The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

Last year, it was the swirling avant-garde jazz of the Ganelin Trio, the first Russian jazz group to visit America. Tonight, it's the more traditional syncopations of the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band at Baird Auditorium. These extreme parameters represent a long and varied jazz tradition that has until recently been almost invisible to the outside world.

Tooting the horn for "Sovietsky dzhaz" has been Steve Boulay, a consultant for a local investment firm, who heads a fledgling record label called East Wind Trade Associates.

Boulay's involvement began accidentally. Four summers ago, he had just graduated from Colgate with a degree in international relations (with a Soviet emphasis). "I had no knowledge or awareness of Soviet jazz," Boulay confesses. "I didn't really know anything about American jazz. I was just a general music lover." He was scheduled for a study program at Moscow's Pushkin Institute, but soon after President Reagan's "Evil Empire" speech, the Soviet professor went on "sabbatical" and the program was canceled. So Boulay found a group from Cambridge going on a two-month camping trip in the Soviet Union. "They needed a driver, and I thought that would be fantastic."

On that trip, Boulay met Tod Everts, a jazz and blues fanatic from California who dragged him to several "free jazz" festivals around Leningrad, where they met Russian musicians and fans. They also recorded everything, brought the tapes back to the states and filed them away as mementos of their journey.

Enter Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead. By this time, Boulay was working at a Rochester hotel where the Dead happened to be staying. At the desk, casual conversation eventually drifted around to Boulay's trip, and when Kreutzmann expressed an interest in hearing the tapes, the ball slowly started rolling.

Buoyed by Kreutzmann's enthusiastic reaction, Boulay, Everts and another friend, David Barrick, decided to form a company. "We first thought about just importing jazz records from the Soviet Union," Boulay recalls. "Then we got ambitious: Why not press our own and be a record label?"

And thus was born East Wind (then based in Hartford, Conn.), which was dedicated to "developing areas of international trade and exchange in cultural products between the U.S.S.R./Eastern Europe and the United States." So far, that's meant five albums (leased from Melodiya, the official Soviet record company) and the Ganelin Trio and Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band tours. More records are on the way, and there's the possibility of a National Public Radio series on jazz from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and of video projects as well.

So far, though, Boulay hasn't given up his day job.

Obscure though the subject has been, two important books about Russian jazz have been published in the last few years. The first, Frederick Starr's "Red & Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union" (recently reissued in paperback) deals with developments over a 60-year period ending in 1980. The second, "Russian Jazz/New Identity" -- edited by expatriate Leo Feigin, whose London-based label, Leo, was the first western label to issue records by Russian jazz players -- takes the story into the mid-'80s, a period when improvised "free jazz" is struggling to establish its own identity in the Soviet Union.

Lest it be thought that American jazz tours were a product of the cultural exchanges of the '60s, Boulay points out that clarinetist Sidney Bechet and singer Ma Rainey, among others, toured Russia back in the '20s. "A lot of American jazz bands went over there. They weren't getting recognition in the United States so they went to Paris, and it was a natural jumping off point to exploring the continent."

For most of its history, Russian jazz tended to mimic or emulate its American models, starting with swing and the big bands of the '40s. In the '50s and early '60s, bop dominated, right down to the highly stylized jargon and fashion. Jazz was alternately tolerated (many officials were closet jazz fans) and condemned (particularly by Stalin, who banned the saxophone and the word "jazz" and sent many musicians to their deaths in Siberian labor camps). Soviet opponents saw jazz as an expression of individualism, rebelliousness and escapism: "western bourgeois propaganda," as Starr puts it, that "opposed Soviet reality and the values of official art" and offered "flight from odious and depersonalized reality."

In some ways, the official attitude toward jazz has mirrored American-Soviet relations. Under Stalin, paranoia and persecution were the norm; his death in 1953 fueled what Starr calls "an infatuation with jazz more intense and more informed with social significance" than elsewhere. Things were rough during the tensions of the '60s, and again in the early '70s, when many Russian musicians emigrated to America or Israel. Around the same time, however, the increasing popularity of rock turned jazz into the lesser of two western evils. Jazz festivals and jazz courses began to appear. And lately, with the advent of glasnost, things have opened up tremendously.

And for the last 31 years, of course, Willis Conover has been spreading the jazz gospel via the Voice of America. Conover is virtually unknown here, but, says Boulay, in a 1968 poll seeking the most well-known American in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the leader -- "lo and behold" -- was Willis Conover. "Everyone knew who he was. He's an incredibly important figure in jazz information over there. The Leningrad Jazz Club had a wall of tapes, all of his shows, hundreds and hundreds of them. They were the club library."

A key turning point, Boulay says, came in 1967 with a big jazz festival in Tallinn "where they had a number of American and European bands. It was incredibly successful and right after that, the Russian jazz musicians got their own title in the planning jargon of Gosplan {the official music industry agency}. Before, jazz was lumped together with other kinds of 'varietal' music and kind of got lost in there. Everything is so planned ahead that they have a five-year plan for albums, and there was always some question of what would happen and when, which made it hard to do any coherent planning or promotion for concerts or records."

A new, distinctly Russian jazz began to emerge in the late '70s, pioneered by Lithuanian pianist and composer Vyacheslav Ganelin. And it was Feigin, who does his own jazz broadcasts into the Soviet Union for the BBC, who first alerted the jazz world to the existence of Ganelin and others through Leo Records and his advocacy of free jazz.

"He's ransomed his life to the music he loves," says Boulay, adding that Feigin made his mark initially by releasing some Ganelin tapes he'd received. "His stuff's all underground and right on the records he says 'The musicians bear no responsibility for the publishing of these tapes.' He does a great service to the musicians, not only getting the music out, but also paying them very well." (How do they get the royalties? "There's a way to do everything," Boulay says.)

