Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano
In 1974 he was awarded the prize for best soloist at the Czechoslovak Amateur Jazz Festival, and in 1976 he was a prizewinner at the jazz improvisation competition in Lyon. His composition "Green Satin" earned him first prize in the music conservatory competition in Monaco, and in 1977 he was awarded a one-year scholarship to study composition and arrangement at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Since returning to Prague, he has led a variety of quartets and quintets and lectured at summer jazz workshops in both the Czech Republic and Wales. From 1991 to 1995, Vicklický served as president of the Czech Jazz Society, and since 1994 he has worked with the Ad lib Moravia ensemble, which had a highly successful concert tour of Mexico and the United States in 1996. Vicklický often performs in international ensembles with American and European musicians, including the Lou Blackburn International Quartet and the Benny Bailey Quintet. He has made frequent appearances in Finland with the Finnczech Quartet and in Norway with the Czech-Norwegian Big Band, and he has performed throughout Europe as well as in Japan and Israel. The editor of Rolling Stone magazine once wrote of Vicklický that, "it was a delightful surprise to see such first-class, top-of-the-line jazz in Prague."
Vicklický also composes straight-ahead jazz as well as chamber and orchestral works, often utilizing a combination of classical and jazz performers. In addition, he has written numerous scores for film, television, and theater. During the 1990s, he devoted a significant amount of his time to composing contemporary classical music for a wide variety of instrumental combinations ranging from small chamber ensembles and electronic instruments to symphony orchestras and choruses. In 2004, Vicklický was commissioned by [trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis to compose an operatic piece, The Mystery of Man, featuring the prison letters of Czech president Vaclav Havel. Part of a show titled Let Freedom Swing, it garnered critical acclaim after three sold-out Broadway performances in New York City.
In early August of 2006, Vicklický had a pleasant combination of his personal and professional lives while visiting his son, a Bloomington, Indiana urologist, to celebrate his granddaughter's eighth birthday. Taking advantage of his relative proximity, the directors of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he had previously given two well-received concerts, invited him for another performance. Prior to an afternoon rehearsal with two local hired guns, Des Moines bassist Steve Charleson and Cedar Rapids drummer Dennis McPartland, Vicklický graciously consented to a lengthy and wide-ranging interview. He arrived carrying the musical charts for his sidemen and a well-worn copy of Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, which he said he was re-reading.
All About Jazz: You were born in 1948 in Olomouc. A little about your boyhoodwas there music in your family?
Emil Vicklický: Kind of but not directly. Basically I come from a family of painters on my father's side. My father Emil and his older brother Viktor were both painters; my father was a professor of drawing, painting and sculpture at Olomouc University. To his credit, he was one only two university faculty who was never a member of the Communist Party; the other was a music professor, a Jewish guy. The rest all had joined. It made it very difficult for himhe stayed at the lowest academic level all his life. My uncle Viktor did a portrait of [Czech president T. G.] Masaryk for a postage stamp in 1936. He never married he was kind of a lady's man and that got him in trouble in March 1948, when the Communists came in. He was playing pool, smoking a cigar and he declared he was never going to work for them. Someone reported him and he was sentenced to labor camps as an "enemy of the revolution" for five years; I think the longest time was at Komarno. I remember as a young boy, my father was always trying to get him out. He never did anything; when I was older, my father told me that he was most likely having an affair with some Party official's wife, and that was probably the real reason. There's no doubt he boasted that he was going to fuck Comrade So-and-So's wifeI'm pretty sure that happenedand a jealous husband exploited the political situation at the time.
After he got out ... during the Communist era, if you wanted to be a painter you had to be registered. I remember him always saying to me, "I don't care about a new Communist registration! I've been registered as a member of the Moravian-Slovak Artists since the 1930s. Here is my card!" And it made trouble for him: they were coming after him, saying he didn't pay his insurance, and he had to pay for his visits to the doctor. Eventually the situation was cooled off.
