A jazz musician from any part of the world is to be admired for keeping the art form alive. And 22-year-old Anastasia Ivanova is always finding new ways of expressing her devotion to jazz, via her extraordinary musical talents as a trombonist, singer, and dancer. She also has an infectious joie de vivre, and undeniable charm and energy, and a playful sense of humor, making her someone well worth getting to know.
She hails from the town of Snezhinsk, located nearly a thousand miles east of Moscow. “Music has always been an important part of my life,” she says. Her mother, Natalia Ivanova-Kaluzhnaya, is a classical pianist, so music has long been in the family. “She was my first musical teacher. I came to the music school when I was four, and little by little started to learn piano.” But then she discovered the joys of singing, and, a bit later, the world of jazz. She credits that discovery to her friends, pianists Gennady Pystin and Dmitry Karpov. “That’s when I really got a ‘jazz vaccine‘ and fell in love with improvisation!” as she emulated the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and contemporary Canadian singer Nikki Yanofsky.
She took some singing classes at a young age, with her talent and potential already obvious. So, while her classmates were given songs easy for kids to learn, Anastasia was given more sophisticated jazz standards to tackle. Aside from attending a few master classes from Russian singers later on, she has been mostly self-taught, learning from recordings by the American greats.
“I loved singing more than playing piano because it was way easier to me, and I didn’t have to think much. So, I participated in different vocal competitions, jam sessions, and did solo gigs as a singer, and got high awards. My mom and I went almost all around Russia.” One of these competitions had famed jazz musician and big band leader Igor Butman and pianist/composer Anatoly Kroll as the judges. “That’s how they’ve noticed me. But the years flew, and I felt I needed to find something more difficult.”
In 2014 or thereabouts, she discovered the Sant Andreu Jazz Band (SAJB) of Barcelona, via the hundreds of YouTube videos the project has posted in the past decade. For those unfamiliar with the SAJB, it is a non-profit project created and led since 2006 by Barcelona musician/teacher Joan Chamorro, in which the most promising young musicians in the city (ranging in age roughly from eight to 21) learn and play a sprawling catalog of American jazz and big band standards, with a healthy dose of Brazilian bossa nova thrown in. The band’s reputation for producing remarkably skilled and charismatic young musicians and singers has been growing worldwide. Once Anastasia found the videos of the SAJB’s performances on YouTube, “I fell in love with their music! I saw little children playing in a band, but when I closed my eyes I heard professional musicians.”
She and Chamorro began to communicate online. “At that time, Joan and I were Facebook friends, and I saw a video of Camille Bertault that he posted. She sang a five-minute transcribed solo of John Coltrane on a tune “Mr.P.C..” ‘Hmmm…,’ I thought, ‘this smells like a challenge.’ ”
That’s one thing necessary to know about Anastasia: she is always looking to challenge herself and push herself towards whatever goal she, or someone else, has placed in front of her.
She recorded her own version of “Mr. P.C.” and sent her video to Chamorro. “I was so shocked to see such amazing feedback from many people in comments under my video. Joan told me I did very well and asked if I can play any instrument. I had nothing to say as I was familiar only with piano, but at the same time I couldn’t say strongly ‘I’m a pianist’! But anyway, I said that, and he gave me the homework to transcribe another solo on piano. I felt it was impossible, and I started to think I needed to find a wind instrument, because it’s only one melody, when, on piano, there are block chords, extreme passages, and in general it’s a harmonical instrument—and secondly, I wanted to be like one of the girls from his big band. Joan and all the girls, like Eva [Fernandez], and Andrea [Motis], they all are such a big inspiration for me because I saw them when I was just singing, I wasn’t playing an instrument. Well, I played piano because my mom wanted me to (laughs). And I saw the girls singing and playing instruments and thought I could do something like that. I realized that if I work hard, I can also combine several roles at once.”
At the time, however, there was only one instructor on any brass instrument in her music school, “I had the only trombonist at the music school, so I didn’t have any choice…but a really good one, Sergei Smirnov.” With that being her only real option as an aspiring jazz musician, she began taking lessons as a classical trombonist when she was 15, while covertly learning jazz on her own. “It continues even now, because I study classical trombone in Gnesin’s college in Moscow.”
