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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Being Here: Jazzing Up Moscow's Musical Scene

In conversation, jazz vocalist Tim Strong regularly breaks out into song. And the songs he sings range from blues, to opera, to jazz.


His recent history is equally frenetic. The American arrived in Moscow by way of Wellington, New Zealand, where he spent the past 2 1/2 years. But before that, he said, he spent 17 formative years pursuing a musical and acting career in New York City.


Strong fondly recalled singing at well known New York jazz clubs like Sweet Basil's and the Village Vanguard. He also said he did a fair amount of acting both on and off Broadway where his roles included playing Malcolm X in the jazz opera "Money."


In Moscow, he performs weekly at B.B. King bar and restaurant.


Why would an actor and jazz musician leave Manhattan -- the center of the jazz universe -- to live in New Zealand and later Moscow? Strong blames love. He met his wife, New Zealander Jane Coombs, when she was working for the United Nations in New York. When she got a job offer in the diplomatic corps in Wellington, New Zealand, Strong said he decided to accompany her.


"I went to New Zealand because of Jane. I was like, 'Oh yeah, New Zealand -- that would be great for my career,'" he laughed. "But the truth of the matter is New Zealand has a really tight artistic community."


While in New Zealand, as he continued to sing in local clubs, Strong was also nominated for the country's Chapman Tripp Theater Award for his role in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."


When Coombs was offered the position of deputy ambassador in Moscow, Strong said he was sorry to leave Wellington.


"I came here kicking and screaming," he said. "But it was a great opportunity for her. Jane is 32 years old and not afraid of anything or anybody. So I didn't want to be a wimp."


What he found here when he arrived last October was a small community of jazz artists but encouraging support for the jazz scene.


"Russian audiences are great," he conceded. "The appreciation of arts in Moscow makes you joyous. People can't wait. They know so much about jazz and blues from books and records but haven't been in touch with musicians."


Strong hopes to change that. He has formed a band with some young Russian musicians. "I think it's part of being in Russia," he said. "I'd like to combine some of their gifted musicians with some of my experience and see what happens."


The band he has assembled includes two guitarists, a bass player, and a drummer. The only thing Strong says is lacking are "some smoking background singers."


The Pittsburgh-born Strong says he has been influenced by the singers Nat King Cole, Stevie Wonder, and Johnny Mathis. Strong said he has played piano since the age of 9. How long ago that was is a mystery. When asked his age, Strong laughed and said, "Well, I'm not an old man."