A Sound Outlook on Life

It’s 11:30 PM, Bishkek. A muggy Thursday night in a scorching hot August. The streets sing with this city’s lullaby – the rattle of patched-together Soviet-era Ladas, the rumble of immense tractor trailers heavy with cheap Chinese goods, and the hum of the glitterati’s
sleek Lexus SUVs.

The night breeze scratches my throat with the rockdust of the Alatoo mountains, which radiate a serene menace under the stark moonlight. These nights, though, there’s another sharp edge in the air. Parliamentary elections are coming up. The government’s just cancelled a treaty with the Americans and thrown the country’s fate in with the Russians, signing up for the new customs union. A hard roll of the die, and the anxious silhouettes in the brightly-lit windows of the new prime minister’s office know it. Political gambling’s a dangerous addiction in a city that likes its frustrations served like a shot of Bohemian-style absinthe – sweet and on fire. I’m standing outside Studio 247 on Erkindik, waiting for my date. We’re late for the show, which started half  an hour ago. The daughter of a painter from the southern countryside, she’s a born-and-raised city-girl who still runs on Kyrgyz time. But when she finally arrives, she doesn’t disappoint – wearing a short black dress dotted by white grinning skulls, the girl’s a masterpiece. “Am I late?” she asks. I lie and say she’s right on time.

Inside we’re greeted by dim lights, the soft murmur of expats and locals huddled around tables, and the deft melodies of the jazz band on the stage. I immediately steal a glance at the small ensemble: Eldiyar Bakchiev seems trancelike as he strums the strings of his contrabass, and Aziz Gapar pours the audience a smoky 12-year-old Lavagulin through his sax. Nourgiz Chekilova, her voice full and velvety, glistens like a shard of moonlight. And just off to the side, grooving on the electric piano, is Steve Swerdlow, the real reason I’m here.

We take a seat at a table in the dead centre of the room. The waiter, a nervous village boy with Russian worse than mine, offers us an alcohol menu. We order a chainik of green chai and three piyalas, not including  the extra one that’s usually served to help the steeping. He gives us a befuddled look, then hurries away. My date slips me a devilish smile then slowly shuts her eyes, letting the music slide over her as my arm slides around her waist.

I scan the room while pouring us two cups. There’s a pair of men to our left, three tables over. Hulking shoulders and biceps that strain the fabric of their fake designer blazers, and jaws much too square for a joint like this. A vague tension permeates the way they’re leaning back in their chairs, not to mention the distinct lack of any kind of beverage on their table. No, these gentlemen are not here because of their love of jazz. Their gazes, steady and predatorial, are fixed on Swerdlow.

The band is closing out a set with “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, with Swerdlow giving his best Louis Armstrong. A surprisingly upbeat tune for this downbeat city, but then, I’ve gathered that Swerdlow’s a surprisingly optimistic kind of guy – that is, despite his day job as Human Rights Watch’s Central Asia Researcher. An enthused round of applause and the band bows out for a break. I catch Swerdlow’s eye just before he descends from the stage. After a few pumping handshakes and thank-you-so-much-for-coming’s, he pulls up a chair at our table. My date beams as I introduce her, and while Swerdlow briefly chats her up, I take the opportunity to glance over at his fans again. Sure enough, their eyes are locked onto me with the eidetic gaze of a CCTV camera. Well, this is going to make renewing my press accreditation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs an interesting process. As intended, my date’s charmed the heck out of Swerdlow. He pours himself a cup of tea and downs it with a boyish shyness. “I focus mainly on Uzbekistan and…” A pause, then an uncomfortable shift in his seat. “I’m a Central Asia researcher. But I also consider myself a human rights advocate.” Another pause. “And I’m also a lawyer by training.” “But you have this ‘other thing’ you do on the side…” My date remarks with an exquisitely piqued eyebrow. Swerdlow leans back in his chair and permits himself a grin. “Yes, I’m also a Jazz pianist.” How he found his way to Bishkek playing Jazz and working in human rights is just the background to the story I’m here to get. Swerdlow takes us through it. He studied history and Slavic languages and literature as an undergraduate in Berkeley-California, and also spent a year in Krasnodar studying anthropology and ethnic minorities in the Caucasus at Kuban State  University. While there, he volunteered with civil society organisations that were monitoring xenophobia and ethnic discrimination against migrants. This was when he began to learn about Central Asia, as many of the migrants in that part of Russia came from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

