“From Moravia to Iowa … and Back: Emil Viklický & American Jazz in the Czech Republic”

While the bulk of suggested topics in this symposium’s call for papers deal with the influence of Czech and Slovak immigrants in America’s Great Plains, a handful focus on a countervailing dynamic, a West-to-East current, as it were, flowing back from the U.S. One example is “The Influence of American Jazz in Czechoslovakia,” under which my paper is categorized.

George Mraz, 1944-

Miroslav Vitouš, 1947-

Jazz, America’s unique art form, has found a congenial home-away-from-home in the clubs, concert halls and festivals of today’s Czech Republic. Notable Czech musicians, such as bassists Miroslav Vitouš and George Mraz, have come to the U.S. to study jazz and garner professional experience, subsequently returning to their homeland to pursue distinguished careers. This paper touches upon that musical exportation, focusing on the preeminent figure of pianist and composer Emil Viklický, often referred to as “The Patriarch of Czech Jazz.”

Leoš Janácek, 1854-1928

Viklický, born in 1948 in Olomouc, is often compared to Leoš Janáček, a nineteenth-century Czech classical composer who incorporated elements of Bohemian folk music into his work. In an analogous fashion, Viklický has carved out a sui generis niche in the musical world by synthesizing modern jazz with the melodicism and tonalities of Moravian folk song, garnering him a second nickname, “The Janáček of Jazz.” Emil regularly performs in Iowa under the aegis of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.

Emil Viklický, Steve Charlson, Dennis McPartland, NCSML, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Emil also composes contemporary classical music for a wide variety of instrumental combinations ranging from small chamber ensembles and electronic instruments to symphony orchestras and choruses. In fact, Emil’s most recent Iowa performance, in May 2009, was with the Orchestra Iowa. Under the baton of Maestro Tim Hankewich, the program featured Antonín Dvořák’s 9th Symphony and an original Viklický work, Moravian Triptych, featuring vocalist Iva Bittova. In July 2010, Emil was in Tacoma, Washington for the 39th National Conference of the American Harp Society, when renowned harpist Jana Bouskova will be performing Emil’s Double Concerto for Harp and Oboe.

Emil Viklický, Iva Bittova, Tim Hankowich, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that after first interviewing Emil for the Web site “All About Jazz” in 2006, we became very good friends. Moreover, I worked on his behalf as his North American publicist and promoter. Hence, I cannot lay claim to either scholarly or journalistic objectivity. By the same token, however, have access to, and cooperation from Emil that virtually no other American has. In addition, I enjoy unfettered use of his copyrighted material, specifically music and photographs.

Emil Viklický, 1948-

My discussion here of Emil’s music operates on two levels: musicological and socio-political. Recognizing the need here to discuss music in a manner accessible to non-musicians, I will briefly gloss some of the technicalities of Emil’s employment of Moravian folk music. But another aspect of Emil’s music and career is likely to escape the notice of even the savviest American jazz musicians and aficionados. I refer to the position of Emil, his musical colleagues, and their fans, who pursued their shared love of jazz under the stifling blanket of communist totalitarianism. When I first mentioned this subject to Emil, he was initially somewhat dismissive, remarking that it was an old topic that had been thoroughly studied and discussed by Czech, German, and Polish scholars and academics and laid to rest twenty years ago; I reminded him that I would be speaking to Americans, who for the most part are far less informed about it. I will return to this subject a bit further on.

Lief Ove Andsnes, 1970-

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then in the present context, a musical recording arguably is worth at least an equal amount of verbiage. It seems appropriate to begin with a Janáček composition, “In the Mists.” On Emil’s express recommendation, I will play the fourth (or “Presto”) section of this piece, as performed by Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes as an outstanding example of a classical rendition thereof. I juxtapose that with a version performed by Emil, which was recorded live at Prague Castle in December of 2008 on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.

Václav Klaus, 1941-

This concert, incidentally, was but one in a series of several dozen “Jazz at the Castle” concerts sponsored by Czech president Václav Klaus. Regardless of what one might think of Klaus’s blunt disdain for the concept of global warming or his contrarian views regarding the European Union, there is no gainsaying his good taste in music and his efforts to encourage and support jazz musicians from the Czech Republic and its neighboring countries.

Another Janáček composition, “Sinfonietta,” was featured on a recording released in 2007 titled Moravian Gems. By Emil’s account, although the entire CD’s conception was his “from A to Z,” it was released with Mraz and Bittova listed as session leaders. The executives of Cube-Métier Records felt that featuring their names, more widely known in the U.S. than Viklický’s, would garner better sales. In addition to “Sinfonietta” and four Viklický compositions, this release featured eight traditional Moravian folk songs reconfigured with jazz arrangements by Emil.

