Understanding the Jazz Tradition in Prague

Jazz goes hand in hand with Prague. Although jazz reached the majority of Europe only between 1948 and 1950, Prague had embraced jazz already in the 1920s. Rudolf Dvorsky, composer and bandleader, was the most popular jazz musician of these early days. In 1946, the jazz club, Pygmalion on Wenceslas Square in the former Blanik Cinema building, was much frequented and very popular. During the Communist period, the regime viewed jazz with suspicion, but the genre survived. In 1958, Reduta Jazz Club opened, and is still one of the city’s most visited clubs. Jazz has taken root in Prague and it remains as popular as ever. The city centre has a number of jazz clubs and jazz festivals take place all year round. But how did the jazz tradition start?

jazz tradition

Jazz Tradition in Prague

The jazz tradition in Prague started around 1920, when Ragtime and Dixieland came to Europe. The first Czechoslovak jazz star was Rudolf Dvorsky, singer, swing musician, composer and bandleader of the Melody Boys. He played for Prague’s elite at the Central Hotel, in Lucerna Music Hall and the Barrandov Studios. In the 1930s, Karel Vlach jazz band helped many musicians to make a career for themselves.

The composer Jaroslav Jezek, who performed together with the comedy duo Voskovec and Werich, was also immensely popular. His musical career falls into two parts: chamber music inspired by Stravinsky and popular jazz compositions.

Swinging during Nazi Occupation

Swinging was impossible during the German occupation. The Nazis were against jazz because it contradicted their views on music. Music was controlled and coordinated. The Nazi party banned syncopation (accents at unexpected moments) trumpet dampers, plucking of the double bass and scat (singing of words without meaning such as: didadu or dibiladoe). In spite of all these restrictions, jazz survived. Some artists, such as Karel Vlach and Inka Zemankova, were allowed to perform in public. Others played in secret. Jazz musicians playing in amateur bands always had to be on the alert; the police could intervene at any time. All the more remarkable is the story of Bedrich Weiss, a Czech Jewish jazz musician and songwriter, who founded the Weiss Quintet. While imprisoned in Terezin concentration camp, he gave mini concerts.

jazz tradition

The Soviets and Jazz Tradition in Prague

In the 1950s, the communist regime considered jazz degenerate and decadent. In the sixties and seventies, the attitude changed somewhat and jazz was more or less tolerated, and Jazz festivals were allowed to be held. The rules were tightened again in the 1980s. Yet, jazz was unstoppable and continued to flourish. Locations played an important role in the continuation of jazz. In 1958, Reduta opened at Narodni trida, and this jazz club still exists. A few blocks away, was the Viola theater and Malostranska Beseda also had jazz sessions and still does. Other locations such as Parnas, Vagon and the club in Strahov only existed as jazz clubs for a few years. Musicians performed in one club and then in another. This has contributed to the survival of jazz in Prague.

Jazz after the Velvet Revolution

Czech jazz musicians have left their mark on the international jazz scene. Jan Hammer was one of the many who left Czechoslovakia for a new homeland. He went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachustts became a composer and a pianist, and wrote the music for 90 episodes of Miami Vice. Many jazz musicians who were famous before the Velvet Revolution continue to play to this day. Emil Viklicky performed at international festivals such as the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. He also played regularly at the Reduta Jazz Club in Prague. The same goes for Jiri Stivin, who is still an active musician. Over time, a new generation of jazz musicians has emerged. They perform in one of the many jazz clubs in Prague such as Reduta, AghaRTA and U Maleho Glena.

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photos Marianne Crone

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