With 11 time zones and over 200 nationalities, Russia is the largest country in the world. Jazz drummer LaFrae Sci, who received her early musical training in her hometown of Dayton, got to know a region of Russia few tourists see when she took her band there.
Urban centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg have a familiarity with American jazz that doesn't exist in other regions in Russia. But thanks to Sci, that's changing. She took her own band to Krasnoyarsk in the summer of 2012 as part of a State Department tour. After a conversation with the region's Minister of Culture, she was invited back at the end of the year to teach classes in African American music and history. On that second trip in seeds for a larger project were planted.
"What I found in Krasnoyarsk was a real openness and a desire to connect and learn about what I knew with regard to jazz. At the same time somebody recommended that I read this book by the Russian novelist Bulgakov called The Master and Margarita. As I read this book the story is really amazing. One of the pinnacle scenes in the book is The Devil's Ball. It describes the Devil's Ball as having a jazz band and I started to imagine my band being the jazz band at the Devil's Ball," says Sci. "And I started to write the music that would be part of our set if we were playing the Devil's Ball. I started to think what if? What if I could bring my band? What if we could put together a student orchestra at this music college and we could perform this music."
She was inspired by an enthusiastic response from then American ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, which led to State Department support. But most of the funding for the Master and Margarita project and a second project titled Time Travelers has come from the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture. The second project, which was performed this past summer, included a full choir, original choreography, a dance company from Japan with Sci's own group at the core of a student big band.
"It reminded me of a Russian version of Glee," she says. "There were four colors of the rainbow that were the shirts that the student groups wore. So the blue group would work all day on songs and choreography and the green group and the yellow group and then in the evening all the groups would come together and perform for each other whatever they worked out for the day. I taught them the African American spirituals Wade in the Water and Oh Freedom."
Sci continues to freelance around the world as an in-demand drummer. She occasionally returns to work in her hometown, most recently in 2013 when she led a project celebrating jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. The Russian excursion—now a six year relationship—may best exemplify the fearless nature of her work. As a drummer, composer and clinician. LaFrae Sci will work anywhere students are ready to learn—and audiences ready to listen.