Haruki Murakami, 1949-

Viklický, who performed in China and Japan in May 2010, has established a strong following around the globe. After a 2008 recording session in New York City for Venus Records, a Japanese label, the company’s president purchased the license to “Sinfonietta” from Cube-Métier and added it to album, then released it with the title Sinfonietta~Janáček of Jazz. This was calculated to take advantage of the spectacular literary success of two books written by Haruki Murakami, sometimes called “The Kafka of Japan.” 1Q84 and a sequel, 1Q84/Book 2 (these titles, allude to George Orwell’s 1984), that make extensive reference to Janáček and “Sinfonietta” and have become that country’s all-time best-selling novels.

Ivan Polednák, 1931-2009

When I began researching this paper, I learned that Dr. Ivan Poledňák, an eminent musicologist at Palacký University in Olomouc, was in the process of writing a book on Emil’s use of traditional Moravian folksong in a jazz milieu. Professor Poledňák, who specialized in the fields of music psychology, aesthetics and semiotics, as well as the theory and history of popular music, was a most prolific writer: simply listing his books, journal articles, encyclopedic projects, and radio and television programs would require several pages. Unfortunately, however, before I was able to engage in a discussion with him about Emil’s music, Dr. Poledňák, who had been suffering from protracted illness, passed away in early October of last year. Without question, this was a tremendous loss for me and this paper, as well as many other scholars and musicians.

Jan Vicar, 1949-

Emil then referred me to Professor Jan Vičar, another eminent Czech musical scholar and colleague of the late Dr. Poledňák, who teaches music theory, aesthetics and criticism at Palacký University. Asked to characterize some of the defining elements of Moravian folk music, Dr. Vičar explained that it is difficult to comment briefly on its typical idioms. He noted its use of modes such as the Lydian and Mixolydian (versus the conventional major and minor scales more familiar to Western ears), as well as what he termed “parallelisms” and a special rhythmic figure called “duvaj.” Dr. Vičar observed that the melodic flexions of Moravian music have a certain analogous quality with what are commonly known as the “blue notes” of jazz — alterations of a semitone or less, generally flatted thirds, fifths and sevenths, for expressive purposes.

František Sušil, 1804-1868

As a related tangent, I would add that the alternation between time signatures frequently found in Bohemian folk songs calls to mind similar structures by idiosyncratic American jazz composers Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk. Dr. Vičar also pointed to a huge collection of more than two thousand Moravian folk songs compiled by a nineteenth-century Catholic priest and theology professor named František Sušil. This compilation, entitled Moravian Folksongs with Melodies Interpolated in the Text, today serves as a well-known source of material and inspiration for Emil and virtually all Czech musicians, according to Dr. Vičar.

Here I will move from the musicological to the socio-political, the other element of my discussion, specifically the treatment of Czech jazz musicians and enthusiasts during the communist era. The antipathy harbored by the Czech socialist regime towards jazz was ideologically predicated, an explanation one need not be a musician to appreciate. Jazz — that most distinctly American of all art forms — was obviously seen as a corrupting influence of the decadent West, a cultural product of bourgeois capitalist society seducing Czech youth from the shining path of Marxist dialecticism.

However, speaking from a personal perspective, I would submit that another facet of this official disfavor stemmed from what might be termed the philosophy of jazz. As one who has walked both sides of the musical street, so to speak, having formally studied both classical and jazz piano, theory and history from boyhood through my undergraduate years and on into my twenties, I know that there is a world of difference between these two realms and their respective conventions and mindsets.

Ludwig van Beethoven,1770-1827

Although subtle variations can be heard between classical symphony orchestras and conductors, basically, no matter where or when one attends a performance of, say, Beethoven’s Fifth, one will hear the same music, note for note. In fact, passages originally scored “ad lib” by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and others have over the years become calcified into obbligato set-pieces. Today, beyond the occasional cadenza, improvisation is a lost art in classical music.

By contrast, when one speaks of a jazz “standard,” that term can only be said to apply in the very loosest sense. Jazz is anything but standardized. Typically, a jazz musical chart consists of a melody and a set of chord changes, and even these can scarcely be said to be written in stone. Melodies are interpolated and embellished at will, while harmonies are routinely altered by the use of so-called “substitute” chords and extended upper partials (that is, the addition of ninths, elevenths and thirteenths to alter harmonic coloration). Jazz musicians have been known to take a song written in 4/4 time signature and convert it into 3/4, and vice-versa, or even to change it to other, less common, meters such as 7/4. And of course, like Emil, musicians around the globe, from Latin America to Africa to Asia, enjoy full artistic license to incorporate indigenous musical forms into jazz sensibilities, creating radically different styles and approaches.