She has much to say about Moscow’s jazz scene. “Moscow is a great big city with lots of opportunities! Musicians around, new friends, endless jam sessions, workshops, gigs—all of this creates a special environment to grow professionally…I enjoy listening to Moscow Ragtime Dixieland Band of Konstantin Gevondyan. I’m so happy they allow me to join to their music and play together on stage. What a great motivation to learn new standards every week! Also, there’s a Gnesin’s academy nearby, and there is jazz! There are talented students, jazz professors and most importantly, the orchestra!”
She went from asking to sit in on rehearsals just to listen, to getting offers to perform with the orchestra as a soloist on the big stages of Moscow. “When I came there for the first time, the director of the band, Anatoly Kroll, heard me singing before, but never tromboning. Anyway, he allowed me to join in with the band and play parts during the rehearsals. It’s a great experience that I have once a week! So this 2000 km moving from Snezhinsk to Moscow was definitely worth it!”
One of Anastasia’s earliest and most enthusiastic advocates was Bob Kemper, an Oklahoma City musician. “We met on Facebook,” she explained in 2020, “and he was one from many people that said nice words about my scatting under that video that I sent to Joan. I liked his comment and texted back. Then we started communicating more and more. I know it might sound strange, a 13- year-old-girl and a man in his 70s…We have so much in common and I had never talked to a foreigner before, so it was so very interesting, I improved my English a lot…Then one day he said that he has a brand new trombone mouthpiece that was sent to him by mistake (he ordered a trumpet one) and asked me if he can send it to me by mail. Of course I said yes, at that time I played something very old and uncomfortable. So we started to exchange packages, I also sent him presents on his birthday and Christmas.”
Kemper became a combination patron, publicist, and honorary grandfather to Anastasia, paying expenses for her musical education in Moscow, her trip to Barcelona, and another excursion to London. “Bob did so many amazing things to me…I’m grateful to the moon and back. If not for him, I wasn’t able to go to the college in Moscow, I wasn’t able to play trombone as I do now, I wasn’t able to go to Barcelona and meet Joan and his students, to go to London and record my first single, ‘In the Winelight’ [available on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon] with one of my favorite musicians of all time, Anthony Strong. Bob gave me a wonderful instrument, it’s such a delight to play a professional trombone. The slide is so smooth, the response is so quick, I’m getting so much joy from playing.”
As for jazz trombonists, her love of the SAJB naturally drew her attention to Rita Payes, the trombone prodigy and band member between 2014–2018. “To be honest, I was very much inspired by Rita. I think she’s one of the greatest trombonists in the world. I really like her tone and ideas, the way of thinking while soloing. She makes playing trombone to look so easy that I believed! Then I realized it’s hard, but it was too late, I already fell in love with trombone!”
Upon hearing Anastasia’s praises of Chamorro and the SAJB musicians she had been admiring, Kemper decided to contact the maestro, to make the case for Anastasia to join the band.
Chamorro recalls, “I remember when Bob sent me a message in 2016, talking about Anastasia Ivanova, a young trombonist and singer who lived in Russia, and was 15 years old at the time. He proposed to me that she be part of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band. The answer was that it would be wonderful, because what I could hear from her I love and, above all, I liked the passion and love she felt for music, and the interest she showed in coming to play with us and be part of our project. The problem was age, and that no one could take care of her here in Barcelona so that she could study in my project.”
But Chamorro kept track of Anastasia’s progress as a jazz musician who, like his own students, seems to live and breathe jazz, absorbing it into her very soul. Likewise, she continued to view and study the videos of the band’s performances, learning and transcribing many solos by heart.
Chamorro remembers: “The years passed, and I continued to see how Anastasia evolved and how her passion for jazz continued to grow and grow, and with wonderful results. I would have liked to have her for the Sant Andreu Jazz Band. And finally, [in 2019], 18-year-old Anastasia was able to travel alone and without the need for anyone to take responsibility for her. She came to Barcelona for a few days, coinciding with the Jazzing Festival, which I organize.”
Upon meeting Chamorro, she couldn’t help but burst into joyful tears, having finally fulfilled the dream of meeting one of her musical heroes. But there was much to do with the short time she had to observe and play with the band.
Chamorro recalls, “I really enjoyed it, and we were lucky enough to have her for some songs. She was very active during the four days of the festival. She came to rehearsals, played in jam sessions, and finally was also able to record some songs with us. The experience was very, very beautiful. We would have liked to have her more days with us and be able to play in more concerts. I would love for her to come and be a part of our story, not just for a few days, but for a year or two. But the distance is very big, and she also has her school and her friends in her city. I wish her, with all my heart, to continue with that joy that characterizes her, progressing daily and sharing her music with everyone. Much success for Anastasia!”
