Passed away: 07 September 2000
This obituary has been written by Bernadette Conlon, a former student of Yashkevich and also an accordionist who is very visually impaired. Even so, Bernadette travelled from Australia to the Ukraine for lessons with Yashkevich in 1999 and lived in his home.
When I told people I had studied with Ivan Jashkewich, they would say "the Ivan Jashkewich?", so great was his legend.
His transcriptions are renowned showpieces and have become standards in the advanced bayan repertoire. His students, who come from all over the world, proclaim his teaching through their music. Those who have been touched by him know his power, but for the rest, who exactly was he?
In April 1999, I had the privilege to study with Professor Jashkewich, one of the world's most extraordinary accordionists. I had the great fortune to live with him and his wife Raya in Kiev, and to grow to know and love the man behind the legend. The following is based on discussions I had with him and the impression and impact he had on my life. I believe it is a unique perspective, as I was told I was the only student ever to be invited to stay with the Jashkewiches. Unfortunately, the biographical details are limited to my memory of conversations I had with him. They are not complete, but I feel that the accordion world should be made aware of his wonderful legacy. He was a true inspiration.
Born in 1924, of Lithuanian parents, John Joseph Jashkewich spent his early childhood in the Bronx, U.S.A.. He was a normal, energetic, fun-loving boy, like millions of his age.
At the age of nine, due to the great depression of the 1930s, he, along with his parents and his elder brother and sister, moved to Russia. They soon found that the conditions were much worse than in America, but the Iron Curtain had gone up and they were forced to stay there.
Nevertheless, he survived these Spartan conditions, although his father died of appendicitis and inadequate medical treatment and his sister disappeared and was abducted by the Russians and taken to Siberia, only being released a few months before her death to be reunited with her family, as she was too frail to work. The trauma of these experiences left deep emotional scars on Professor Jashkewich and made him into the impenatrably strong character I came to love.
As a small boy, he had played the harmonica, along with his father, but it was not until he moved to Russia that he began learning the bayan. These years, although fraught with tragedy, were essentially happy "we survived - we had to," he told me.
At the age of 17, he went totally blind with Glaucoma, also as a result of inadequate medical treatment. He told me he believed it would never have occured if he were in the West. This meant that, at the age of 17, he had to learn Braille from scratch and became very proficient. As well as learning Braille music, incredibly, he taught himself the Russian, Lithuanian, German and English Braille alphabets and contractions, a remarkable feat. He was always fond of languages and read constantly. In his old age, and with the constraint of a heart condition, he turned to books more often. He received magazines from all over the world; music, current affairs and Readers Digest, and had many friends with whom he communicated. His other love was the radio. The Kiev radio played all day in the kitchen and he had a short wave radio in his bedroom. From it, he listened to music and caught up with current affairs around the world. It was through the BBC broadcasts that he kept up his English.
He commenced his formal musical studies in Moscow and, (I believe) Moscow was his first post as bayan lecturer. His time in Moscow led to collaboration with, among others, Nicolai Tchaikin, of whose Sonata No. 1, he gave the premier performance. Here followed countless concert tours with orchestras, brass bands and other ensembles, accompanied by his devoted, visually impaired wife, Raya, herself a bayan student of Professor Jashkewich and a professional choir mistress. He spoke with great pride of the arrangement that was made of the Tchaikin Concerto No.1 for brass band. At concerts, audiences and critics alike were astounded by his intonation with the ensemble and were struck with disbelief that he was blind.
As a concert artist, Professor Jashkewich devised his now famous transcriptions. He was the first Russian school bayanist to use the thumb of the right hand and his unbelievably difficult, Liszterian transcriptions remained his trademark.