My mother could play piano; we had a grand piano. My grandmother from my father's sideshe was Jewishshe could play. I never met her, because she died in 1948, but she was reportedly very beautiful. My grandfather Viktor lost his claim to the family vineyards because he married her. My great-grandmother was German, and she definitely didn't approve of him marrying this beautiful Polish Jew in Vienna, and she disinherited him. I could have claimed those vineyards after the Communists were removedthey went to my grandfather's sister, who died very young.
AAJ: Is it still a working vineyard?
EV: No, it's an unused cherry orchard now; its sad to see nowI've been there recently. It's in southern Moravia near Znojmo, very close to the Austrian border in Mikolovik, a tiny, tiny town of 662 people where all the Viklickys come from. My great-great-great grandfather, a blacksmith, was mayor in 1803. The current mayor told me the vineyards died about 100 years ago from pests and blight and was turned into a socialist cherry cooperative, but nobody picks them. It's on a little hill; the mayor told me that was where my grandfather stood and said, "I'm going to marry that beautiful woman, and I don't care about all this!"
AAJ: Is this your first time playing here in Iowa?
EV: Oh, noI played here two or three years ago and once before that. The last time was with a alto saxophonist named Benny Goldbin. He's the grandson of Ed Baum, who was an American soldier in Czechoslovakia in 1945 as a nineteen-year old boy with General Patton. Now he's like in his eighties. He called me one day from his home in Beverly Hills and said "I would like you to play with my grandson," Benny Goldbin (an alto saxophonist who lives in Studio City). They came to Prague a couple of times. Benny and I did two CDs together and a couple of gigs in Prague as well as in L.A.two the best known jazz clubs in L.A., but I don't recall the names. The gig here in Cedar Rapids came after our first CD, I think. Benny basically brought me here because I didn't have a clue about this place, I'm sorry to say.
AAJ: You're known for combining Moravian folk music and jazz. I'm curious, given that your audience tonight will be primarily Czech-Americans, will you do anything different than you might if you were, say, just playing at some jazz club in New York or Chicago?
EV: No, I don't think so. That is my trademark, and the only thing that might be different tonight is that the audience might be even more responsive, and they may know some of the folk songs I use. On the other hand, I've reharmonized, even changed them rhythmically pretty far from the original, and they might not recognize them. Something I do in the Czech Republic which has been commercially successful is touring with Zuzana Lapcikova, a folk singer who is educated in ethnography. She's a very good singer; she dresses in the traditional folk garb, gives some background, and she sings the melody in its original form. And then we take it on and gradually change it into something, and then we gradually bring it back.
AAJ: Bill Evans, one of your main influences, was known for reharmonizing Broadway show tunes, even pop tunes.
AAJ: Yes, and on that duet album he did with Toots Thielmann, the Paul Simon tune, "I Do It For Your Love."
EV: Yes, yes! [hums tune] Great song!
AAJ: I was just listening to that album on the way to this interview.
EV: Yes, Evans was one of my very first influences.
AAJ: You've been compared to several other pianistsKeith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, among others.
EV: Mmm ... I don't knowI would not agree completely. I'm harmonically more rich. Nothing against Mehldauhe's a fantastic technician, very modern, but I'm a different kind of player, I think.
AAJ: Let's see...who else have you been compared to? Tommy Flanagan.
EV: Oh, that's nicehe's a real gentleman, very tasteful. What they never mention, when I was a kid I always tried to copy Wynton Kelly. But none of the reviewers ever mentions Kelly because they think he's forgotten now. He's only on one song on Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), the rest is Bill Evans.
AAJ: I've seen a video of Miles playing "So What" with Kelly on piano. It was filmed in some television studio. Miles had three trombone players, kind of a horn section, you know, doing that baaa-da riff, and Wynton Kelly playing piano. It's on a website called YouTubethey have two or three old Bill Evans videos there too, by the way, and a couple of early Weather Report. So Evans and Kelly were your main guys?