She recorded and narrated her own video of this long-anticipated visit to Barcelona and Jazzing Fest, in which she demonstrates her palpable excitement for sitting in with the band she so greatly admired. The video, plus many others of hers, can be found on YouTube, and viewers will notice in this and in her other videos that Anastasia speaks virtually perfect English, something of which she is justifiably proud. “I had great teachers in Snezhinsk, and the opportunity to attend special courses, plus I worked very hard. As far as I remember, I’ve always wanted to be able to speak English. It’s a beautiful language, moreover that’s a serious part of my career as a jazz singer. As for me, singing jazz songs is a storytelling process. And how can I tell a story to people if I don’t understand of what am I singing about? I love languages! I took a little online course of Spanish, and it helped me a lot during my stay in Barcelona.”
She would like to extend her multi-lingual skills by creating a repertoire of all-Spanish songs, and boleros, to play as a complete set.
Even as her career is taking off, however, her schooling continues. “I’m getting a Bachelor’s degree at Gnesin’s Academy of Music. I have to go two more years to earn the Bachelor’s, and then I think I’m going to get a Master’s degree, or something like that. And I’m studying classical trombone. I enjoy playing both genres. Classical music really keeps me in good shape, because two times a week I need to go to the university and play for my teacher [professor Vladimir Khaimovich Shkolnik], and he always will tell me what I’d do wrong, and he always can find something that I do wrong.
“I’m happy with this college choice because I continue working on my trombone techniques and the quality of sounding every day, do breathing exercises, buzzing, and play long tones patiently. I think it’s very important! As I’ve noticed, not all jazz students I know do this stuff—as a result, their sound is not as good as it could be.”
She considers the academy a fine alternative “for those who are fed up with learning chemistry and physics and want to study a musical instrument professionally—so I’ve finished only nine grades of normal school. This option suites me perfectly. Also it’s the only place with a dormitory for students and a good trombone teacher.”
She also feels the satisfaction of having followed her calling since she was in her early teens. Like her counterparts in the SAJB, she had already gained a great deal of experience, musical knowledge, and the sheer joy of learning jazz, all before reaching her 20s. “I was a jazzy person from a pretty young age,” she says. “I think I’m a happy person because from an early age I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life, and most important I can make money, and I’m really thankful for that. Because it’s really hard to understand at 15 or 16 that you need to go to a university or college, and you need to understand what you’re going to choose in life. But I made that decision and I’m happy for that.”
It’s obvious that her own love of life and music can’t help but to make others smile, and maybe even sing and dance along with her. What accounts for her perpetual optimism? “Many people keep asking me, ‘Anastasia, why are you always so happy?’ First off, every day I’m creating the mood that I want to be in, and as a result I’m exactly as happy as I decide to be! And secondly, I love this music with all my heart and soul, so I can’t wait to wake up every morning to go to the music school, and practice!”
She returned to Barcelona in 2021 to participate in Jazzing Fest again, but this time as one of the special guests, taking a more active part in the activities and concerts than in 2019, and playing alongside the likes of the legendary Scott Hamilton (a long-time and frequent guest of SAJB-related recordings and concerts), and the aforementioned Rita Payes. As she had done before, Anastasia recorded a video blog of her visit, this time staying with SAJB trombonist Luc Martin and his family. Her enthusiasm for returning to the event had not diminished the second time around. And her half-hour video—which she again shot, narrated, and edited herself—is as enjoyable as her 2019 vlog.
“So yeah, Chamorro is the greatest inspiration, and when I get some positive reviews or comments from him, I’m very happy to hear all that. Recently he posted my performances on his YouTube channel. Wow, that’s great! I never knew he was going to do that, because, you know I’m not a part of the SAJB” (she is, however, considered an honorary member by the SAJB’s devoted fans around the world).
Sadly, in early 2022, a few months following her triumphant return to Jazzing Fest, came the heartbreaking news that Bob Kemper had passed away. He and Anastasia never had the chance to meet in person, despite plans to do so (thwarted by Covid), but they spoke often via video chat. Their bond was remarkably strong, certainly no less than that between a grandfather and granddaughter. He is never far from her mind.