He spoke with pride and nostalgia of concerts where he had performed the whole set of Chopin Waltzes and/or Mazurkas. However, he was also a champion for his Russian and Ukrainian contemporaries. He gave inumerable radio broadcasts, which gained popularity for his instrument, as he was essentially a pioneer in his field. Although he played many transcriptions, he never tried to present works written for some other instrument as a work he had transcribed from the original, but played on accordion. His piano transcriptions, for example, never mirrored the piano, but brought out the beautiful sonorities of the accordion for what they were. This had remarkable results and many works of Beethoven or other romantic composers which may seem unaccordionistic, became possible. Unfortunately, few of his performances were recorded and by the time I came to know him, his heart condition was serious enough that he was forbidden from playing.
Whilst studying with him, I learnt how important phrasing was. His meticulous attention to detail was incredible. Each phrase had to be carefully considered and then put back into context. His teaching style, also, was gruellingly unforgiving. He would tell me: "you play with your fingers, but not your head." Every note had to be scientifically scrutinized and the motion of playing with the correct touch and dynamics put into place, before any real emotion from the player could be added to the overall performance. Maybe this is normal precedure, but I have never found such attention to detail with any other professor/tutor with whom I have studied. It made me look at music in a completely different light. Life had taught him not to believe anything of which he wasn't sure. He saw things in black and white - good or bad. His intellegence led him to sum up a problem and draw a conclusion. This came through in his teaching. He would suggest ways to fix the problem and, if one idea didn't work, he would try again and again until he reached the desired result.
Nevertheless, he had a human side as well. He took a keen interest in his students. His amazing memory stored the details of every student and he could tell you all about the family and what they wanted to do in the future. He kept in contact with many of his students and cared for their well being. But the person was always aside from the musician. When teaching, Professor Jashkewich had a single-minded, scientific approach.
He also had an insatiable curiosity - a curiosity for life and for music. This is why his interpretations are so full, rich and complete. He would try every possibility.
He also wanted to know all about what went on around him. If we walked to the Botanical Gardens, Raya would tell him everything that went on. He loved animals and was content with the simple things in life. He would smell the flowers and listen to the children playing. In music, this came through in the fact that there was simplicity in each layer of the interpretation.
He was also immensely practical. He fitted the large, heavy deadlock to his front door, made the sliding door to the bathroom and fitted the front door bell, just to name some of the incredible things to which he turned his hand bearing in mind that he was totally blind. Their house was something in which they both took pride.
He was a man who respected and listened to his contemporaries. He was a loyal friend and passionate about his teaching. But it was his strength of character that shone through. His courage was inspirational. Despite all odds, he became one of the world's greatest bayanists. Despite discrimination, (even in later years), because of his blindness, he became a famous artist. As a pioneer in his field, he was subject to criticism for fighting for recognition for the bayan. This made him strong beyond belief.
Despite living in the former U.S.S.R. for 66 years, he still retained an interest in his homeland, America. He remembered different places he had visited as a child and asked about the Statue of Liberty. When he had left America, the statue was not yet affected by polution and he remembered it as being brown. He indignantly denied that it could possibly now have a greenish hue! He remembered ice-cream carts and Herschie bars he never saw again.
After Glasnost, he applied for and finally, after four years, received an American passport. This was a great joy for him. Despite having a ticket to America, he realised that it would be impossible for him to go back, after so many years. The world had changed so much and it was impossible for an elderly, blind man to find his way around a country, the likes of which he had never seen. He also realised that it would be impossible for his wife to help him get around because, although she knew her way around Kiev, she did not speak English and everything would be new to her. Besides this, he realised he did not have enough money to travel and, even if he did, there were not many posts in America for him as a Professor. But there is no law against dreaming.
Professor Jashkewich ended his dazzling career at the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky University of Music in Kiev. Among his contemporaries at the University were Nicolai Rizol and Vladamier Besfamilnov, adding to a formidable team of early pioneers of the bayan.
As a visually impaired accordionist myself, I appreciate, even more acutely, what his contribution has been. It may be nearly a cliche to say how even more phenominal his work was, knowing that he was blind. Blindness aside, he was a wonderful ambassador for our instrument.
We can all learn from his strength and humanity.
We will miss and remember you, Ivan Adamovich.
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