Members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee attending a memorial service for victims of the Holocaust at the Choral Synagogue, Moscow, 1945. (Front row, first to third from right) writer Itsik Fefer (with glasses), actor Benjamin Zuskin, and musician and actor Leonid Utesov. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

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Utesov, Leonid Osipovich

(Lazar’ Iosifovich Vaisbein; 1895–1982), Soviet actor and singer. While attending commercial school, Utesov acted and played violin. Before completing his studies he joined the circus, performing in cabaret theaters in Kremenchug, Kherson, and Odessa. In 1921 Utesov moved to Moscow, where he appeared at the Theater of Revolutionary Satire, the Hermitage Theater, and the Theater of Musical Comedy. In 1922 he began performing in Leningrad at the Palace Theater, the Free Theater, and the Theater of Satire. He was most at home in cabaret theater, popular musical reviews, sketches, and melodramas. He frequently played in shows with Jewish themes, taking the roles of Ioshka the Musician in Osip Dymov’s Pevets svoei pechali (Singer of Grief) and Mendel’ in Mendel’ Marants, based on David Fridman’s novel; he also performed dramatic readings of Isaac Babel’s stories. In 1925, Utesov debuted in the cinema, playing the lead roles in Boris Svetlov’s films Kar’era Spir’ki Shpandyria (The Career of Spir’ka Shpandyr’) and Chuzhie (Strangers).

During a European tour in 1927, Utesov discovered jazz. In 1929, he founded the Theatrical Jazz Band. The company was composed of first-rate musicians who also had to be actors. Apart from musical numbers, their repertoire consisted of comic sketches, poetry readings, dance numbers, and circus acts. The peak of this synthesis was the comic revue Muzykal’nyi magazin (Music Shop; 1932). Utesov served as bandleader, master of ceremonies, musician, and, most brilliantly, as singer. He often performed in duet with his daughter, Edit. On stage, Utesov’s performances combined lyricism, humor, and dramatic expressiveness with a characteristically Odessan style of speech. His jazz repertory included many reworked Jewish melodies and songs—Desiat’ docherei (Ten Daughters); Bubentsy zveniat, igraiut (Little Bells Jingle and Play), to words by Leyb Kvitko; Diadia Elia (Uncle Elia); and Boroda (Beard). The great Soviet composer Isaak Dunaevskii worked with the band.

Utesov’s fame reached its height with his lead role in Grigorii Aleksandrov’s musical comedy Veselye rebiata (Cheerful Guys, or The World Is Laughing; 1934), which did much to popularize jazz. However, at the end of the 1930s, as the regime became more repressive, Utesov’s creative work came under pressure from the censor. Jazz was criticized as “bourgeois.”

During the postwar anticosmopolitan campaign, Utesov had to revise his program to include patriotic songs and classical music. His jazz group was renamed the RSFSR Variety Orchestra. In 1954, the orchestra marked its twenty-fifth anniversary with the program Serebrianaia svad’ba (Silver Anniversary). During the 1960s, Utesov participated less and less in the work of his troupe, although he did appear on stage periodically.

Utesov’s published books include S pesnei po zhizni (Through Life with a Song; 1961) and Spasibo, serdtse! (Thank You, Heart; 1976). Overall he played a decisive role in the introduction, preservation, and development of jazz in the USSR. His phenomenal popularity prevented the authorities from suppressing his orchestra, a fate suffered by other troupes. His best songs continue to be performed in the twenty-first century, and certain lines have entered Russian idiom. Utesov brought the spirit of Jewish Odessa to the stage without concealing its origin, and he gladly communicated in Yiddish. All of this played a role in preserving the national consciousness of Soviet Jewry.

Suggested Reading

Iurii Dmitriev, Leonid Utesov (Moscow, 1982); Antonina Revel’s, Riadom s Utesovym (Moscow, 1995); Gleb Skorokhodov, Neizvestnyi Utesov (Moscow, 1995).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson; revised by Alice Nakhimovsky