Jazz, the Voice of Rebellion

Divadlo Reduta Photo by Reduta Jazz Club
Divadlo Reduta Photo by Reduta Jazz Club

Jazz pt.2, the Voice of Rebellion

In the previous article in this series, we covered the arrival of jazz in Prague. We explored the historical context both inside and outside the former Czechoslovakia, from Paris in 1918 to Prague in 1938. It was in this period that the first popular Czech musicians began to emerge, such as R.A. Dvorský who joined the Melody Makers in 1925 (later forming the Melody Boys in 1929) and Jaroslav Ježek, who was famous for blending classical music with jazz. In this article, we pick up where we left off, starting in September 1938, when the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland under the Munich Agreement.

Despite the fact that Prague did not lie within the Sudetenland, the Nazis marched into the Czech capital on 15 March 1939. During the occupation, jazz music was forbidden, as it was considered “Fremdländisch” or foreign. However, in spite of all the bans and restrictions, jazz’s presence endured, albeit underground, partly due to the fact that ignorant inspectors were often outsmarted. Even so, prominent artists like Ježek were forced to flee the country. He fled to New York City, where he met his wife, but died in 1942. Even though he was only 35 years old, he managed to leave a very important musical mark.

Due to the constraints placed on jazz music, the underground jazz scene was considered a place of protest and its musicians regarded as artistic heroes fighting against the regime. Jazz was still banned after Czechoslovakia’s liberation on 8 May 1945, and it wasn’t revived until 1947, when Graeme Bell and his Dixieland jazz band performed at the World Youth Festival in Prague.

When the Communist Party took hold of the country in 1948, jazz was once again seen by its rulers as the music of underground intellectuals. Even so, the music scene flourished, with numerous bands forming and clubs opening. One of the most famous jazz clubs to open its doors in the heart of Prague was Reduta in 1957.
Not only is it still one of the top ten jazz clubs in Europe, but at the time it functioned as a gathering place for artists and dissidents who would meet and discuss plans for artistic resistance.

The so-called Text-Appeal cabarets were introduced here, entertaining audiences through music and dialogue. The pioneers of this new form of entertainment were Jiří Suchý, an exceptionally talented songwriter and singing double bass player, and Ivan Vyskočil, a well-respected improvising actor. As the popularity of these shows grew, these nights would often turn into jazz jam sessions. Soon, all the top jazz musicians started meeting here and until the 60s, Reduta was both a jazz club and a cabaret theatre. The cultural scene in the Czech Republic was thriving and the jazz scene expanded simultaneously. In 1964, the first Prague International Jazz Festival was held, bringing the hip jazz bands of the time to Prague.

Jazz legend Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band were among the performers. In the following years, legends like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Stéphane Grappelli played at the festival.
After the Soviet invasion in 1968, the Communist regime suppressed individuality and artistic self-expression. The political crackdown hit the Czech jazz scene hard. Many clubs closed and dissidents were thrown in jail.

However, several social groups would gather to celebrate diversification and discuss changes that would have a positive impact on society. One such group was The Jazz Section, founded by Karel Srp in 1971, which originally formed to promote jazz but later focussed on political dissident activities. Due to an administrative loophole and staying within the state guidelines they were permitted to continue. In time they became bolder and launched the Jazz Days Festival, which became a yearly event.

They published books covering Czech art, rock poetry, and current musical culture. One reason The Jazz Section was accepted during the Soviet occupation was that the government hated rock music, and jazz was immensely popular with the masses. During the fifth Jazz Days Festival, authorities intervened when a rock operetta was performed, ultimately causing strained relations between the government and The Jazz Section. The government grew increasingly afraid of bad publicity due to the overwhelming popularity of jazz, leading the authorities to harass the group members and those attending their events. In 1980, the Jazz Days Festival was cancelled, with authorities calling the event a public disturbance after 15,000 fans had bought tickets.

 

1st World Festival of Youth and Students, Prague 1947 Photography Collection in Skryjský mlýn

 

During this time, many of the group members suffered immensely and most of them were imprisoned. Musicians including Ruzicka and Karel Velebný became famous as militants during the Prague Spring. Even Srp did not escape prison, but despite their director and founding member being incarcerated, The Jazz Section went from strength to strength.

Jazz was and still is the most important music genre of the 20th century. From the early to mid-1900s, it was the music of the people, through which artists, freethinkers, and creative minds could express themselves, inform the masses, and fight for new ideologies. The Czech jazz scene was no different. It showed incredible resilience in the face of extreme adversity, surviving through the eras of Nazism and communism. Perhaps the courageous actions of those rebellious and pioneering individuals of Prague’s jazz scene played a greater role in achieving freedom than we give credit for.

However, those freedoms that we enjoy to this day grow increasingly under threat, making the fight to protect liberty and learning from past struggles more crucial than ever.

The European Parliament elections will take place from 23 to 26 May. With racism and fascism on the rise, you have the opportunity to join us at an anti-racism/fascism festival at Cross Club on 22 May. The festival is organised by Jaroslav Rauser (Move Association) and Ben Osbourne (Noise of Art), in conjunction with Cross Club.

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