EV: Yes, they were my boys. You know, I was in London when the first "fusion" was happening in 1968. I was there as an exchange student, you know, and I bought two Herbie Hancock records.
AAJ: Which ones?
EV: Maiden Voyage (Blue Note, 1965) and Like a Child (Blue Note, 1968). I still have them; I bought them on CD later on. After Evans, that was probably the best influenceearly Herbie, not later when he goes to ...
AAJ: Like after he got into Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973) and all that?
EV: Right, after Head Hunters. I mean, that's fine, of course, nothing against that.
AAJ: I saw him in the early 70s when he was playing Mwandishi (Warner Bros., 1970) and Crossings (Warner Bros., 1971), when he was making the transition.
EV: As he got more into the more rock thing, yes. But he does still play blues, you know.
AAJ: You'd like a video I recently saw of Miles, a concert he did in Paris very shortly before his death. It was kind of an all-star dealKenny Garrett, Zawinul, Shorter. Miles was calling guys up for tunes, you know, with that gravel voice, "Jooooe, Jooooe." Herbie was playing one of those keyboards you wear like a guitar. So anyway, one thing that intrigues me is that originally you were a math student in college. Was your first idea to be a mathematics professor?
EV: No, my first idea was to be a musician, but my father said to me, "Look, you already have two artists in the family, me and your uncle ... and you see the trouble he had! Do you want another artist in the familyare you crazy or what?" I was a good boy and, "Yes, you're right." He said "You have a talent for mathematics; you make fun of your secondary school math teachers. This will cost you nothing, and you can always continue to play music." He showed me the hard side of being an artist. So I said, "OK, I'm going to be a good boy and study mathematics." I could've done it.
AAJ: So, you could've been a math professor if you'd had to, if things had gone differently?
EV: Oh, yes. When I graduatedthis was in 1971my professor asked if I wanted to stay at the University I was kind of rude, like 23-year-olds can be, and said, "No thank you, Professor. I'm going to Prague." He said, "Are you going to study mathematics there?" I said, "No." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to play jazz in Prague." And he said, "Oh, no!" He felt that my senior thesis was really excellent work. It dealt with what are called "symmetrical polynomials." He said, "You could easily upgrade it to qualify for a doctorate in six months to a year, but you'll have to see the dean of the faculty." So I said, "OK, I'll try" and went to see him. He was this little, small, guy who said to me, "I don't give a damn about your bloody symmetrical polynomialsif you want to be a doctor of mathematics you will have to study Marxism-Leninism really hard!" This was after the Russians came in 1968; things had gotten quite bad. I stood there looking down at him and immediately I thought to myself, "I hope this won't last more than fifteen seconds because if it does I'm going to blow up at him!" I knew right then that was my very last five minutes in mathematical circles. I said, "Bye-bye," and that was the end of my doctoral degree in mathematics.
AAJ: I see a kind of a parallel there with the cherry orchard: the waste of resources under communismon one hand natural resources, on the other intellectual resources. So, you won some prizes and competitions in Czechoslovakia and Monaco, and then you went to Berklee [School of Music] to study composition and arrangement with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.
EV: Herb was a big influence, I have to thank Herb, because when I went back to the Czech Republic in the mid-'80s there were still a couple of big bands, radio bands going. They mostly play pop music, but on the side they did a little jazz on or two days a week. They needed someone to write for them, and they asked me to do itthat's how I made a nice living in mid-'80s. Thanks to Herb I could compose and write full band arrangements for horn sections and everything.
AAJ: OK, then you continued composition studies with Jarmo Simila?
EV: Yes, Jarmo is a Finnish composer who was quite an influential figure in my life from the point of view of contemporary music. He's a very good jazz trumpeter. He's about ten years older then me, about 68. Jarmo went to Prague to study contemporary classical music in the '70s, so he could speak a little Czech. Everybody of any importance went through his band, George Mraz, everybody; it was the band to be in. He was the Godfather of Czech jazz. He was like the Miles Davis of the old country. He came to see me play and we became friends. Eventually, he undermined my intention to play jazz exclusively by introducing me to the things he was doing as a former jazz musician turning into a contemporary classical musician. None of the Czechs really took me there; they'd go a little way in that direction and then it would get too complicated and they'd want to back off. In fact, Jarmo recommended I go study at the Prague Academy of Music. I said, "Nahthey're all communists, and I hate them and their music!" He said that there here was one professor who was worthwhile, a friend of his. So I went to see him and asked if I could be, how you say, an external student?
