Jazz music has a special place in the history of the Czech Republic. During the years of Communist rule, jazz was a medium through which, as veteran saxophonist Jan Štolba put it to me, musicians expressed their ‘dreams about what was beyond the borders’. It played a part in the lead-up to the Velvet Revolution – which overthrew the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1989 – as something which brought together like-minded dissidents. In the aftermath of the revolution, it came to be seen as symbolic of the anti-Communist movement.
Today jazz is everywhere in Prague, but has it become mere fodder for tourists in search of the Communist past, or does the tradition remain strong?
If you head out at random to one of Prague’s many jazz clubs, you might well conclude that the former is the case. With expert guidance, on the other hand, you can find world-class music in incredible venues. Tony Emmerson, an English expat who writes a Prague Jazz blog, was kind enough to point me in the right direction at every turn.
AghaRTA Jazz Centrum is not far from Old Town Square. At the end of a lamp-lit alley you come to the entrance, and through it a flight of stairs. Following these down, you find yourself in a high, single-vaulted cellar with walls built of old, irregular bricks which are held together by crumbling plaster – it could easily be the guts of an Oxford college. The music at AghaRTA, Tony told me, can generally be relied upon to be good. This might have something to do with the fact that one of the owners, Michal Hejna, is himself a musician.
The night I went along he was playing drums for Rhythm Desperados, a light-hearted conglomerate of prominent Czech musicians, who each have other more serious things going on as well. The standard was first-rate, each of the performers putting in numerous elaborate solos. What was most impressive about this band was the infectious pleasure they obviously derived from playing together. The camaraderie among musicians such as these, whose shared experiences in Communist times united them in exceptionally close friendships, is one of the most enchanting and particular things about jazz in the Czech Republic.
The other place Tony recommended was Jazz Dock, an entirely different setting, scarcely four months old. It’s a waterfront venue, as the name implies, situated in the Smichov area of the city. Floor-to-ceiling picture windows give on to a narrow, secluded stretch of Prague’s Vltava river, traced on one side by the tree-lined banks of an island, and on the other by an ornate 18th-century terrace. The walls are a crisp purple and the bar is lime green, making for an impressive overall effect. You can go throughout the day for food and drink, but it’s really a late-night establishment: open daily till 4.00 a.m. with the music continuing past 1.00. The mainly Czech crowd starts turning up about 9.00 and by the time the music starts at 10.00 it’s full up.
Both nights I was there the music was outstanding. On the first occasion I saw the Ondrej Pivec Organic Quartet. Pivec, who leads the quartet on the Hammond organ, is only twenty-five but has already participated in the recording of ten CDs, three times as the title musician, and studied under some of the masters of the instrument. His playing ranged from choppy and aggressive (imagine The Band’s Garth Hudson on Bob Dylan – Live 1966) to mellow and sweet – the versatility of the instrument, Ondrej told me after the gig, is an aspect of it he particularly relishes. The guitarist, Libor Šmoldas, contributed tuneful riffs á la Django Reinhardt, as well as a stage-presence reminiscent of the smiling innocence of 50s and early-60s pop-groups. Saxophone and drums completed the quartet, whose overall sound was lively, rich, and intriguing. From the evidence of this group, Czech jazz is very much alive.
The next thing I saw at Jazz Dock was far more classic in character. Karel Rùžička, pianist, was an important figure in Czech jazz during the Communist era and is now something of a legend. Tonight he was accompanied by his Grammy- nominated son, New York-based saxophonist Karel Rùžička jr., in addition to the bassist and drummer he usually plays with. The compositions were mainly driven by the saxophone of Karel Rùžička jr., full-bodied and strong, and played with a freedom reminiscent of Snonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but all four musicians were exceptional. Present at the concert was one Libor Pešek, a noteworthy composer of classical music from Communist times. The quartet played a piece in his honour, during which he sat stage-side, with a warm expression of gratitude on his face – a moving scene and further illustration of the special camaraderie and respect that exist between musicians, especially older ones, in the Czech Republic.
You’re unlikely to hear bad music at any of the main jazz clubs in Prague, but at certain venues you might find the experience underwhelming. At Blues Sklep I saw the Fabrik Quartet – great sound in a handsome cellar – but the audience was utterly depressing, consisting, apart from the group I was with, of a pair of drooping couples, who remained unresponsive to the music throughout, restricting their activities to awkward glances at their respective partners, quite obviously wondering what the hell they were doing there.
This other side of the Prague jazz scene is perhaps typified by Reduta Jazz Club. Founded in 1958, the city’s oldest jazz club rose to fame in 1994, when Bill Clinton was taken there by Václav Havel (then the President of the Czech Republic) and ended up on stage playing saxophone. Thanks largely to this occasion, photographs of which adorn the walls, it is hugely popular with tourists, though these days it is most likely not the best place in Prague to go and hear some jazz.
So… an exceptionally good, and uniquely interesting, jazz scene can be numbered among the many attractions of the capital of the Czech Republic. Its charms are not evident at every Prague jazz club but they are there to be discovered. Where’s best to find them is, of course, subject to change, but for the time being, at least, they’re not about to go away altogether. There’s currently a movement, mainly being advanced by the elder statesmen of Czech jazz, to ensure the continued prosperity of Czech jazz. The evidence of this is free festivals being put on across the country – of which there happened to be a two-day one going on in the city-centre during my time in Prague. One sincerely hopes the movement is successful, and that the rich tradition of jazz in this country is not allowed to become something of the past.