A Brief Story of Jazz in the Heart of Europe

A Brief Story of Jazz in the Heart of Europe

from Jazz Notes 8/4 1996

By Antonin Truhlár
Copyright © 1996, Antonin Truhlár

This is a brief history of jazz in the former Czechoslovakia, goin' back deep to the 1920s, and the present Czech Republic.

The first pioneers were bands led by R. A. Dvorský and Jaroslav Jezek, especially the latter, whose Hot Jazz, later Swing Band, was the basis for all following successors. Enthusiasm for jazz sounds was also perceptible in the work of several composers of "serious music," such as Ervin Schulhoff, Bohuslav Martinu, and E. F. Burian.

Jezek, who spent his childhood at a home for the blind, was a very fruitful composer and his work is still very popular in performances of our contemporary jazz ensembles. He was known as the "Czech Gershwin." In 1939, before the Nazi occupation, he immigrated to the U.S., where he died in 1942.

The mid-1930s brought to our jazz scene a new ensemble under the direction of Jan Sma, the Gramoclub Orchestra, which mainly made public jazz concerts and recordings for the Ultraphon label. Its guiding spirits were, besides musical director Síma, our first jazz journalist and critic, Emanuel Uggé, who died in 1970. Baltimore-born pianist Joe Turner recorded two 78rpm sides with the Gramoclub Orchestra, "Joe Turner Blues" and "Joe Turner Stomp."

After the Nazi occupation jazz flourished here. Jazz now served as an expression of opposition to the stupid "deutsche tanzmusik" and as a yearning for freedom. The bands of Karel Vlach, Gustav Brom, and Emil Ludvík, Karel Slavík's Blue Music, Elit Club, and Rhythm 42, a small ensemble were well known names. A first-class arranger, mainly for Ludvík, was Bedrich "Fricek" Weiss, who was deported to the concentration camp Terézin, where he led the Ghetto Swingers. In 1944 he, together with his father, was transported to Auschwitz and directly to the gas chamber.

Shortly after World War II was a more intensive and more favorable time for jazz. The leading orchestras in Prague were: Karel Vlach's, with new personnel, Prof. Ladislav Habart's Big Band, and Kamil Behounek Big Band, which played for AFN Pilsen and, later, in G.I.'s clubs and camps in the U.S. Zone in Germany. Gustav Brom's band performed in Brno and Bratislava and for several months in 1947 in Switzerland. In Prague's jazz club Pygmalion that same year and in 1948, Rhythm, the first bebop pioneers here, appeared with legendary trumpet man Lumír "Dunca" Broz, Dr. Jan Hammer, bass and vibes, and singer Vlasta Pruchová, who later became Hammer's wife and mother of keyboardist Jan Hammer.

In 1947 Czechoslovakia also was visited by our first guest jazz musicians from foreign countries, such as, the Fud Candrix Band from Belgium, the black Jiver Hutchinson's band, from England and featuring vocalist Frankie Smith, Erik Winstone's Dance Band, also from Great Britain, and Graeme Bell's Dixieland band from Australia.

The two-and-half years from mid-1945 to the end of 1947 was the happiest time for jazz in the former Czechoslovakia. After February 1948 came troubles and the situation did not get better until 1955-56.

During this late-40s period Karel Vlach began to play more dance and popular music. Only Gustav Brom, who died last year, stayed true to jazz sounds, playing partly Dixieland and, with contributions from his musicians, partly West Coast jazz á la Shorty Rogers.

Brom's band was a grand success and unforgettable triumph in its first visit, in 1955, to the Fair in Leipzig, in the former East Germany. In 1960 two broadcast orchestras were founded in Czechoslovakia, Dance Band and Jazz Orchestra. The latter was directed by Karel Krautgartner, who later immigrated to Austria and then to Germany. A multi-reed player, composer, arranger, and teacher, he died in 1982.

Combo jazz was represented by Studio 5, led by Karel Velebný, the father of Czech modern jazz. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, and teacher, he died in 1989. Baritone saxophonist, flutist, and arranger Jan Konopásek, now a teacher at Berklee College of Music, was also a member of Studio 5.

