MOSCOW -- It features a menu of soft drinks and caviar, a motley crowd of Russians, Soviet Georgians and Latin Americans and a program of imitation Ray Charles and home-bred saxophone.

It is always crowded, but the manager can always find you a seat.

The Bluebird, (in Russian Siniaia Ptitsa) the first jazz club to open in Moscow in two decades, could turn out to be the most curious mix of American and Russian cultures since vodka and orange juice were splashed together and called a screwdriver.

In this country where rumors of one Kremlin leader's love of Benny Goodman helped boost his reputation, the Bluebird's opening last month marked merely the latest curious turn in an ongoing cultural thaw.

Banned as decadent and subversive during the reign of longtime Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, jazz clubs -- including the original Bluebird -- first opened here in the post-Stalin thaw of the early 1960s, only to close down at the end of that decade of cultural experiments.

Reopening in early May in the same dark basement near the Kremlin, the Bluebird already has the makings of an institution in the tradition of its counterparts the world over.

It is the only public testing ground for would-be Soviet jazz talent, for instance. Bluebird manager Vartan Tonoyan, an Armenian who is all of 26, scouts local Komsomol or young Communist clubs for talent and opens the show with them.

One evening a 16-year-old from Tbilisi begged his way in the door and ended up bringing the house down with piano renditions of big-band favorites.

Next week, a whole evening will be devoted to a 25-year-old, top-quality Soviet saxophonist who is leaving soon for the United States with his American bride.

Other regular performers include moonlighting classical musicians or semiprofessional jazz acts hardly known outside of the Soviet Union's vibrant jazz grapevine.

For $3, a four-hour show offers an average of five acts, representing a wide range of talent.

Snacks of caviar and salami sandwiches and soft drinks and alcohol-free cocktails are $2 more.

With a nightly intake of only 200 rubles ($300), Tonoyan says he hardly has money to pay for top-rated Soviet jazz musicians. "People play for free, here," he said in an interview, "but I pay them something anyway. I don't know how you could expect people to play like that without giving them something."

The club is a testament to the persistence of Soviet jazz enthusiasts against the official Communist Party stand on jazz, which is ambivalent at best.

For Tonoyan, its opening was a childhood dream come true. He was introduced to jazz at the age of 12 when his grandfather took him to a Duke Ellington concert in Moscow. "And this," he says, waving his arm around the club, "is the result."

In between came years of battles with the local Komsomol, which ended with an agreement to fund the club in exchange for a handsome share of the profits.

A small clique of Soviet jazz aficionados is already using the Bluebird to help hoist their underground movement at least to basement level. Arriving for Wednesday night jam sessions from as far off as the capitals of the Ukraine and Estonia, they gather at the Bluebird to swap such things as old Nat King Cole albums and anecdotes from the American jazz magazine Downbeat.

On any given night, the Bluebird is also jammed with diplomats from such far-flung jazz havens as Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm and Chicago.

Though public jazz concerts lately have been on the rise in Moscow, jazz clubs are actually more of an established tradition in outlying cities such as Leningrad and Tallinn. Jazz festivals in provincial capitals attract more talent and attention, for some reason, than the Moscow festival.

Moscow Komsomol officials attempted to censor the Bluebird's program, Tonoyan charged in an interview. "They asked me to submit a list of what's going to be played," he said, "but how can you do that in a jazz club? I tell them to come listen for themselves."

Tonoyan's next step is to seek a wider role in the running of the club through new Soviet laws encouraging more cooperatives. As an art form, jazz gained a bit in reputation in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, when rumors spread that then Kremlin leader Yuri Andropov had a taste for Benny Goodman and Scotch.

But with the opening of the Bluebird, Soviet jazz fans hope America's music has won acceptance here at last. As a keepsake of an era he hopes is bygone, Tonoyan keeps at home a 1950s Soviet musical dictionary open to the definition of jazz: "a Bourgeois music form that will not be allowed in the Soviet Union."