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Czech Republic: Jazz Holds Illustrious History And Uncertain Future

By Daniel Benamin

Prague, 12 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Robert Balzar is fed up. The 36-year-old jazz bassist cannot make a decent living playing in Prague.

"Playing gigs (concerts), you can make money for the next breakfast, maybe for gasoline, but not for a car, not for a flat.....My car has 400,000 kilometers on it. I don't know what I will do when it is finished," Balzar said.

Balzar is part of a new wave of post-revolution Czech jazzmen, including David Doruzka, Karel Ruzicka, Jr. and Jan Knop among others, who represent the best group of young musicians Prague has seen in several decades.

Yet the future of Czech jazz is unclear.

Like many young musicians, Balzar feels alienated from the Czech jazz scene. Balzar says he feels increasing competition from musicians in the West as well as frustration with the music industry which is just beginning to escape from personal politics of the communist regime.

The Czechs boast a rich legacy of big band jazz, centered largely around traditional brass bands. Band leaders like Jaroslav Jezek, after whom one of Prague's most prestigious jazz academies is named, figured prominently into the Czech music scene before World War II.

During the Nazi occupation, jazz became a mode of political dissent, and jazz records became valued contraband items. When the Soviets arrived in 1948, Czech jazz musicians faced censorship and hardship from the government.

During the 1950s and 1960s Willis Conover, an American disk jockey for Voice of America, proved an invaluable resource to Czech jazzmen, broadcasting the latest modern jazz on short-wave radio.

Karel Ruzicka, Sr., a pianist who would later loom large over the Prague Spring's dissident jazz community, said Conover's broadcasts were the only way to hear American jazz music:

"In the 50's there were no records, no books, no music, not even sheet music. Nothing... I discovered this program when I was 14 or 15 years old... it came on late at night, about 10pm until midnight... I started to listen to it regularly," Ruzicka said.

Czech jazz musicians claimed their music represented oppressed American blacks. Their claim played into the government's desire to present communism as a superior, egalitarian alternative to the U.S. capitalist system. Instead of banning jazz, the government institutionalized it.

"It was never forbidden officially, but there was only one jazz club, one jazz festival, and only one agency. It was a very well organized monopoly," Ruzicka recalls.

In the 1960s, Prague's jazz movement came to the foreground. Jazz clubs flourished, and a dissident community formed around the music. For them, jazz expressed feelings of liberation and political and social change. The Jazz Section, a group originally formed to promote jazz, became a focus of politicized dissident activity, and musicians like Ruzicka and Karel Velebny made their names as militants in the Prague Spring.

The 1968 Soviet-led invasion and subsequent political crackdown hit Czech jazz hard. Clubs closed, dissident musicians were thrown into jail, and the scene lost its vitality. The 1989 Velvet Revolution revitalized Czech jazz. Emigre musicians returned home, and jazz became a commercial industry. Past Czech jazz notables like Jiri Stivin and Ruzicka played regularly. Foreign jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, John MacLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Ray Brown used Prague as a popular venue. U.S. President Bill Clinton himself played saxophone in 1994 at Reduta jazz club, furthering Prague's semi-mythical reputation as a jazz city.

Today a young vanguard of homegrown Czech musicians like guitarist David Doruzka, alto saxophonist Karel Ruzicka Jr. and pianist Jan Knop dominate the jazz scene. The Czech Jazz Society has undergone a major overhaul, and the new leadership is much more open to the younger musicians, some of whom now sit on its board of directors. Young musicians say they hope to bring more festival and television exposure for young Czech artists.