicated to jazz, followed by a jazz concert. The date is sometimes referred to as the official birth of jazz in Lithuania.
A trio called GTCh (Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov, Vladimir Chekasin), formed in 1971, became a real breakthrough, dislodging deep-rooted norms, and even changing official attitudes towards jazz. The legendary group was the driving force in the evolution of jazz in Lithuania, and laid the foundation for a Lithuanian jazz school; their creative principles continue to be developed by Lithuanian jazz musicians to this day.
Jazz is open to the influences of various cultures of the world, and alongside the cosmopolitanism characteristic of the patriarchs of Lithuanian jazz, attempts were made to infuse it with Lithuanian folk music tradition. For nearly a quarter of a century, Lithuanian jazz musicians have been exploring various possibilities to use the folk music in jazz: from improvisations on themes of folk songs, development of characteristic motifs, imitations of typical timbres and intonations - to the manifestation of local and national character on the most profound level and within the smallest details - to collage. Another disctinctive trend in contemporary Lithuanian jazz is different combinations of jazz and classical idioms.
Lithuanian jazz is no longer terra incognita to jazz afficionados. Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov, Vladimir Chekasin, Petras Vyšniauskas, Vytautas Labutis, Dainius Pulauskas, Liudas Mockūnas, and others - these names are known and acknowledged world-wide. Lithuanian jazz is an integral part of the music world of today, a multi-faceted phenomenon with a vast stylistic spectrum, rich in emotion and expression.
© Jūratė Kučinskaitė