Jazz In Prague

Prague has a long history of jazz – being one of the prominent European fixtures in the jazz world from the 1920s. Although jazz history books recognise that the first Europeans to play Jazz were in London and Stockholm between 1948-1950, Prague had opened a be-bop jazz club called Pygmalion in 1946 which has now become the Blanik Cinema.

Even during the new communist rule, jazz survived in Prague and the city opened its first dedicated jazz club, Reduta, in 1958. Since then jazz has grown and developed in Prague with a strong jazz presence in the clubs, restaurants and bars in the Old and New Towns.

In Prague, you’ll find improv and free-form jazz in tiny venues like U Malého Glena, as well the more commercial venues, such as Agharta Jazz Centrum, that invite international and local jazz musicians to perform.

In 2012, to highlight the extraordinary jazz talent in the Czech Republic, Steph Sheehan from lowcostholidays.com asked UK jazz bloggers to contribute questions towards an interview with Tony Emmerson, the oracle of jazz in Prague. Tony moved from London to Prague six years ago and now writes a wonderful blog, dedicated to Prague Jazz. Here he talks about his top 5 Czech jazz artists, how easy it is to make a living as a jazz artist in Prague and why this city has one of the best jazz scenes in Europe.

Ian Maund from sandybrownjazz.co.uk asked…

Q: I’m interested to know about how the Czech Republic is encouraging young musicians in schools and colleges. What support do they get generally when they leave school and want to play professionally?

Tony: I'm sure that many of the young musicians on the scene wish there was more support for them. It is tough to make it here, as it is anywhere, but at least the number of venues means that there are opportunities for young players. There is a saying here, that every Czech is a musician, and it is a very musical country. Therefore wanting to be a professional musician is not some outlandish dream but something that is seen as attainable for those with talent. The next stage, where you make enough cash to have music as your sole income, is much harder to reach and many musicians supplement their income with teaching or "normal" work. Many of the musicians here have studied jazz at one of the Czech conservatories, with some groups formed there enduring past graduation. Some of the clubs and labels (Jazz Dock and Animal Music come to mind) are happy to feature and promote young artists, giving them much needed exposure.

Ian Mann from thejazzmann.com asked. . .

Q: I heard saxophonist Stepan Marovic on a Radio 3 special about jazz in Prague just prior to my trip and bought “Resolution” by his group Jazz Face while I was out there. Is Stepan Markovic stillStepan Markovic playing? Do you know anything as well about the trumpeter Juraj Bartos?

Tony: Štěpán Markovič still plays regularly in the Czech Republic and is known as one of theelder statesmen of the scene. The last time I saw him was playing at one of the Jazz at the Castle concerts, attended by President Klaus. Juraj Bartoš is still around too, although less high profile. Both are excellent players worthy of wider recognition.

Štěpán Markovič

Lance Liddle from lance-bebopspokenhere.blogspot.co.uk asked. . .

Q: Do you know of any jazz workshops or classes in Prague that visiting jazz dabblers can take part in?

Tony: There is an annual Czech Jazz Workshop that attracts teachers and students from around the world, but it is a serious affair, not just dabbling. Some of the clubs host jam sessions, but the standard is high, so anyone who isn't at that level won't get a look in. That is the downside of having so many talented musicians running around the city!

Peter L Bacon from thejazzbreakfast.wordpress.com asked . . .

Q: Can you name five Prague-based jazz musicians that we should be listening to? Maybe a combination of well-established that we might have heard of and stars of the future...

Tony: Emil Viklický is the greatest of the Czech jazzers and quite possibly the greatest pianist you've not heard of. You can read an interview with him click here. (Click here for a video of Emil’s Trio playing Ray Brown’s Bouhaina Bouhaina).

Luboš Andršt is the country's resident guitar god. Self-taught, he's been highly regarded since the early 1970s. František Uhlíř is known as the "Paganini of the Bass". He can make it sing in a way that many bassists can only aspire to achieve. (Click here for a video of František’s Trio playing Maybe Later).

Beata Hlavenková is a very talented young pianist who isn't afraid to innovate, and her band sometimes features slightly unusual instruments such as the steel guitar. She is a good example of how Czech isn't frozen in time. Robert Balzar was the bassist in the band that played with Bill Robert BalzarClinton at Reduta in 1994. He has a well-established and vibrant Trio who play original material and standards.

Robert Balzar


Q: The question that is always on my mind, and I suppose links to the one about young musicians but is more about the pros, is it possible for jazz musicians to make a living in Prague? Is there any state support? Do Prague venues pay a living wage?

Tony: It is possible but it is not easy. The issue of how much venues pay is a live one, with some clubs having a reputation for being fair and others less so. Some musicians are quite vocal about not playing venues that don't pay reasonably. Either you have supplementary income, play most nights, or eat cat food. The opposing view is that club gigs aren't for money - they're a workshop to hone your art - and revenue should come from elsewhere.

Steph from blog.lowcostholidays.com asked. . .

Q: Do you ever miss the UK jazz scene at all? Have you always been a jazz fanatic or only since you moved to Prague?

Tony: I always liked jazz but moving to Prague gave me a chance to see a lot more great music than I could when I was living in London. There are several venues in Prague where I can see world class jazzers in action every night and it costs less than a tenner to get in. The style of Czech jazz also appeals to me - there is such a strong sense of melody and the tunes can be deliciously bitter-sweet. Emil V is the master of this - sometimes he plays and it is truly a transcendental experience.

Q: Also (one more cheeky, one) – what would be your perfect day/night out in Prague?

Tony: That last question is the hardest of the lot. There is so much to do here... hot afternoons in beer gardens, rowdy evenings at the ice hockey or football, a night at the opera or ballet, and of course going to jazz clubs. A good day is one where I wake up. A perfect day is one where I make it through to the end. Other than that it's all good...

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2012

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