Interview with Oleg Lundstrem

Первый состав оркестра. Харбин, 1934 г.

1936: A Russian band, headed by Oleg Lundstrem, earned its way to fame while playing at the local Paramount Club.

2002: Oleg returns to the restored Paramount — this time as the conductor of the Russian State Indoor Jazz Band.

Oleg Lundstrem’s journey highlights the music history of Russia across the world. His name, to some extent, implies jazz in Russian. However, what is not known that it was in Shanghai, while playing at the Paramount, that Olega first came to be known as a jazz musician.

With the passage of time, many things faded out of people’s minds. But Longst’s return brought back memories of Shanghai that shone in neon light, women clad in chi-pao and jazz hummed from city corners.

Of course, I believe that I influenced a lot of people when I first came here. We (the band conducted by Longst) were popular at that time, which, to me was also surprising. As you may well know, when we first came here in 1936 we were a group of kids then, basically amateur artists. However, after performing here for four years, we became the largest and the biggest band in Shanghai.

At that time, we lived in No.10 Route-de-Grouchy (today’s No.4 of the Yanqing Rd). When a German TV crew came to Shanghai to do a story on me they couldn’t find the house. I helped them to find the place. I remember an old Chinese lady attended the door. She recognized me immediately and welcomed us with tears in the eyes. She told us that at that time she was just a little girl and listened to music everyday. »The music came from that floor,» she said, pointing to the fourth floor, where we had lived when we played in Paramount.

I nearly forgot to tell you. This is my second visit to the city. Last time was a decade ago with other members of the band, when we met an old man of roughly the same age as this lady. He must be just a little boy during the end of 1930s. He reminded me something that I had almost forgotten as I rented the house from a tailor. It’s true.

Longst loves China, especially Harbin, where he first organized the jazz band. But it was in Shanghai where he made a name for himself.

Paramount is located at the corner of today’s Yuyuan Road and Huashan Road. It had been an aristocratic and a fashionable ballroom in Shanghai during its heydays in the Thirties. When I performed there, every morning I read newspaper, which was published both in Russian and English. My English was fairly good at that time. One day, I found an advertisement on the »North China Daily News», which said: «Welcome to Paramount! Olega Longst comes from Russia to play for you!» It wasn’t quite true. My band and I come from Harbin. I rushed to Paramount’s manager to ask him to change the advertisement.

»If I am mistaken, you are Russian,» the manager said. I said yes. »So the rest is up to me. It’s just an advertisement. Don’t read too much into it.» I had no choice but to agree with him, because nothing was mentioned in the contact about the advertising. It was my fault.

The city’s night seemed rich and peaceful in the neon lights and music, and the air was full of fragrance. But it still wasn’t ‘s right in Longst’s mind.

Another story occurred during wartime. On the south side of today’s Middle Yan’an Road stood some famous ballrooms — Kasanova, Green Spoto — to name just a few. In addition to the Paramount, we (the band) also performed at the Green Spoto. The inflation was very high at that time. The salary we signed in the contact would be worthless in the next month. At that time I was not only the conductor of the band but its manager as well. I had an obligation to look after the welfare of my band members as well.

I knocked at the door of the manager’s office. A pale looking Chinese man sat there. «Why have you come here,» Mr. Li, the manager of the ballroom asked me politely. I told him: «Because of the increasing inflation, I have come to ask for a raise in pay for my staff.» Mr. Li pulled out a pistol, loaded it and put it on the desk with his hand on the trigger and said: «Please tell your staff, that I have suggested not to ask for any more money.» Well, we still had two months left of our contract. So we had no choice but to continue performing. But five days later, when we were just getting down to our regular business, we heard a huge blast. All of us rushed out of the ballroom as fast as we could. When the smoke cleared, we discovered that nothing was left of the ballroom, except the stage where we performed. Later, we were told it was the work of rival gangsters. That was the end of Green Spoto.

We had also played for two and half years in the Majestic ballroom. To me, the Majestic was the most open ballroom. We were the only band, which was signed up for more than a year. Generally speaking, Majestic changed its band every six months to avoid being repetitive to its customers. For a long time many customers came to Majestic just to listen to out band. Majestic and the Grand Theatre were in the same building, Majestic on the 2nd floor and the theatre was located upstairs. Different from most other theatres, which had performances every two and half-hours, Majestic had three performances everyday: at noon, in the evening at about 5:00 p.m. and in the night at 8:00. People with tickets for the later two performances would go dancing in Majestic ballroom first, and then went to the theatre through an inter-tunnel. Before every performance, they would show some short film. For those arriving late, Russian girls, carrying a red lantern, would guide them to their seats.

We had days off every week, so I could enjoy nearly every symphony concert in Shanghai. Even during my working hours, I would find some time to go for concerts. For example, the symphony concert held in Lanxin Theatre was from 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening. At such times, we would begin our performance at 8:00 in the night.

When we became a professional band in Shanghai, we had 17 band members. We played popular American dance-music, some Russian music, adapted by myself. Then we introduced the phono-film, We also played some popular film-music such as »Broadway Music». In short, we played almost all music that we had heard and liked it very much.

In addition to our band, there were many other bands playing in the city, some from America, and some escaping Nazi-occupied Hungary, and even from Czechoslovakia.

After all these years, Shanghai has developed tremendously. Pu Dong area, which was a countryside just ten years ago, has become a financial zone with people from all over the world working there. Now it all also houses the splendid Television Tower — Oriental Pearl. It is said that the Chinese are very smart people. But to me, there are smart and stupid people all over the world. What I think is different is that the Chinese are also very wise people. They protect their tradition. Their views about the world are more pure than Europeans.

In the West, money is everything. Even their novels also focus on money, beginning always from legacy — who has more and who had little — who has the right for the money and who does not… I must say, this place is not like that.

I, as well as other members of the band, are looking forward to our second innings here, for another performance by us in this historic city. Shanghai is my second hometown. I am an old Russian-Shanghainese!

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