2By 2001, Swerdlow was studying international human rights, Central Asian languages, and Georgian at Columbia University’s School of International Public Affairs and the Harriman Institute. Along the way he had managed stints in Ukraine and Russia working for Project Harmony and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “Then I went to law school.” Swerdlow pauses and laughs, as though still surprised by his own choice so many years later. He returned to Berkeley-California and studied more international human rights law, as well as branched off into migration law, refugee law. He also made few more furloughs to Russia and Georgia. However, once Swerdlow had his law degree in hand, “I took a little detour by working on human rights in the United States.” That detour took him to Los Angeles and then San Francisco, as a law clerk for a federal judge and then as a civil and consumer rights lawyer for three years representing mostly injured individuals against American corporations. Swerdlow and his colleagues also took a case concerning torture of Iraqis in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, as well as a case relating to abuses by multinationals during the apartheid era in South Africa. “It was a really good experience, but I felt myself wanting to use my language skills and be on the field again,” he remarks. And sure enough in 2010, along came an opportunity to work for the Watch in Tashkent. He leapt at the chance and has been with them ever since,  having also worked in Almaty, Berlin, San Diego, and now Bishkek. As he talks, Swerdlow checks the chainik. It’s empty, but he’s still got a lot to pour out. I promptly wave over the waiter and order another round. My date puts the first tough question to him, asking why he got involved with human rights work in the post-Soviet world to begin with.

“Well, you know, I guess for a kid from West Los Angeles who was searching for meaning, there was something about Dostoevsky that caught my interest. I just felt there was a wisdom, a depth, and clich as this sounds, a true exploration of the question of the soul in Russian literature that opened a new world for me.” He takes a moment to meditate upon a tiny puddle of cooled tea at the bottom of his cup. “I think Dostoevsky’s writings touched on matters of faith but also politics and the sources of injustice in the world. I had to understand the milieu that such depth came from.”

The waiter returns and pours Swerdlow a cup of steaming fresh chai. “A little bit later, there was a recognition. I think it happened when I got to Russia as a student and was witnessing a society in transition. I came across activists and dissidents from organisations such as Memorial, and this whole intelligentsia that was not indifferent to the direction of their country. I think their courage was inspiring, and it became important for me to get involved, to try to both understand and contribute to the extension of basic human rights in the former Soviet world.”

After taking another grateful swig, Swerdlow continues. “But even when I was practicing law formally, I didn’t feel as much like a real advocate as when I got this position, and now I really do feel like I’ve found my dream job, you know, found an organisation and a role that allows one to truly advocate on behalf of those that could use the help to protect their rights.” “I think the opportunity to truly advocate for human rights positions, whether it’s with diplomats or foreign government officials, is more liberating and more fulfiling than litigation. The realm I’m dealing with now, like not being beaten and not being tortured, or
being able to cross a border, or being allowed to speak or write one’s mind, is foundational.”

Swerdlow nods, more to himself than to us. “In the human rights advocacy context, we use the media, more traditional methods of going to meet the policy-makers, and different methods like making films. We’re not constrained by the conventions of litigation, and we’re able to be creative.”  There’s my cue. “So, why Jazz?” I ask.

Now Swerdlow lights up. “Jazz musicians are some of the most interesting, creative thinkers. They’re often socially-minded non-conformists and innovative, like Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday, and I think the whole music form rises from a milieu of social disenfranchisement on the part of the African-American community in the United States, and of course also to some extent is influenced by Eastern European Jewry and Roma.”

