Vlad Khusid – a Grammar legend

With the Concert for Vlad approaching on Sunday 15 May, Housemaster Dr Luke Harley delves into the colourful life and inspiration behind one of Grammar’s most gifted Music masters.


Good teachers, it is often said, have chalked up some life experience before starting the job. When Vladimir Khusid (b. 1946) entered the College Street gates for the first time in November 1987, having been invited for an interview by Alastair Mackerras (Headmaster 1969-1989) and James Hannah (Head of Music 1978-1990), he had certainly lived a little. At that point Vlad was teaching at The King’s School and working one-day shifts at Beecroft Primary and Epping Primary. The Grammar gig was attractive because it was closer to home, but it was only a one-day-a-week position, and Vlad only applied on the insistence of his wife, Gala.

Vlad was 41 at the time. He was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, about six kilometres from the Caspian Sea, and had taught himself jazz trumpet since taking up the instrument at the rather late age of 13. As a young musician based in Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk – two scenic cities in the Caucasus region, the latter at the foothills of Mount Elbrus – he had become wildly successful, regularly performing all over Russia with the Anatoly Kroll Big Band and other ensembles. Still, Vlad was uncomfortable with the oppressiveness of the Soviet system – the very antithesis of the jazz ethos, in his view – and fled the USSR in 1980 with Gala and his two young children, Sophia and Zev.

Mackerras, the brother of orchestral conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, was a champion of classical music, but Vlad made quite the impression on him when they first met. Vlad remembers showing up to his interview in his lucky blue suit and then chatting with others in the Music Department for hours.

When Hannah eventually brought him to the Headmaster’s office, Mackerras offered Vlad far more than the one-day-a-week job that had been advertised; he proposed making him the School’s new Head of Brass, a full-time position.

In the jazz world, a full-time teaching job is not without its attributes; it enables one to earn a steady income while still being able to perform on the weekends. But Vlad initially refused this offer, much to Mackerras’ and Hannah’s shock: he felt loyal to the pupils at his three other schools. Mackerras, however, would hear none of it: he immediately called up his counterpart at The King’s School, Jon Wickham, and soon Vlad was being given firm directives from both headmasters to “stop being so loyal and take the job!”

“I don’t know why Mackerras decided to give me this opportunity,” Vlad recalls. “My English was horrible – I could barely speak in sentences.” But the contract was signed, and in January 1988, Vlad commenced his teaching duties at Grammar. By 1993, a mere five years later, the School’s Big Band was chosen to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals. Vlad had not only made jazz a serious discipline at Grammar; he had quickly made Grammar synonymous with excellence in this field.

1967, 21 years old at Kislovodsk in the Caucasus Mountains

Vlad with his friend and collaborator James Morrison

Jonathon Hunyor, emcee for the 15 May concert, was in the Grammar Big Band in 1988 when Vlad first arrived. He remembers a carnival-type atmosphere at rehearsals until Vlad was appointed. “None of us did much practice. We all considered jazz a bit of a lark. Then Vlad showed up and the atmosphere changed. I’m not sure how he did it – it was just his quiet persistence, his positivity, his sheer ‘Vladness’ – but within a few years the band had been transformed.” Indeed, by the early 1990s a rare crop of talented players – among them future professionals such as Adrian Banner (piano), Jeremy Barnett (percussion), James Campbell (trombone), Sam Golding (tuba), Mark Harris (bass) and Craig Simon (drums) – had arrived on the scene, bringing with them a completely different attitude.

Vlad describes the Grammar Big Band as “on crutches” in those early years, but he understood what was required to excel in jazz – the passion, humility and relentless drive for self-improvement. In Baku he had been raised by his mother (Freda), uncle, grandfather and grandmother in a working-class area of the city; his father (David) had lost his leg in the Second World War and left the family when Vlad was only one-and-a-half years old. Within his family, only Vlad’s uncle showed any musical inclination. But Vlad dreamt of being a musician from early on, and at five began pressing his family for a piano. In the USSR pianos were prohibitively expensive, so the family pooled their resources and bought him a quarter-sized violin instead. Vlad played the violin until 12, learning the expected scales and sonatas, but it always struck him as a robotic exercise. “I didn’t enjoy classical music much,” he recalls. “I just did it. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart – they were all improvisers as well as technicians. But the way I was taught violin was nothing like that.”

