Sunday, April 17, 2011

Valery Ponomarev - “On the Flip Side of Sound” – An Autobiography

“If I had collected only one cent for each time I had to answer the questions: ‘How did you join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers?,’ ‘How did you escape from Russia?,’ and ‘How did you learn to play Jazz like that in Moscow?,’ I would be a billionaire by now. So I have decided to answer these questions once and for all [with this autobiography]
- Valery Ponomarev

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

If you’ve read any of Martin Cruz Smith’s wonderful stories featuring Investigator Arkady Renko of the Moscow Police Force [Gorky Park is probably the most famous of these], then you already know that Moscow can be a very strange place.

The city seems to be a microcosmic reflection of Russia itself, a country once described by Winston Churchill, the distinguished British statesman -from an era when there still were “distinguished statesmen” – as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Jazz trumpeter Valery Ponomarev describes Russia this way:

“One-sixth of all of the earth's land mass, Mother Russia - loved, hated, richest, poorest, the most ingenious, stupidest, generous, miserly, master, slave, forgiving, vindictive, the strongest, the weakest, God-fearing, atheistic, beautiful, ugly, loving parent, Cinderella's stepmother, drunk, sober, insane, sensible, sick, healthy, heroic, cowardly, treacherous, loyal, violent, peaceful, cruel, kind, vulnerable, secure, saint, sinner, criminal, lawful, transparent, mysterious, naive, sophisticated, backwards, in the space age, polluted, pure, vile, honorable, ruined, forever young and beautiful, its turbulent history, all 12 time zones of it, no longer yours, left behind.”

The quotation is taken from p. 52 of Valery’s book entitled On The Flip Side of Sound - one of the most unique Jazz autobiographies ever written.

Journey-of-a-soul books have always fascinated me for as Aristotle once said: “We are all different with regard to those things we have in common.”

So while we all have Life in common, we all live it differently.

And no Jazz musician that I’m familiar with has ever lived anything resembling the life of Valery Ponomarev.

Its easy to summarize the book as it deals with Valery adventures in attempting to leave the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, come to “The Jazz Headquarters of the World” [AKA – New York City] and become a member of the legendary drummer Art Blakey’s “Jazz Messengers.’”

In an earlier profile on Valery entitled Valery Ponomarev’s Muscle Jazz which you can locate in the JazzProfiles archives by going here, we shared many of the details of how Valery was inspired to become a Jazz trumpet player by Clifford Brown recordings and Willis Conover’s Voice of America Jazz radio programs.

Our essay on Valery also contains descriptions of the recordings that he has made under his own name for Dr. Mark Feldman’s Reservoir Records dating back to 1985.

But what is especially pleasing about On The Flip Side of Sound is learning Valery’s story by reading it in his own words.

“From the very beginning Art treated us sidemen like members of his own family, like we were his children. So many times he would stick up for us, go far out of his way to help us or protect our interests, sacrifice his own time or rest, I knew there was more to it than just joining a band and being able to play the music. Many of the worlds greatest musicians at different times had worked in the band; that alone had a profound significance,

"You joined a family," kept ringing in my ears. That was it. Now, for the first time on foreign soil I realized I was not alone, I had a family. And what a family at that: Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, etc were all my uncles and brothers, and, of course, with Art the father of us all.

He gave musical life to so many artists, young and unknown at first! Who else but a father can do that? [p. 121]

Or these words from Valery describing a “chance” encounter with a “… beautiful lady” after concluding a set with Art’s group at The Parisian Room in Los Angeles:

"I didn't quite get your name. What is it exactly?" I introduced myself and she made me repeat it several times, so she could learn to pronounce it correctly

"May I have your name"? I tried to sound as elegant as the lady, being prepared to repeat her name several times too, if necessary, so I could pronounce it properly,

"LaRue Brown "

"Excuse me "

"You heard me right"

"You're Clifford Browns wife?"


I knew their story very well. My hero's untimely death made me contemplate time and again: "Why is it that such geniuses die very often young?"

Pushkin, Lermontov, Mozart, Gagarin you name it, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, What is it? Maybe God calls them back because they are too good for this world.

What if they themselves, perfect minds, don't want to adapt to the imperfect world of ours and find a way out somehow leaving us here on our own devices? Who knows?

