Magazine article Czech Music

Czech Jazz of the 1950s and 60s

Magazine article Czech Music

Czech Jazz of the 1950s and 60s

Article excerpt

The Jazz tsunami that swept from the Mississippi Delta across the Atlantic Ocean had to overcome two barriers on its way across the European continent. The first was culture shock: European musical sensibility, so carefully cultivated for centuries, was initially in some ways resistant to the arrival of a new, different musical aesthetic. The second, which faced the later jazz wave that washed through liberated Europe after the Second World War, was harder to break through: it was what came to be called the "iron curtain" with the bipolarisation of the world. Not merely physical but above all ideological, in culture its bricks were the demagogic ideas of the architects of the new socialist order and the Stalinist need to control every area of life. The communists aspired to create a managed form of entertainment for the working people in their leisure time (the people needed to be positively moulded for the needs of building the communist future), and also feared (rightly) that the official ideology could be undermined by the expressions of free culture, including jazz music.

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Jazz and the Creeping Embrace of the Revolution

The ground for everything that was to follow the communist takeover in February 1948 was prepared earlier, starting immediately after the end of the war. The future development of jazz was to be greatly affected by President Edvard Benes's decree of 1946 nationalising the gramophone industry. Here it should be explained that totalitarian-type states always strive to ensure that cultural or social activities have central-umbrella organisations with structures enabling the whole entity to be controlled ideologically, through censorship and political manipulation. By taking over the publishing industry communist power obtained a decisive voice in determining what was beneficial in music for the new society. Censorship was exercised by political cadres installed in the leading positions of every organisation. Sadly, among these cadres were also some pre-war leftist intellectuals, including musicians.

Jazz enthusiasts today have sometimes tended to take the optimistic view that towards the end of the 1950s Czechoslovak jazz was getting close to its American model in terms of quality. But it is enough to point out that at the end of the 1940s be bop--as the defining developmental stage of modern jazz -, had already come a long way in the US: Norman Granz was touring America with his travelling Jazz at Philharmonic festival and Miles Davis recording the first pieces later to be brought together under the title Birth of the Cool, and by the end of the 1950s, modern jazz had progressed right to the threshold of free jazz. Quite obviously, Czech jazz was in a completely different developmental phase - only just starting to find its bearings in modern jazz. While a number of local soloists had grown up into excellent instrumentalists, the almost complete lack of direct contact with overseas music had made it impossible for Czech jazz to gain the necessary experience to perfect style or achieve style shifts. The distinguished American jazz producer, writer and critic John Hammond visited Prague in 1947 and in an interview for Jazz magazine (no.2/1948) remarked: "I heard the Karel Vlach orchestra--but it's a little inflexible for our American average." He also said the orchestra needed to achieve more freedom in expression--it was excessively conducted. He praised Karel Krautgartner's clarinet solos--his was a name that would be heard ever more often. Today the progressive appearance of re-editions of recordings of the time on shellac discs confirms the accuracy of his remarks. In some cases we can speak of very good music but the recordings show that with all the will in the world, the Czech jazz scene needed another few decades spent bringing it sound as close to American jazz as possible, picking up on and absorbing new influences promptly, and keeping up with new developmental trends. …

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