AAJ: What we call a non-matriculating student?
EV: Yes, and I sat in on his classes; it was usually five regular students or so and me. He might have been a member of the party; I don't know. The professor was quite knowledgeable, and Jarmo used to show up. They showed me a lot of things; they were the ones who opened the window for me into contemporary classical music.
AAJ: Who are your favorite composers in that genre?
EV: Oh, that's kind of hard to sayI guess Leos Janacek is my favorite!
AAJ: And non-contemporary figures?
EV: Dvorak, for sure.
AAJ: Of course, you know he lived here in Iowa for a while, right, up in Spillville?
EV: Yes, I do. And jazz musicians always like Bach, you know, because of the mathematics.
AAJ: There's a quote you're probably familiar with I've heardI can't remember who said itthat goes: "Mathematics is music for the mind, and music is mathematics for the soul."
EV: I think I know who said thatI believe that was Liebnitz.
AAJ: Yes, yesthat's it; you're right! I thought you might be familiar with that quote. I think that for many people operating from stereotypical images of mathematicians and jazz musicians, however, they might have a hard time reconciling what seems to be, you know, a real right-brain/left-brain kind of contrast between those two.
EV: I've had to answer that question many times, "What do you see as the relationship between music and mathematics, etc," You know, jazz musicians often have other intellectual interests. The British expert on Bill Evans, Brian Hennessey, he's the one who invited me to teach that jazz workshop in Wales. Evans was a houseguest of his many times, and Brian told me that [Evans] never wanted to talk abut music; when he wanted to converse about something, it was always poetry and linguistics he wanted to discuss.
AAJ: I understand he was into Blake.
EV: Yes, William Blake and English literature. I saw Evans once at the Village Vanguard in '78. He was very nice to me. I was living in New York and I played a little bit with Joe Newman and I happened to run into Chuck Israels. I played with him and rehearsed with him a few times at his house; he used to have that Ellington Big Band. He never actually gave me a gig, but he gave me references. So, when I went to see Bill, I told him that I'd been playing with Israels. Bill asked me how Chuck was doing and he talked to me for a while. I could see that he really was ... not healthy.
AAJ: I hear his fingers were all swollen up; they looked like sausages. He had hepatitis.
EV: Yes. I was clever enough to not ask him for his autograph or anything like that. There were a bunch of Japanese tourists who were asking him for autographs and he really hated doing that. I just told him I was a pianist and I admired his playing, and had been playing with Chuck, so he was nice to me.
AAJ: It's a rule of mine, whenever I meet someone famous, to never ask for an autograph.
EV: Yes, I did the same thing with Herbie [Hancock]. He was a houseguest of mine in Prague. We met at a jazz festival in San Sebastian [Spain] in 1976. I knew he was staying on a different floor in the same hotel as mine, and I called up the desk and asked for his room. I left a message and the next nightI was already in bedhe called me up and invited me to his room. We chatted and finished a bottle of Remy Martin. Then, ten years later he came to Prague for a concert at the American Embassy, with [drummer] Tony Williams, Marsalis, [bassist] Buster Williams, I think. He called me up and said he wanted to see me, so I invited him over to my house. I played the piano for him and we had dinner, but I didn't ask for his autograph or even take a picture or anything. Actually, he was late for his performance because of me. I'd picked him up at 12:00 [noon] and brought him to my house, and at 3:10 I said, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be at that gig?" He thought he didn't have to leave until 3:30 and the gig was at 4:00. I drove him to the Embassy, and we got there at 4:10. Everyone was frantic because he was supposed to have been there at 3:00!
