There’s a famous photo of Louis Armstrong that the young Valery Ponomarev first saw in Amerika Magazine sold in Russia during the Cold War. He decided to paint his own version of it in watercolor. He had already been grabbed by American jazz and the painting is a symbol of his creativity and free spirit.
Valery moved to the US from his native Russia in 1973. Since then, he’s as much a part of the American jazz scene as are all the big names he mentions: Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker and his musical fulcrum Art Blakey.
He shares every measure of his journey in his first book, “On the Flip Side of Sound,” published in 2009. His early testimonials adorn the first pages and read like a Who’s Who of the iconic mid-century US scene. He shares his mind-blowing stories that pulse off the pages. Valery’s newest book is a true labor of love and acknowledges the philosophy and the genius of bandleader Art Blakey, with whom he has worked (what a pipe dream for an adolescent in 1970s Russia!). “University of Jazz Messengers: Art Blakey’s Passwords to the Mystery of Creating Art and Universal Success” (2020) (his doctoral dissertation, by the way) is now out on Amazon.
My mother sent me all the photos that I used to have on my walls when I first heard jazz music at age 15. There’s a photo sketched in pencil of myself with the trumpet. I didn’t know how to hold the trumpet yet. I was a prodigy, hearing American jazz for the first time. I was swept off my feet with the clouds of truth and real expression. It was overwhelming. Art Blakey, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker are a projection of that truth for me. I learned to identify what I liked. The music is about the positive, looking into the future; a surge, growth, development, evolving. Jazz keeps evolving just like any language. The first time I heard it, I knew right then that was the music I wanted to play and that’s the goal of my life until this day.
I always knew, even when I was a kid in Russia…I remember walking to the skating rink but knowing I would end up somewhere else; I didn’t know exactly where. When I heard jazz music I said that’s my star, my matrix, a dream that was somehow in me already. I was already without my own will.
In those times jazz music was looked upon like it was foreign, from the West, from the US. And whoever listened to VOA [Voice of America radio] they were really under suspicion because they were listening to Western information. At one point they stopped the news but the music they left alone so you could still listen to it. Willis Conover was running the jazz hour program on VOA and that program went out all over Europe. The whole world was mesmerized by jazz music. America really gave jazz to the world.
When I first heard “Moanin’” by Art Blakey I was totally swept off my feet. I went looking for records on the black market.
When I came to New York in 1973 I was bug-bitten. I was the person running around the city sitting in. It was at Churchill’s on 3rd and 28th and it was beautiful and excellent, really swinging. I sat in with everybody…the only one I was missing was Art Blakey because he was on tour in Japan. One day a friend called me and said Art is at the Five Spot.
I realized I needed to write this book, “The University of Jazz Messengers,” so I wouldn’t forget the events. The guiding idea of writing it was Art Blakey saying “truth is stranger than fiction. If you know the truth, don’t be afraid to say it. And buy my records!”
When people talk to me they want to hear that because I came from Russia I went to jail because I played jazz, but that happened in the past when people could have literally gone to jail for listening to US programs on shortwave radio. It was not happening by the time I came to jazz. I played at the Youth Café in the very center of Moscow and it was open every day of the week. At first it was open for foreign tourists only. Muskovites couldn’t get in! But slowly it opened for everybody. They wanted to show the world that Moscow has everything, we don’t prohibit anything, we’ve even got a jazz club.
I can read, write, compose and arrange. I studied. But I was self-taught in a way that I was finding out info on my own. It was so appealing to me; it was so mine. I had to learn the language and speak it properly. When they talk about me playing, they say, “Val speaks jazz without any accent.”
There’s no point writing music or reading music if you don’t like it. You gotta play right and express what you truly like. It really awakens the human emotion. That you really feel it moves you; that’s what you should write and play.
The topic of my new book fascinates me. It was in my mind for a very long time, ever since I met Art Blakey. The idea of the book is about the music as a university because he had a load of knowledge and I was so fortunate to get that knowledge from the horse’s mouth. The essence is that he kept repeating certain postulates that made a lot of sense. Things like, “Look happy!”
You learn it from practice, not from books and a teacher, but from transcribing and analyzing music. I discovered for myself when I was around 18 and knew that there were parts of speech that musicians repeat from one key to another. Analyze it, figure out every note, transcribe it to every key, and practice it and apply it to your own solos.
Before the pandemic I played at Zinc Bar, a real jazz club in the tradition of the best times in jazz music. I just played a gig at the Cotton Room in Manhattan and Soapbox Gallery in Brooklyn. Another club that is also in this tradition is Small’s. I’ll be playing there.
Interview courtesy of the artist via a Zoom call. For more information, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valery_Ponomarev and find him on just about every jazz media outlet online.
Photos courtesy of the artist. Credit given where known. Top right photo of the artist (c) Mark Hadley.
(c) 2021 Debbie Burke