Until Feigin started releasing albums, Boulay continues, Melodiya "wouldn't even do an album by the Ganelin Trio, though it was obvious they were incredibly popular. When they finally did, they sold out a pressing of 50,000 for a band that is the equivalent of a Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman in the United States. That's unheard of. And Ganelin did it in a week. Gone. Boom."

According to Boulay, the Russian avant-garde has established its own identity, even though the players in older styles continue to be derivative. "When I went to a festival two years ago, a lot of the mainstream jazz I heard, while good, reflected older ideas. On the other hand, the free jazz adherents, despite having listened to a lot of the '60s free jazz from this country, have hit upon something really different."

"I don't think you can say that the Ganelin Trio or {pianist} Sergey Kuryokhin are derivative. I think they struck out in the same direction, for the same motivation, but a lot of the players over there have years of classical conservatory training, and in many cases have a Turkic/oriental sway to their music, as well as a heavy folk influence. Traditional folk music is very encouraged to maintain knowledge of your national background ... All those things have weaved together a new kind of free jazz that's totally different."

It's been described as a "polystylistic" struggle to balance artistic integrity and originality against overt references to American and West European influences. And Russian classical consciousness can be seen not only in the jazz players' balance of composition and improvisation -- Russian free jazz has much more structure than its American counterpart -- but in the audience's acceptance of such offerings.

"But not because they're necessarily more open people," Boulay points out. "It's a country where you're probably going to find your greatest pleasure and self-satisfaction in things you decide to do, your hobbies. You don't have a work structure where you can strive to be president and rich, it just isn't there, so a lot of people turn their energies and creativity into literature, music, art, whatever -- and those are all very subtle tastes to develop. If you've grown up with classical music, classical literature, and you've developed an ear and a tolerance, an openness to those subtle pleasures, {then} with something like avant-garde or free jazz you have people who are starting at a much higher level -- so there's a great audience."

Not that cultural de'tente is a given: As recently as 1980, the Contemporary Music Club in Leningrad was shut down as an "ideologically harmful enterprise," and in his book, Feigin goes to great lengths to emphasize the differences between "free jazz in free society and free jazz in a repressed society."

"A term like 'oppressed' is very value-laden but I would still say {Soviet citizens} are oppressed, and in a sense, the music comes out of that," Boulay says. "Beyond not having alternatives ... some of these bands weren't allowed to play. When they did some of the real crazy things -- when Kuryokhin gets up and does 'A Concerto for the Orgasm of a Brontosaurus' and beats a piano and goes to jail for it -- a lot of these things weren't tolerated and that's oppression. But maybe that makes people appreciate it more and that's how you can have a word-of-mouth concert and get a ton of people to show up."

But oppression or no, Boulay is full of optimism about Russian jazz. Just as there was a creative explosion in the early years of the revolution following centuries of czarist oppression, he says, "that same type of pent-up intellectual energy is going to come, and is blasting out right now. I don't know if it can be sustained, but I think we're in for some really amazing things."

When Boulay and company first started negotiating, he says, the Soviets were "skeptical but very open and interested." He contacted Igor Preferansky, a director of Sovart (a subdivision of the Ministry of Foreign Trade) in Moscow, described East Wind's proposal and explained "why we thought it could be successful. They couldn't envision any jazz in the world competing in the market where jazz was born, but they were very cooperative."

Like Boulay, Preferansky is now in Washington (he works in overseas publishing), which makes communication easier. East Wind's first five albums, released last year, "did well for a first release, selling between 1,000 and 2,000 copies each. They didn't make money but they certainly paid for themselves," Boulay says.

For the past few weeks, Boulay's been traveling around the country with the Leningrad Dixieland Jazz Band -- obviously quite a contrast to last year's tour with the Ganelin Trio. (A live digital recording from Ganelin's San Francisco concert is one upcoming East Wind release). "It's a little strange because I've never been a Dixieland lover," he says, adding that traditional jazz is quite popular in the Soviet Union. "They have the Moscow Dixieland Jazz Festival and people really know their Dixieland over there -- the audiences howl and whistle and clap at the end 'cause they love it."

The Leningrad group, which has been together since 1958, was here mainly to play at Sacramento's 14th annual Dixieland Jubilee. The largest classical jazz festival in world, the four-day event attracted some 250,000 fans and 120 bands from all over -- Poland, East Germany, Central and South America. The Leningrad group plays not just the standards (anyone for "Czar Alexander's Ragtime Band?"), but songs with elements of Moldavian folk songs and Azerbaijani traditional music.

Boulay was encouraged by the ease with which he was able to get acetates of the Leningrad group. "They air-freighted them on Pan Am," he says. "That's rare, but it's a sign that over there the word's come down -- 'make money, you're businessmen now.' ... And we're seeing more and more open criticism of the bureaucracy, of what artists are picked to record over there; people are tired of the same old acts. People who you never thought would get a chance because they're vocal, underground, antiestablishment types like Boris Grebenshchikov, suddenly the word's out, and it looks like Boris and some all-stars are going to come over and they've already talked to Sting and they're going to do an album ... "

So opportunities are expanding -- and in some cases, East Wind's breakthroughs have had surprising effects. "There was a festival in {Soviet} Georgia recently and there was a rumor that we'd do a record," Boulay says. "And all these middle-of-the-road jazz people played original music based on that rumor. They'd never done that before. They all believed, and rightfully so, that the only way they're going to make an impression on the West is to play their own original kind of stuff.

"Things are opening up ... and a lot of bands are coming out of the woodwork. They've just opened the first full-time Blues Alley-like jazz club in Moscow {see accompanying story}, and there's one in Leningrad, and in Vilnius. And under the new 'free enterprise' system, they're going to do real well."