More Czech jazz musicians left, mainly after the Soviet occupation in 1968, for example, contrabass virtuoso George Mraz, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and keyboardist Jan Hammer. Later, trumpeter Laco Deczi and many others left. Despite this decrease our jazz life was nimble and busy. Among the many self-sacrificing persons during this time was bassist and singer Ludek Hulan, who led his Jazz Studio or Jazz Sanatorium and was co-composer, with Gustav Brom's lead trumpet player Jaromr Hnilicka, of "Egyptian Suite." The latter also composed his own famous "Jazz Mass."

Since 1964 Prague, in the context of the International Jazz Festival, hosts not only different top Czechoslovakian bands and combos but also visitors from other continents. Among the first to come were flute and reed player Leo Wright and, in 1966, the American Folk Blues Festival with Big Joe Turner, Sleepy John Estes, Sippie Wallace, and others.

In recent years and today our jazz scene continues to be very varied. Important big bands are Big Band Radio Prague, led by Felix Slovacék, and Swing Band, led by Ferdinand Havlík. The former has a very important composer in Karel Ruzicka, Sr., who wrote "Celebration Jazz Mass" and recorded it with opera singer Diana Bélden.

Also very famous is pianist and composer Emil Viklický, who wrote "Homage to Joan Miro" and recorded it with the Talich Quartet in 1988. In 1990 he recorded his "Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Woods," a folklore-inspired work featuring Moravian folk musicians and singers plus his own trio.

But the enfant terrible of our jazz life is multi-instrumentalist Jirí Stivín, who leads his combo Jirí Stivín and Company. In 1992, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, he recorded live in Prague's jazz club Reduta a CD under the title "Abrahamoviny" with his son Jirí, drums, and daughter Zuzana, vocal.

Traditional jazz is represented by the Steamboat Stompers, featuring scat singer Tony Brych, the Metropolitan Jazz Band, the Classic Jazz Collegium, Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra, Ondrej Havelka and his Melody Makers, and many others.

Our top female jazz singers are Irena Budweiserova, Jana Koubkova, Eva Svobodová, Jitka Vrbová, Eva Dostálová, and the legendary Vlasta Pruchova.

We have jazz festivals in Karlovy Vary, Olomouc, Prerov, Slaný, Semily, Sumperk, Brno, and several other towns.

Our one and only jazz magazine is Zpravodaj Slánského Jazzclubu.

As for broadcast, mainly FM mode, VLTAVA brings daily jazz. There are also Radio Journal and Czech Broadcast 2, Radio Prague, as well as regional stations in Hradec, Kralove, Ostrava, and Plzen, some of which present jazz regularly, some only occasionally.

Jazz is a minority art here as in other parts of the world, but very lively, and needed for our souls.

* * *

Winners of Ludek Hulan Jazz Award, Presented Yearly by Czech Jazz Society, Prague, During Slaný Jazz Days

1983 Jaroslav "Thomas" Kos, pianist/singer
1984 Eva Olmerová, singer
1985 Eugen Jegorov, tenor saxophonist
1986 Vlasta Pruchová, singer (mother of Jan Hammer)
1987 Vladimr Zizka, drummer
1988 Zbynek Mácha, historian
1989 Jaromír Hnilicka, trumpeter/composer
1990 No award
1991 Jir Novák, organizer - since its beginning - of Slaný Jazz Days and president of Jazzclub Slaný
1992 Antonin "Tony" Truhlar, journalist, broadcaster, and JJA member
1993 Gustav Brom, big band leader
1994 Dr. Lubomir Doruzka, author, journalist, and broadcaster
1995 Jan Konopásek, baritone saxophonist/flutist and professor, Berklee College of Music
1996 Svatopluk Kosvanek, trombonist and member of Big Band Radio Prague


C o m m e n t s

Czech jazz history 1 of 10
Stephani Shelton February 02, 02

american jazz fans have very little knowledge about jazz in many other countries. It is wonderful to read how much there is in The Czech Republic where my husband and I visit every summer. We have heard a few traditional groups and now will look for some of the more contemporary groups. It would be nice to have the history updated past 1996.... And perhaps updated lists of current CD's.

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