I told LaRue how her husband’s music inspired me to become a jazz musician, how I studied and practiced, how I escaped.” [pp. 195-196]

The following excerpt on the late Willis Conover is heartbreaking. Valery knew first-hand the value of a man who did more than anyone to spread the music of Jazz throughout the world in the 2nd half of the 20th century:

"[Maria Ciliberti, a long-time associate of Willis Conover explains]

Oh, Valery, if you only knew how hard it was for Willis all this years. They were attacking him from all sides: some using influences, some threatening to close the program. When I came back from the Soviet Union in the early 1960s and told people how popular Willis's JAZZ HOUR was over there, I found out from Willis that at that time, the bigwigs were talking about taking his program off the air with the excuse that it wasn't the VGA's job to "entertain" the listeners. Over the years, they would say to him: don't play this, don't play that, why are you playing this, play this one or that one. He never wavered. Willis used to call them the "bureaucraps". One reason these government bureaucraps opposed him is that no one could take credit for creating him or the program. Thankfully, Willis always had the support of the U.S. Information Agency directors all through the years as well as help on Capitol Hill. That's what kept the program alive, that as well as the fact that foreign service officers knew of the amazing popularity of Willis's programs overseas. And he was on contract and not a staff employee. Only a couple of years before he died they left him alone." I was in shock. 'Don't tell me who should play in my band' kept pulsating in my head.

Can you believe this - if not for Willis Conover all these boring protégés would have flooded the airwaves and I would've never heard Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, I would've never become a Jazz musician. Half the world wouldn't have a clue as per what real jazz was, would've been saying 'I don't like Jazz.' I am not the only one to tell you how much people around the world loved America and its spirit in those years. And that's largely because of Jazz…. [p 295].

The book is available from the Author House Press which you can locate by going here.

Some other comments about the book and its author are as follows:

"Valery Ponomarev’s story is electrifying and inspiring. Most of all, its living proof that dedication to truth and beauty can and must triumph over artificially imposed impediments ,"
- Bob Bernotas   (Jazz journalist, author, and radio host)

"I thought I knew this man — a great friend and colleague with whom I've often toured over the past 15 or so years — pretty well, but after reading this memoir, my eyes were really opened! Fascinating! Valery Ponomarev’s skill with storytelling nearly matches his prowess with the trumpet, and the content of his remarkable stories — and of course his outstanding playing — is rich, intelligent, humorous, and naturally, always swinging. Enjoy this book, then go listen to his music!"-
- Don Braden
Jazz Musician/Composer/Educator/Music Director, Wachovia Jazz
For Teens, the Litchfield Jazz Camp Visiting Professor, Prins Glaus Conservatoire

“… I learned of the people's of the USSR passionate love of jazz brought to them by the Voice of Americas jazz radio programs hosted by the inimitable Willis Conover, What would their impressions be, thought I? My answer came in Valery Ponomarevs wonderful book "On the Flip Side of Sound", Written with the same zest and inventiveness that Valery brings to his trumpet solos, this is an amazing saga of a musician's journey, marvelous adventures and unbelievable dream. As Valery s feet are firmly planted in both America and Russia, he brings the fabric and intricacies of both societies into sharp focus”
 - Maria Ciliberti
Retired VOA Russian-language broadcaster
Special Assistant, VOA USSR Division
Co-host of VOA jazz program "Conversations with Conover"
Coordinator, Worldwide VOA Listeners' Clubs

“’Paramon’ as his Russian peers affectionately call him belongs to a select group of musicians who also possess the ability to communicate through the written word. In this book he tells us, with humor and wisdom, about his interesting life.”
- Paquito D’Rivera

"Valery Ponomarev, in addition to being a great trumpeter, is a colorful storyteller with an impressive memory and a memorable and unique life story* From his days growing up in the Soviet Union through his tours as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers up to the current day, Ponomarev has experienced quite a bit. His frank memoirs balance wit with drama and contain many fresh tales that add to the history of jazz. Get this book!”
 - Scott Yanow (Author of ten jazz books including Trumpet Kings, Jazz On Film, The Jazz Singers and Jazz On Record 1917-76)

The crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD has developed the following videos to help provide a basis for an appreciating Valery’s sparkling, Jazz trumpet playing.  If you like your Jazz full of “juice and flavor,” then Paramon’s music will certainly peak your appetite.