A veritable cascade of musicians and songs pours out from Swerdlow like the tea from the pot, and it’s no surprise to hear Django Reindthart’s name, as well as Adalgiso Ferraris’ version of “Ochi chyornye” (“Dark Eyes”) by the Ukrainian poet Yevhen Hrebinka, which was famously covered by Harry Parry’s sextet in 1941.

“I think that fusion, especially in New York, of Ashkenazi and African-American music, shows a deep link musically and spiritually between the post-Soviet region and the United States, and I think Jazz was really not only popular during the Soviet period but it was a movement of non-conformism within the Soviet Union.”

My date tilts her head with surprised fascination. “Wait, Jazz was here?”

“Definitely! To people like Josef Stalin, Jazz represented a bourgeois capitalist imperialist artform, but to people who loved it and listened to it, Jazz represented underground culture, freedom, non-conformity. One of the really interesting things from the Soviet context was that you had local iterations of Jazz, like Azerbaijani Caz-mu am, a fascinatingly free and creative artform.”

Swerdlow gets back on track, continuing his story: in 1997, while still an undergrad, he found himself in St. Petersburg, where he says he looked for jobs playing piano so he could keep practicing his craft. Remarkably, he got gigs in no-nonsense joints like the Grand
Hotel Europe on Nevsky Prospect and Sadko Restaurant.

He’s got fond memories of St. Petersburg. “During the Soviet period, Sadko was this free beacon of cosmopolitan music. What it was for me to play Jazz in Russia at that time was to gain entry into situations that a normal American student or expat couldn’t get. You know, I was privy to bars and establishments where the Russian mafia was hanging out. It was a way to observe Russian life, learning about their musical taste.”

Speaking of observing life, I take another quick look at Swerdlow’s two fans. One of them, the more sullen of the pair, is bent over and typing into his smartphone – a bad sign. The other’s got a bead on the pianist. Either Swerdlow doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, because
he downs another cup and really lets his thoughts flow.

“I think that Jazz is first and foremost freedom,” he declares with a conviction as clear as a note from his electric piano. “Improvisation is about expressing familiar idioms in a creative and new way. It’s about ‘speaking’ with other musicians freely in a non-conformist style, innovating on the spot. Jazz takes a lot of skill and requires reflection, space, patience, and tolerance, a lot of qualities that I think are pretty essential to any kind of successful human rights work one will engage in. And actually, these are necessary preconditions for not only human rights work, but for a flourishing human rights environment, too.” He goes right for it: “What I think is so attractive to me about Jazz and maybe has a connection to human rights is just its outlook. We need individuality, creativity, and hope. There’s a strain of Jazz which is very optimistic, and that’s something that attracts me.”

It doesn’t attract only Swerdlow. My date leans forward, resting her graceful chin in her elegant hand, and locks eyes with him. For his coda, Swerdlow doesn’t miss a beat: “But one thing I like about Jazz is that there’s a  certain balance between respect for what comes before and space for what’s new, sort of egalitarian rather than nihilist. There has to be some intergenerational respect, there has to be an acknowledgement of the achievements of the past, with an openness to what can come next and to improve upon it. Ideally, that’s what democracy is: room for innovation, rather than exploitation.”

Chekilova and her boys are back on the stage, prepping their instruments for the next set. It’s time to get back at it. Swerdlow takes a final swig of chai and thanks us for coming by to listen to him play. My date nearly swoons as he leaves. With a surprising smoothness, he weaves his way through the tables and sits back behind his piano. Just then, Swerdlow smiles and gives his two ominous fans in the fancy blazers a wink, and without further ado, starts to play.

“As long as there is democracy, there will be people wanting to play jazz because nothing else will ever so perfectly capture the democratic process in sound. Jazz means working things out musically with other people. You have to listen to other musicians and play with them even if you don’t agree with what they’re playing. It teaches you the very opposite of racism and anti-Semitism. It teaches you that the world is big enough to accommodate us all.” – Wynton Marsalis.

Christopher Schwartz