Valery Ponomarev was 18 and a trumpet student at the Moscow Region College of Music when he first heard jazz.
"A friend, a saxophonist, invited me over and said, 'Valery, I want you to hear something you'll love forever,'" recalled Ponomarev as a smile broke across his face. "It was an extract of 'Blues Walk' by (trumpeter) Clifford Brown. I'd never heard trumpet played that way. I love it. So I started getting tapes of all the jazz I could."
Like many jazz fans behind the Iron Curtain, he listened to jazz programs aired by the Voice of America and produced by Willis Conover.
Today, Ponomarev, 34, is living in Long Island City, thousands of miles away from the tiny, struggling jazz enclave in Moscow, and performing with his idol, drummer Art Blakery, whose hard-swinging groups have broken new paths in jazz over the last 30 years. He'been in this country 3 1/2 years and with Blakery since January.
"It's like a dream come true," said Ponomerev in an interview the other night at Blues Alley, where the Blakey sextet is playing. "In my room in Moscow I had Art's picture on the wall."
Blakey can't help showing his delight with Ponomarev's playing. When the trumpeter lights up a room with cascading runs and bubbing trills, there's Blakey behind him, crisply tapping his cymbals and flashing a fatherly grin.
Ponomarev plays powerfully, with a stacatto brilliance and burnished tone modeled upon his trumpet heroes - Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Fats Navarro.
The drummer said he asked Ponomarev to join his group because "he could play. That's why. He just could play. He can handle his instrument. I saw that when he first came to this country. All he needed to do was to hang out with the musicians in New York and learn some things. And he's a spiritual person - very much for real."
Ponomarev emigrated to America because he felt it was the only place he could play jazz.
"I want to play with American musicians, and it wasn't possible in the Soviet Union," he said in fluent English spoken with a Russian accent.
Every time American jazzmen would pass through Moscow, Ponomarev would make it his business to seek them out for jam sessions. He jammed with Duke Ellington's sidemen. Gerry Mulligan, Charles Lloyd, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis.
For a while he played in quartet in a short-lived jazz club in Moscow. The club employed one quartet three nights a week and another quartet the other three nights. There was only one other jazz club in the city, he said.
"There's no way to make a living by playing jazz in the Soviet Union," explained Ponomarev. "We got 50 rubles a month. That's peanuts. The clubs were usually closed. And I played in dance bands. Jazz isn't encouraged in the Soviet Union."
ponomarev, compactly built a 5-feet-6, 138 pounds, and one of several jazzmen to recently come out of the Communist countries of Eastern Europe to play in the West, said the music isn't particularly discouraged either. It's just mainly ignored.
For the last four years, he said, there has been a state-approved festival in Moscow, sponsored by a youth organization.
He said that Soviet jazzmen of his and the previous generation were not very good but that the musicians of the coming generation are excellent.
Ponomarev's mother, a retired economist with the Tass News Agency, tried to dissuade him from playing music. She wanted him to study art or architecture. He did so briefly but quickly lost interest.
"My mother really didn't want me to play music professionally," he smiled. "At one point she took my trumpet from me. I cried like a baby."
Ironically, his mother was partly responsible for Pnomarev going into music. A pianist in her spare time, she taught him musical fundamentals early, and helped get him into a company boy's brass band at her office. From there he went on to study seriously.
So Ponomarev feels he's come a long way - and he's happy about it.
"I feel honored to be playing in this group," he said. "I love America. I love its life. I want to become involved with its problems. I want very much to become an American citizen, and I plan to when I become eligible in about a year and a half."