In the past year, she has been busy studying and playing gigs in Moscow, collaborating with top musicians in a variety of venues (not the least of which being Igor Butman’s Moscow Jazz Orchestra) as she solidifies her standing as one of the major musical talents in the country.
She has even become a TV star in the process. In June of 2022, after storming through the Russian TV music competition program The Big Jazz (sort of an all-jazz American Idol or America’s Got Talent), she not only made it the finals, but then won the entire competition, thanks to her multiple talents and innate love of performing on display each week.
The competitors consisted of two trombonists, two trumpeters, two singers, and those on other instruments. The first program basically introduced them to the audience, “but then the second program we were doing duets, so I was playing with a trombonist, and then the judges decided to leave me in the competition, and next program we were just doing different songs. We had such a wonderful director, he’s like Joan Chamorro, but Russian,” she says with a laugh. “His name is Peter Vostokov, and he’s a trumpeter himself, and he knows practically everything. He has his own big band, and I like everything he does. He picks out the songs, like Chamorro does—very rare songs, but very beautiful ones that are interesting to perform. Some of them I already knew. I won the competition because Peter and I have the same feel for it—he likes old music and I like the old stuff, so our tastes are the same.”
The actual taping of the show was arduous. “The show was on television each week, but we recorded it basically almost every day. Very hard! The recording of the final show was from 8:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m.! So basically the whole day, but we had food, and tea, and coffee. The orchestra was in shock, they were tired!”
She feels her win was due to something more than just singing and playing classic jazz well. “Every participant was just playing jazz, but I did something special. I went to a shop and bought myself special clothes to perform in, and came to the recording very early, just to do hair and make-up. The others didn’t do all that, they just played. But I really wanted to do something special, to make each song like a story, to make it special and interesting for everybody, because it’s television, and there might be people who just watch it and they’re hearing jazz for the first time in their lives. And the first thing they see is the person. It doesn’t matter what the person is playing (laughs).”
She stresses that presentation is important. “Yes, it’s very important nowadays. I did [my preparation] all myself, nobody helped me…it was a very big experience for me. After the show, I got so many opportunities to perform.”
She is now leading her own band, a quartet, and is busy playing gigs in and around Moscow, staying true to traditional jazz. “I played with them all together for the show, but after the show, I started to think more clearly and I needed to find a permanent band of musicians with whom I can play. I started to use my laptop to write arrangements. I actually don’t really write arrangements, I listen to what has been done before me, and I just play some old arrangements of Mel Torme, and Ella Fitzgerald…transcribing is a good thing if you want to learn, you need to do that.”
Even as her star continues to rise, she plays some venues where she is not the featured headliner, such as clubs specializing in stand-up comedians, for whom she and her band serve as the opener.
“I’m performing before stand-up shows. The comedians come and tell jokes, and the crowd comes to see the comedians. And I come on before the comedians, and I need to play really popular songs.” She recognizes the need there to make the best possible first-impression not only for herself, but for jazz. “The crowds can be very hard to play to. They have never been to a jazz show, they don’t know who I am, but I’m playing for them. And that’s a challenge because they need to know to clap after each solo…I play songs that everyone knows, even if its pop songs like ‘Hit the Road Jack’ or something from Ray Charles, and I need to show them that jazz is not boring, it’s interesting.
“Of course I am playing some jazz clubs and concerts, where people come to see me. They come with flowers, and ask me to give them my Instagram or my contacts, and it’s really nice. But also, I need to perform as an entertainer.”
Filmmaker and lifelong jazz devotee David Richardson met Anastasia in Russia over seven years ago at Igor Butman’s “The Future of Jazz” festival, while Richardson was living and teaching English there. “I was taken by her talent and her glowing attitude,” he recalls. He is currently putting together a grant application for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to help fund a documentary profiling her, as part of his Portraits of a Jazz Artist film series. He’s also hoping for success with his proposed “Women in Jazz” festival there, with Anastasia as the featured performer. But time, and possible complications, will tell.
At her young age, Anastasia can be considered both a veteran and an up & coming star destined for the world stage. “It has been a long journey from when I was a kid scat singing to Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme,” she says. “Then, it was for fun because I liked the sounds and I didn’t speak any English. Now I realize jazz is my life’s calling. Jazz is in my heart and in my soul with every breath I take. I have found myself in the midst of this free and creative music. When I sing or play a jazz song, when I improvise, I am home!”