AAJ: Wonderful story!
EV: Then, when I was in L.A. in 1991, I visited him at his house on Doheny Drive. We've run into each other many timesat the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, and again at the Pori Jazz Festival in 1982there's a picture of us from that on my website. We met up again about a year ago. He was playing with George Mraz. That was great because I was playing the same festival in Vien [France], about 60 kilometers south of Lyons. It's a big, two thousand year-old Roman amphitheatre. They came latethere was [trumpeter Roy] Hargrove, [saxophonist Michael] Brecker, Mraz, some African drummerGeorge didn't like himand Herbie.
AAJ: So you two guys are regular old buddies now, it sounds like. Getting back to literature, I see you're reading Mailer; do you like him? Do you have any other particular favorites?
EV: Yes, I like Mailer. The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte is one of my favorites, and I like Elmore Leonard a lot.
AAJ: I'm struck by the number of scores you've written for dramatic works by writers like Strindberg, Nietzsche, Albee, Arthur Miller, Mishima.
EV: Oh, yes, so many!
AAJ: It would seem like a natural for you to do the music for something on Kafka.
EV: Actually, I've been approached recently by some Swiss Czechs who are interested in having me write an opera about Kafka. Right now, the money isn't there for the project, but it could happen. Back in the communist days, I doing a lot of theater and film music, but I was not a member of the Party, I wasn't allowed to work on feature films or anything. But I could do a short, three-minute children's films, cartoons and theater. At the time, they had an 80-person orchestra, but they were just sitting around; the film directors were under the influence of American rock music, and they had a young guy playing guitar. They didn't even use the orchestra.
AAJ: More wasted resources!
EV: Yes. And I was an aspiring composer, and I approached them asked if I could the orchestrate some of the cartoons, and they said, "Of course! That would be fantastic!" They were delighted because the orchestra was just sitting around doing nothing. I made mistakes with my scores at first. Then I had the opportunity to score a somewhat longer children's film, again making some mistakes there, too. So I did that for five or ten years, and it was an invaluable learning experience. Then, later, in 1998, after the communists were gone, I was feeling a bit dissatisfied. "Jesus Christ," I said to myself, "All my life all I've written are these little pieces for children's cartoons and twelve-bar or sixteen-bar blues, and messing up this folklore music." I felt like I wanted to do something bigger. By coincidence, an announcement came in the mail for a competition to score a new opera, Faidra, being produced by the National Theater of Prague. The entry requirement was to fully orchestrate an eight-minute scene. I had learned about orchestration from doing those children's films and cartoons, so I said, "OK, I'll try."
It was a story about two Czech soldiers who were accused of raping an American sergeant in Yugoslavia. True story. What I didn't know at the timeI learned later onwas that she was quite ugly. The two Czech soldiersthey were privatesslept with her, and the next day at the cafeteria they were laughing at her. She said, "Oh you're laughing at me? I'll show you!" And she blabbed a big story, "Those guys raped me, etc. etc!" And they were found guilty of raping her.
AAJ: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
EV: Exactly. At the premier, one of the generals came up to me and said, "Emil, there is a problem. The singer you have playing the female lead is quite beautiful." I said, "Yes, she is." And he said, "But I can tell you that in real life she was very ugly." Anyway, when I first looked at the opera I realized how similar it was to the ancient Greek tragedy about Pheadra, an older woman who tried to woo her young stepson Hippolyte. He wasn't interested in her, so she accused him of raping her.
AAJ: A little bit like the story of Joseph and the Pharoah's wife in the Bible.
EV: Yes, same thing. I went see the librettist, a very educated lady. I figured I had nothing to lose by entering; if I didn't win, I could always use the score for some film or television project. Anyway, out of sixty entrants, I was chosen as one of ten finalists. I said, "Uh-ohI'm in trouble now." What started as a joke, all of a sudden it was serious. But I went to work on it and submitted a 350-page score, again I said to myself, "Who cares? If I don't win I can use it on somewhere else." Well, what do you knowI won! They gave me the prize money and all that, but then what happened was then they said, "OKnow you owe us a chamber opera"; it was kind of like an option they felt they had.