The original Grammar Big Band in the late 1980's, with Jonathon Hunyor (back row, fourth from left) – emcee for the Concert for Vlad – playing trumpet

In jazz, however, Vlad found an outlet for his self-expression. When he was 12 an older boy at school played him a jazz recording, and after that he began listening to Willis Conover’s “Voice of America” programme on the radio. “Soviet musicians learned jazz this way,” Vlad explains. “It was hard to listen to because the KGB would distort the sound with white noise and add distracting voiceovers.” Later, Vlad got his hands on bootlegged recordings of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown albums from the late 1950s and practised their solos, note-by-note. “I used to be frustrated that I had to learn this way, by ear,” Vlad says. “But when I went to Monterey in 1993, I spoke to the African-American musicians, and they said that they’d learned the same way: by listening to LPs over and over and training their ears.”

In jazz, Vlad heard freedom. At 15, he had spent time at a Soviet military barracks: “The lifestyle there was awful – there was lots of swearing and abuse; no respect for the individual at all.” Yet, on the bandstand, playing his trumpet, he was free from State control: here was a music that celebrated rather than suppressed the individual voice. And Vlad’s determination to emigrate seems to have stemmed from this. “In 1978, when my daughter Sophia was nine, she came home from school one day and told us that she was required to give a class presentation on the glories of Leonid Brezhnev. After that I wanted to leave.”

“I think of teaching as like sculpture, with Stanley Street Big Band the beginning of the process and Dr V’s Swing Thing the end,” he says. “I never force the boys to do anything – it does not work. I want them to enjoy it. As a teacher I try to perform my role – and teaching is a performance – with as much passion as I can.”

While a jazz musician’s chances of being allowed to depart the USSR were far better than, say, an engineer’s, Gala herself was reluctant to say goodbye to her friends and family. A strange dream one night changed all that. “I had always been close to Vlad’s grandmother, also called Sophia,” she explains. We called her the ‘wise woman’. In this dream she cradled me in her arms and took me high into the sky, flying all over Russia. But there were dark clouds everywhere and Sophia said, ‘Gala, you must go, there is no future here for your family, not for 50 years at least.’ The next day I began filling out the emigration forms.”

Crossing the border from East to West proved terrifying. At Brest, on the border with Poland, Vlad’s family were confronted by some KGB border guards. “They took my trumpet from me, a Czechoslovakian model, and my Vietnamese backgammon set too, which I loved. But the real disaster began when they started talking to our children,” Vlad recalls. “They were trying to frighten them, telling them that they would not be able to eat in the West, that they’d die of hunger.” When they made it through the border and hopped on the train to Austria, Vlad shouted the entire carriage to a round of Polish beer. “We went to Vienna for three nights, and then to Rome for three months,” Gala remembers. We stayed in refugee hostels, and Vlad sold Russian opera LPs to the opera-loving Italians. We finally caught an Alitalia flight to Sydney: it was nearly empty, and the kids slept most of the way.”

Vlad introducing a performance at St Matthews Church

Less than a year later, in 1980, Vlad was enrolled in the Jazz Studies course at the Sydney Conservatorium under Don Burrows. “I was told that I’d never get gigs in Sydney if I performed under my first name,” Vlad recalls. “So, everyone called me ‘Bob’. But then Judy Bailey, a lecturer, started calling out ‘Robert’ during roll call and no one answered. Later I insisted on being ‘Vlad’.” Burrows himself turned out to be a lasting influence on Vlad. “I’d never encountered a musician like him – he was so different to the musicians we had in Russia. Don was a kind guy and taught my dear friend James Morrison. He also loved Brazilian music, having travelled there in the 1960s, and had the soul for that music.”

By the mid-1980s Vlad was playing in Latin bands such as Espirito, producing virtuosic yet lyrical solos that always bore the imprint of his extensive ear-training in the USSR. He also played in The Bruce Cale Orchestra and Great White Noise, both experimental ensembles, and for years was a session musician for James Greening, Guy Strazz and others. Later Vlad found his niche as a “world music” trumpeter in Monsieur Camembert and Marsala. For many, Vlad is a living embodiment of the cosmopolitan ideals of “world music”.

While Vlad is self-effacing about his two Aria awards (with Monsieur Camembert, in 2002 and 2004) and numerous other musical achievements, his teaching has clearly given him deep satisfaction over the past nearly four decades. “I think of teaching as like sculpture, with Stanley Street Big Band the beginning of the process and Dr V’s Swing Thing the end,” he says. “I never force the boys to do anything – it does not work. I want them to enjoy it. As a teacher I try to perform my role – and teaching is a performance – with as much passion as I can. Music – and teaching too – are forms of play, what Stephen Nachmanovitch calls lîla (“divine play” in Sanskrit). If you lose that sense of play the boys lose interest.”

All proceeds from the Concert for Vlad will go to the Khusid family. Donations can be made by clicking the link below: