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Czech jazz up to 1948.

When tracing the story of jazz in the Czech lands it is important to bear in mind certain specific factors that had a major effect on its development through most of the 20th century. First, trends in modern popular music in Central and Eastern Europe were affected not only by the usual market mechanism, but to a much greater extent than in the West by political circumstances. Second, if this music was to speak to the Czech public in its own language, it was always dependent on a relatively small number of performers and listeners. Third and last, jazz was born in a different cultural context, and so in the Czech environment, it was inevitably initially and for some time an attractive, exotic commodity but one to which no clear user guide existed. It is therefore no wonder that the population often understood jazz rather differently from the citizens of its homeland across the Atlantic.

First Responses

If we are looking for the very earliest examples of jazz influence in Bohemia, we have to go back to the period before the wide-ranging changes caused by the First World War. At that period the historical Czech (Bohemian) Lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and not many people were prepared to believe that this was likely to change in the foreseeable future. It was true that the multi-ethnic Habsburg state was facing a range of ever deepening problems, and that growing nationalist movements among its peoples were among the most intractable and urgent. On the other hand, the Czech population enjoyed quite a solid living standard, and this included a broad, spontaneously created spectrum of entertainment. Of course, jazz influences in the prewar decade were a completely marginal element in this spectrum - after all, even in the United States jazz only began spread to any great extent with the great migration of New Orleans musicians after the closure of Storyville and the making of the first recordings in 1917. Earlier, then, what penetrated into Central Europe were at best echoes of American dance music, for the most part mediated though West European centers. This was the way that the tango, boston (the period name for the waltz), ragtime, cakewalk, and the one-step and two-step appeared in Bohema in the early 1910s.


These novelties were of course designed for dance enthusiasts at public social events, but many were also performed as sensational numbers as part of different kinds of variety show. The social spectrum of listeners and dancers was probably relatively quite wide. In prewar Prague a particularly important venue for modern dances was the cafe Montmartre, which among its regulars could boast quite a few famous representatives of the Prague Bohemian art scene. These included for example the Czech writers Eduard Bass, Frantisek Gellner, and Jaroslav Hasek or the extraordinarily successful author of popular songs Karel Hasler, but also German-language Jewish writers like Max Brod, Franz Kafka, Egon Erwin Kisch, Gustav Meyrink, Johannes Urzidil and Franz Werfel.

But we would also have found a public for modern dance music right at the top of the social scale: around 1910, the Schwarzenbergs, members of one of the most important aristocratic clans of Austria-Hungary, entertained themselves with the two step Indian Amazon Attack as performed by the band of their personal guard, based in what was then the entirely provincial Cesky Krumlov.

The Euphoria of the Young Republic


The twentieth century in Europe is often said to have begun not in 1900 but with the outbreak of the First World War. One of its most visible consequences in Central Europe was the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy. The new successor states included Czechoslovakia, which based its existence above all on the successful national ambitions of Czechs and Slovaks. It was a state that was markedly heterogeneous ethnically and economically. Most of the industrially and culturally advanced towns lay in the western part of the country with predominantly Czech and German populations (which meant that here the conditions for the development of modern dance culture were much better). It should also be noted that only when added together did the nearly seven million Czechs and two million Slovaks substantially exceed the numbers of the other ethnic groups in the state, the largest of which was the German minority. It was this situation that led to stress on the rather artificial idea of a homogeneous Czechoslovak nation (people), although in fact most of the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia never fully identified themselves as ethnic Czechoslovaks. Energetic dance music from overseas found what were in many respects favorable initial conditions here. The new state managed to build effectively on its inherited industrial potential and in the inter-war period it became one of the most economically successful of European countries. While Czechoslovakia did not have very strong cultural contacts with the United States, it was orientated culturally to England and France, i.e. the countries that were the first in Europe to get to know jazz. Naturally, then, Czech Bohemians, intellectuals, but also businessmen, wanted to enjoy their "roaring twenties" with the same intensity that they saw in the big Western cities.


The direct experiences of these enthusiasts on foreign trips opened up one vector by which modern entertainment music arrived in Czechoslovakia. Another was sheet music, specifically the arrangements of contemporary dance melodies that the public demanded at social events and dance courses (among attractive novelties we could mention the foxtrot, but also other jazz dances like the shimmy, black-bottom, or the Charleston). Starting in the mid-twenties, gramophone records had an ever increasing effect, and from the thirties, radio and the "talkie" movies. Finally, foreign bands coming to the country on tour offered important first-hand experience. In 1928 Prague hosted the English ensembles Savoy Orpheans and the Jack Hylton orchestra, famous throughout Europe.


The Czech public, however, lacked any source of theoretical knowledge of jazz, and for quite a Song period we find a certain lack of comprehension of what it was all about. Predictably, this public initially registered what was most obvious to them about the mediated jazz music, i.e. unusually sharp rhythms and instruments never seen before. The noisy percussion set caused the biggest sensation, and this led to the emergence of a terminological rarity of these pioneering times: the term "jazz" or "jazzband" was sometimes used just for this instrument, which for greater effect was sometimes equipped with a lightbulb in the bass drum, with a pop-gun, or else was enclosed in a cage with the drummer (as the "bad guy" of the ensemble). Musicians and the public were also intrigued by other novelties of the jazz instrument range. Alongside the banjo and xylophone it was the saxophone that drew the greatest attention, but at the beginning it was as difficult to get hold of one as to find an expert player. This shortage led to the use of quite curious and ingenious inventions, which in Bohemia included above all the violinophone (a violin amplified using a membrane and resonator horn from a gramophone), or jazzophone (a piston trumpet bent into the shape of a saxophone).

Jazz that doesn't offend


The degree to which the imported music was really "jazz" is one that needs to be approached with caution. Above all, the improvised jazz of small groups of New Orleans or Chicago type found little lively response even in Western Europe (when it did, this was usually because of audience response to the comedy aspects of the musicians' performance). The public on the old continent were far readier to accept the arranged dance and song melodies played by larger ensembles that essentially followed the model of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. We should also note that popular music in Bohemia continued to be predominantly influenced by the closest Western capitals, i.e. Vienna and Berlin. In Czech society too, it was operetta and salon repertoire, to which jazz influences were usually added just as spice, that was most popular with the middle and upper classes.

The instrumental composition of the ensembles that played modern dance music was quite variable. Usually these were based on the model of the salon or cafe orchestra in which the melody was entrusted to the violin, augmented at the least by one more melodic instrument (often second violin or clarinet) and with at least one harmonic instrument (piano, accordion or guitar). The "jazz" instruments mentioned earlier were gradually added to this core. Although as time went by dance ensembles took on a jazz character in terms of line-up and repertoire, a sense of the leading role of the first violinist survived for a very long time, as did use of the accordion in the accompanying section. As late as the mid forties we find the particello designated "violins-dir" in printed arrangements of pieces for swing big band.


The development of the domestic popular dance ensemble can by illustrated using the example of one of the most important figures of Czech popular music, Rudolf Antonin Dvorsky (his real name was Rudolf Antonin, with the rather romanticising pseudonym "Dvorsky" adopted from the name of the native town Dvur Kralove). This singer and pianist picked up the dance repertoire working in the music groups of Prague nightclubs and cabarets (including the avant-garde orientated musical-literary cabaret Cervena Sedma - Red Seven). From 1919 he wrote and published modern dances (including foxtrots) that were not just among the first but among the most advanced in the Czech milieu. In the years 1925-29 Dvorsky played in the four- to five-member ensemble Melody Makers and soon became its leading personality. He then built on the activities of this ensemble by founding the orchestra Melody Boys, which was progressively expanded until it involved 3 violins, 3 saxophones (clarinets), 2 trumpets, a trombone, piano, double-bass (sousaphone), banjo (guitar), accordion and percussion (vibraphone). His emphasis on precision of ensemble play and refinement of expression, as well as his commercial talent, took Dvorsky to the very top in terms of popularity in the thirties. What is more, he succeeded in recasting jazz music elements into a form acceptable for the majority domestic public without succumbing to excessive vulgarity or kitsch. We should stress that throughout its existence (i.e. up to the end of the Second World War), Dvorsky's ensemble played not just jazz but the other forms of popular music too.


Naturally orchestras of similar composition and repertoire sprang up in Prague and other larger towns in the thirties. The leaders of the most famous Prague ensembles included for example Harry Harden (a Jewish emigrant from the Ukraine whose real name was David Stoljarovic), Jaroslav Malina, Jan Maudr or Harry Osten (real name Siegfried Grzyb). Of the ensembles outside Prague we should at least mention Frantisek Svojsik's Orchestra, working in nearby Kladno, or the Dol Dauber Orchestra in Brno.

We should keep in mind, however, that the musicians and arrangers concerned were only just getting to know jazz. What is more, the professional music community often considered dance music to be an inferior genre, and so musicians often flirted with jazz "incognito", evidently aware that their classically trained colleagues would look down on them. It would be unreasonable to expect to find in this first generation many people capable of giving their ensembles the natural, relaxed feeling of top American performers. Despite all these shortcomings, however, the recordings of inter-war Czech jazz ensembles are worth a listen even today, as much as anything else for the passionate enthusiasm of the musicians of the day.


The Jazz Muses of the Young Avant-Gardes

Although there was a lot of terminological confusion in Czech society when it came to jazz, most of the domestic public agreed with most of the American public on one fundamental question: Czech jazz supporters also saw this music primarily as an accompaniment to dance and entertainment. For the European avant-garde, however, jazz meant much more. Sharp rhythm, thundering sound, elemental vitality, caricature, and a close connection with ordinary life ... All this perfectly harmonised with the vision of the period expressed by the Prague composer, singer and actor/director Emil Frantisek Burian (see CMQ 4/2004) in the first and for a long time the only Czech publication on jazz: "Electric vibration streams into the place where violets used to perfume the air and the half-witted moon used to shine romantically. The nightingales are warbling now on no more than the musty gate of the demolished ideals of the traditional eclectics, who are doomed to fade away." (E. F. Burian, Jazz, 1928)


The optimism of the new epoch in the Czech milieu was embodied most intensely in the Devetsil association, through which young; mainly leftist artists from various branches of the arts presented their views between 1920 and 1930. The poetics of jazz did not only attract the musicians among them, but was a source of inspiration for example for the literary theorist and artist Karel Teige (the spokesman of the Devetsil, who wrote a commentary in Burian's book Jazz) and the poets Jaroslav Seifert (the only Czech to have received a Nobel Prize for Literature) and Vitezslav Nezval.

The enthusiasm for jazz in the twenties came together with innovative trends in Czech theatre with extraordinarily happy results. This applies above all to the activities of the Osvobozene divadlo, the Liberated Theatre, which in its very name announced its emancipation from traditional dramatic cliches. After experimental beginnings, the turning point for this stage came in 1927 with the arrival of two amateur comedian/actors and writers, Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich. In line with the Devetsil poetics of the everyday, in their dadaistically humorous productions they exploited popular melodies which they took over, writing their own lyrics to go with them. In 1929 this duo was joined by a graduate of the Prague conservatory, the composer Jaroslav Jezek, who by this time had studied in Paris and already written a number of remarkable compositions on the boundaries between jazz and concert music. In his theatre music, however, Jezek always gave clear precedence to accessibility over artistic difficulty, and this approach together with Voskovec and Werich's texts created the basis for the general popularity of their songs, which are still old favorites in the Czech Republic today. Although never attaining quite the same degree of popularity, the many-sided artistic interests of another member of the Devetsil, E.F.Burian, had a very striking impact in the field of theatre. From the mid-1920s he made use of jazz influences as a director or conductor on various theatre and cabaret stages, and then to a lesser extent in his own theatre company, which changed its name according to the year from D34 to D41. On the margins of Burian's numerous activities we should note that especially in the twenties he was among the composers striving for a synthesis of jazz and classical music and his opera Bubu z Montparnassu [Bubu of Montparnasse] is one of the few Czech experiments in employing jazz idioms in this type of music drama.


Naturally, jazz and associated American cultural inspirations were also important to authors who were not directly connected with Devetsil. One was Bohuslav Martinu, who thanks to a state scholarship went to Paris in 1923 (unlike Jezek he remained there right up to the beginning of the Second World War). Direct contact with the work of Igor Stravinsky and the Paris Les Six is reflected, for example, in Martinu's symphonic works Half-Time and Vrava (La Bagarre) or the ballets Kuchynska revue (La revue de cuisine) and Sach krali (Echec au roi). A rather different milieu left its mark on the music of Erwin Schulhoff, the Prague-born son of a German-speaking Jewish family. His interest in jazz initially developed primarily from the mocking (anti)aesthetics of German Dadaism, but Schulhoff also employed jazz elements up to the early thirties in his later, more serious pieces (the jazz oratorio H.M.S. Royal Oak in particular is a work conceived on a large scale).

The Arrival of Swing

Compared with the time lag in response to jazz music, swing reached Czechoslovakia relatively soon after its emergence in the United States. Here a positive role was played by the efforts of the first generation of Czech jazzmen, who provided a basis on which their younger colleagues could build. Another very important aspect was the growth of the domestic market in gramophone records and printed arrangements of popular melodies (in this context we should mention the publishing activities of R.A.Dvorsky), as well as the increasing influence of sound film and radio. The publicising activities of enthusiasts who collected recordings and all available information, passing it on to local musicians, likewise helped in the process of the "naturalisation" of jazz impulses in Czechoslovakia.

Some early impetus came from a quite remarkable ensemble formed on the initiative of the jazz fan and journalist Emanuel Ugge in 1935 in association with the Gramoklub society. The line-up corresponded to that of swing bigbands, and the repertoire was orientated exclusively to hot jazz and early swing. Because the conductor of the orchestra, Josef Sima, (like Ugge) shared the views of leftist intellectuals of the time on the necessity for cultural political education, the Gramoklub Orchestra did not play for dancing, but just for listening. The limited commercial interest of this kind of activity and the ideological tendencies of the two leaders meant that the ensemble disintegrated relatively soon, in 1937, but a number of important later performers and composers drew valuable experiences from the episode (the pianists Jiri Traxler and Jiri Verberger, for example, who combined performance and composing talents, or the drummer and later significant music theorist Jan Rychlik).


In Czechoslovakia as elsewhere, however, the new style of jazz dance music was born above all in the environment of small improvisational groups, from which swing bigbands eventually emerged. One typical example was the pianist Emil Ludvik's Hot Quintet, founded in the autumn of 1939. Relatively soon Ludvik developed this group as the core of a bigband set that was Goodmanesque in configuration and purely swing in orientation. In a similar way Karel Vlach, originally a saxophonist who later concentrated wholly on leading his ensemble, formed an orchestra in 1939. In this latter role Vlach demonstrated considerable musical and managerial talent; in 1941 he professionalised the orchestra and remained at its head until his death in 1986. The Brno bandmaster Gustav Brom (real name Gustav Frkal) had an even longer career, leading his band for the incredibly long period of 1940-1995. Thanks to it broader repertoire Vlach's orchestra in particular managed to sustain its popularity or at least its leading place among Czech dance orchestras for the whole period of its existence.

Swing heil!


Despite its euphoric character, swing coincided in Central Europe with a pretty dismal historical period. At the end of September 1938 the leaders of Britain and France recognised Hitler's territorial claims to the border areas of Czechoslovakia, inhabited mainly by Germans. In March of the following year, the Western part of the state was occupied almost without resistance by the German army and annexed to the Reich as the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia" while Slovakia declared formal independence.

In the sphere of music it was musicians of Jewish origin or those who expressed their hostility to the Nazis openly who were hit the hardest. This was the case for example with the Liberated Theatre, which from the early thirties had moved from dadaist poetics to satirical critique of social conditions and European fascism. At the end of 1938 the theatre was forced to close, and in January 1939 Jezek, Voskovec and Werich emigrated to the United States. The arranger of the Emil Ludvik Orchestra, Bedrich "Fricek" Weiss fared worse, perishing in Auschwitz in 1944 (the Ludvik Orchestra fell apart in 1942 as a result of the repressive conditions). E.F.Burian survived the war years only by a miracle; in 1941 he was interned in Terezin (the fortified city that in the words of German propaganda, "the Fuhrer had donated to Jews), and then in the concentration camps of Dachau and Neuengamme.


The new conditions affected the whole jazz scene, however, which now found contact with new musical impulses from America and Western Europe very problematic and risky. In any case, just to perform music of "Jewish-negro origin" could be dangerous. Furthermore, after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, dancing was banned in public places (to make sure that the population of the Protectorate would not be enjoying themselves unconscionably at a time when soldiers of the Reich were dying for a brighter future).

Paradoxically, however, the restrictions and bans brought some positive developments. After student demonstrations in the autumn of 1939, all Czech universities were shut down, and their students and graduates quite often turned to music as a way of making a living (this was how Gustav Brom, for example, started his career). The ban on American repertoire also had unintended consequences: the professional ensembles especially, which were subject to tighter supervision and could not just adopt the solution of renaming American pieces, turned to domestic production for their needs. The war years saw the production of a lot of Czech swing songs, the most famous authors including Jiri Traxler, Alfons Jindra (real name Alfons Langer), the accordionist Kamil Behounek or the trumpet player Alois Wolf.

We should add that some Czech jazz musicians managed to exploit the situation to advantage. This is still rather an under-researched field and so let us cite the words of Josef Kotek, one of the most competent of historians of Czech popular music: One embarrassing episode of Czech swing in the last war years was the orchestra of Interradio, a short wave German transmitter located in Prague and propandistically targeted at South America and the allied armies disembarking in Italy and France.

For the programmes to be broadcast, the Nazis needed dance music suited to Western taste and standards. Many capable Czech musicians were therefore exempted from the forced labour programme or other obligations and were brought together to form a studio recording orchestra. [...] Czech arrangers likewise relieved of work commitments arranged the instrumentation of American and other numbers; they were even probably permitted to listen to the shortwave western stations, which was otherwise punishable by death. Kamil Behounek was one of those who worked as an arranger in this way. [...] It should be added, however, that neither the players not the arranges were informed in any concrete way of the German propaganda aims for the sake of which their recordings were abused ... (J. Kotek, Dejiny Ceske popularni hudby a zpevu [A History of Czech Popular Musk and Song], 1998)

The Brief Intoxication of the Nylon Age

The period between the end of the 2nd World War and the communist takeover in February 1948 was one of the most remarkable in Czech history. It was the period of a limited but generally real democracy with a small number of political parties, but at the same time a period when as many as two and a half million Germans were expelled from the republic. And also a time when domestic and foreign politics were pulling Czechoslovakia ever more irreversibly into the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.

Significantly, the line dividing the Soviet occupation zone from that of the Western Allies ran through Czech territory. The inhabitants of South-West Bohemia enthusiastically welcomed the American soldiers, who brought not only liberation but also a range of modern features of pop-culture previously unknown in the area: chewing gum, Glenn Miller-style swing, and nylon stockings (which was why the writer and amateur swing saxophonist Josef Skvorecky coined the phrase "Nylon Age" for this whole contradictory period.) But the Soviet liberators received just as warm a welcome and their popularity contributed to historically the only democratic electoral victory of the Czech communists in 1946 (even though it was already often starting to dawn on the local population that despite the kinship of their languages, the Russian mentality was very different to the Czech or Slovak). Probably no music embodied the euphoric postwar mood so unambiguously as swing. The Glenn Miller Orchestra with its lavish line-up became a clear model (the film Sun Valley Serenade became immensely popular). Once again it was wholly typical that one of the first to found his own Glenn Miller-style bigband was Kamil Behounek; and it need not, perhaps, be added, that for his productions for the allied soldiers he probably used his arrangements for the Inter-radio Orchestra ...

Czech jazz musicians, for so long parched, were eagerly drinking at other springs of inspiration as well. In 1947 the group Rytmus 47, which had existed in the war years as Rytmus 42-44 (the end figure changed according to the year) was revived. This band was systematically orientated to the most recent jazz trends including bebop, and brought together top performers (including the trumpet player Lumir "Dunca" Broz, the pianist Vladimir Horcik and the singer Vlasta Pruchova).

In the same year the Czechoslovak public for the first time got to know a wider range of traditional jazz. In fact, the international communist movement was indirectly responsible for that the first International Festival of Youth was held in Prague, and with the Australian delegation came the traditionalist ensemble Graeme Bell's Dixieland Jazz Band. Emanuel Ugge, who had played a major part in getting the Australian dixieland band invited, then arranged for the band to visit Bohemian and Moravian towns on an educational tour. The Bell band's jazz caused a huge sensation and essentially set off the whole wave of Czech jazz revivalism.

Domestic jazz journalism started to develop promisingly as well. Launched in the spring of 1947, the specialised monthly Jazz to some extent carried on from the earlier activities of the Okruzni Korespondence [Circular Correspondence] (an amateur bulletin disseminated illegally in the years 1943-45). Its main contributors and leading figures included Emanuel Ugge, Lubomir Doruzka, Jan Rychlik and the jazz composer Miloslav Duchac.

In conclusion we should note that it was towards the end of the forties that Czech jazz ensembles first started to reach a standard of performance that bears comparison with the American scene of the day. Its future seemed bright, had not the Nylon Age ended so soon.
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Title Annotation:history
Author:Vorisek, Martin
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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