A Romanian Jazz Rebel Drops a Bomb on Paris

Johnny Raducanu, Jazz Bestament (Paris 2005)

That’s not a typo. This is a Bestament, not a Testament.

Johnny Raducanu can call it anything he wants to call it. He has earned the right. Johnny was playing jazz in Romania in the Fifties, when he claims you could get arrested for whistling Gershwin. Revered as much by his compatriots for staring down authority as for his legendary performances, he played piano at a private audience for Duke Ellington in the Sixties in Bucharest, reducing America’s greatest jazz composer to tears.

A rebel to the core, Johnny, now in his late 70s, would have been a dissident in whatever society or country he’d have been born in. During the height of Ceaucescu’s dreary reign, 1980 to be precise, he yelled “Fuck the government!” repeatedly from the stage at Romania’s national jazz festival in Sibiu, with producers and camera crews begging him to pipe down. (I know, I was there to perform as his guest).

He used to complain that the trouble with the Romanian Communist Party was that there were no Communists in it, only dentists and goons and bureaucrats. In truth, the RCP often seemed to be a sort of Shopping Club run by the Sopranos. (It amazed JR to learn that just anybody could walk in and join the Party in the U.S.)

The fact that Raducanu is a Gypsy only made his unlikely career even more of a high-wire act. During his heyday, practically nothing except the occasional tennis player was getting out of Romania and coming to the West. The audience that would have dug him the most had no idea he existed. When I was in Bucharest, I couldn’t find anyone at the U.S. Embassy who had bothered to go and hear him play.

It may have been just as well. The only thing that irked him more than his own government was mine, and he’d have likely said so. I mentioned Nixon to him once, and he replied, “Fucking Pepsi Cola.” (Nixon had visited Bucharest, to pose with Ceausescu the “maverick,” and bottles of warm Pepsi had mysteriously appeared in his wake, people lining up for blocks to drink them down and hand the bottle back.)

I am quite certain he’s not giving Ceausescu’s successors any easy time of it, either. The thought of the trouble he’d have made in a corporate world is exquisite, cancelled only by the awareness that he’d have been too hip to get in the front door.

I hadn’t expected to be discussing Mel Lewis, Thad Jones and Bill Evans in Bucharest, and certainly not with someone who knew far more about them than I did. When I asked Johnny for some piano pointers, during a visit to his apartment, he jabbed a finger into my chest and said, “Monk.”

It wasn’t actually his apartment, it was his ex-wife’s. He claimed to live nowhere, and I believed him.

I rode with him in a train compartment once. Silent for long stetches, he’d turn from gazing out the window to say something like, “Mingus.” That would be the whole conversation. He didn’t have to say anything else. The way he said the name told you everything you needed to know.

Johnny speaks a macaronic pastiche of Romanian, French, American hipster, and Romani, with words from lots of other tongues thrown in when you least expect them. I asked him once what his first language was. “Bartok,” he replied. When I pressed the point, he claimed not to have learned any language, actually, but to speak them all.

Although he fronted some great bands, and was much-admired as a bassist by anyone fortunate enough to hear him, he’s always been at his best as a solo pianist. On this recording, a lifetime’s struggle with a complex art is distilled into an almost unbearable simplicity. The closest comparison I can make is to Monk’s late-period solo recordings for Black Lion, on which he seems to cast aside all mannerisms and quirks, and play the piano, at last, like a child.

With some of these tracks you’d think, “Anyone could play that.” Then you listen a little more, and he drops a couple of chord bombs on you, and you realize that, whether they could have or not, no one else has, and that you are listening to one of the world’s great artists.

Here’s a link to Johnny on iTunes, the only place you can hear him right now: http://tinyurl.com/yt52t2

Here’s a link to a good article on Johnny Raducanu, in which he has this to say about a hospital stay: “They took my heart out and washed it in a pisspot.

DAVID VEST can be reached through his web site at www.rebelangel.com, or at http://www.myspace.com/davidvest


DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.