Kenny G, née Kenneth Gorelick, 1956-

Unlike classical music, in the jazz world there is no sense of a Central Authority dictating the “correct” way to play a musical piece. Not only do no two jazz musicians ever play any given tune in exactly the same fashion, genuine jazz artists (versus ersatz performers of the “smooth jazz” ilk such as Kenny G), never play any tune the same way twice. Each performance is fresh-minted and unique unto itself, significantly shaped by variable contextual elements such as the performers’ moods, aptitudes and inclinations, the chemistry between musicians, and the degree of audience energy and engagement.

What could be more antithetical to the regimentation and iron discipline so valued by Stalinism — or any other totalitarian system, for that matter — than this unfettered celebration of individual expression? Little wonder, then, that communists, who preach the subsuming of the personal by the collective, could scarcely abide jazz. What’s more, unlike the often politically explicit lyrics of Czech rock musicians and folk singers like Jaroslav Hutka, jazz presented a far slipperier and elusive target for state repression. Here today in America, we can only shake our heads in bemusement when told that disc jockeys and musicians hosting a jazz radio program in Prague during the 1950’s could not call the music by its rightful name. “They had to call them ‘songs of oppressed black people,’” recounts Emil, “in order to satisfy the communist censors.”

Emil has also composed scores for several full-length feature films and television series, including one recent project of particular interest in the present context: a just-released Czech film, the title of which roughly translates as The Rhythm on the Heels. Set in the early 1950’s, it is based on a short story by the noted Czech Canadian writer Josef Škvorecký, “Little Mata Hari from Prague.” The film’s title is taken from a 1941 Czech song composed by Emil Ludvík. According to Emil, the film’s title is difficult to translate properly. “It is a musician’s joke, a pun,” he explains. It refers to one of the movie’s characters, a female jazz vocalist, who could be tripped up by the flow of the music if she fails to phrase her lyrics properly. However, the phrase has a double meaning, metaphorically alluding to the politics swirling around her, in which she is at dire risk of being caught up.

Josef Škvorecký, 1924-

Briefly stated, the story revolves around three young jazz musicians who play in Dixieland jazz band. As the communists consolidate hold on power, they begin suppressing jazz and swing dancing, emblematic of the freedom of expression to which young Czechs had grown accustomed following their nation’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945. Like any properly done drama, the film combines romance and intrigue. One of the musicians, Danny, loves Geraldina, a half-English (and rather naïve) young woman who is actively complicit in passing covert messages out of the country. The other leading female figure, Marcella, is a jazz vocalist from an aristocratic family. Marcella’s parents have fled the country, and her brother has been sent by the authorities to forced labor at a uranium mine — in practical effect, a death sentence. The Czech secret police (known as the STB) very much want to crack the espionage ring and begin pressuring Marcella, using her imprisoned brother as leverage. The plot thickens as the STB weaves its web around the band members and their loved ones, and only through a mistake does Danny alone escape its snares.

At the outset, I mentioned a countervailing, West-to-East current, and one song in the film, “FBI Blues,” is drawn from a particularly striking instance. Co-written by Viklický and Škvorecký, it is performed by a character called Bulwer, who is based on a real-life individual named Herb Ward. During the Cold War era, Americans heard numerous accounts of the many people who tried to flee over, under or through the Iron Curtain; all-too-many of many of these desperate attempts failed, often with fatal consequences.

Lubomír Dorůžka, 1924-

But a handful of Westerners ran the other way, like Ward, who sought political asylum in Czechoslovakia in late 1954. A somewhat shady character, Ward was reputedly motivated not so much by politics as the need to escape the legal repercussions of some fraudulent business activity. By Emil’s account, Ward was a mediocre jazz bassist, but a meeting with Škvorecký and jazz writer Lubomír Dorůžka led to a jazz revue called “Really the Blues” featuring Ward and his wife Jacqueline with the Czech band “Pražský Dixieland.” Czech musicians also cagily exploited Ward’s privileged status to establish the jazz radio show mentioned earlier. However, after ten years in Prague, the Wards decided they had had enough of planned economy and returned to the U.S., specifically Hawaii, smuggling out five extremely valuable Czech contrabasses in the process. Emil, whose daughter-in-law is from Hawaii and who has spent considerable time there, adds that he has personally met Jacqueline, who still lives in Honolulu.