So I said, "All right, I'll do one on Karel Macha, a Czech romantic poet. Then I said to myself, "Jesus Christhow am I going to write an opera about the erotic diaries of a man who lived in 1810 and died when he was 26?!" It's very interesting: they're only eight pages, and they were locked away for 170 years. They didn't want to show that this Czech national hero, considered the creator of the Czech language, had this erotic element.
AAJ: I see you worked with Milan Kundera.
EV: Oh, we only used his poem, but he gave us permission. That belongs to my next project. We were lucky to get his cooperation because he can be complicated. But Zuzana Lapcikova, that folksinger I mentioned before, she somehow got permission from him, and he said, "Yes, you can use my poem." It's a story about a boy who kills his girlfriend because he loves her so much.
AAJ: Your most recent thing is The Mystery of Man, in New York as part of Wynton Marsalis' Broadway production Let Freedom Swing. You used the prison writings of Vaclav Havel for that. So did Marsalis just look you up?
EV: Actually, it stemmed from a recording I played on by George Mraz, Morava (Fantasy/Milestone, 2001), so far the only recording I've been on produced in America. The producer was Todd Barkan. He was working at the Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsaliswhom I had met when he was in Prague working on a project called Blood on the Field (Columbia, 1995). We talked about my opera work then. So, when Wynton started putting that project together for the Lincoln Center, he mentioned my name to Todd and had him call me.
AAJ: I understand you had a chance to play with another famous American musician in Prague, but it didn't quite work out. I'm referring to former President Bill Clinton, and I'm using the term "musician" rather loosely here, of course.
EV: Yes, Clinton visited Prague in January of 1994, and among the ceremonies held for him was one where he was presented with a Czech-made saxophone. Some government officials came up with the idea of having him play it with a local band, and they asked me to back him up with my band. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to go visit my son and grandchildren, who were living in Hawaii at the time. I'd had to purchase my ticket far in advance, and if I'd cancelled and bought a new ticket, it would have been very expensive! So I told them, "I'm sorry, but I already have travel plans which can't be changed."
AAJ: Did Bubba still play with the rest of the band?
EV: Yes, they had another pianist cover for me, and Clinton played with them at the Reduta, one of Pragues's most renowned jazz clubs. So, I guess I missed my chance to be really famous. [laughing].
Emil Vicklický Trio, Cookin' In Bonn (Dekkor, 2006)
Emil Vicklický Trio & Scott Robinson, Summertime (Cube-Métier, 2004)
Emil Vicklický Trio and Steve Houben, What's New (Cube-Métier, 2003)
Emil Vicklický, Laco Tropp, Frantisek Uhlir, Trio '01 (Arta, 2002)
Zuzana Lapcikova, Emil Vicklický, Petr Ruzicka, Lullabies (Multisonic, 2001)
George Mraz, Billy Hart, Zuzana Lapcikova, Emil Vicklický, Morava (Fantasy/Milestone, 2001)
Emil Vicklický, Live in Rudolfinum (PJ Music, 2001)
Benny Golbin with Emil Vicklický, An American in Prague (ClearWater, 2000)
Zuzana Lapcikova with Emil Vicklický, Moravian Love Songs (Lotos, 1999)
Emil Vicklický Quartet, Food of Love ( Lotos, 1998)
Emil Vicklický with Jarmo Sermila, Alex Svamberk and Miroslav Posejpal, Neuro (Gallup Music, 1998)
Emil Vicklický with Anita Wardell, Greg Hopkins, Gergely Ittzes, Eric Marienthal and Julian Nicholas, Duets (Lotos, 1998)
Emil Vicklický Quartet with Bill Frisell, The Window and The Door (Bonton, 1997)
Emil Vicklický with Boris Urbanek, UV Drive (Arta, 1997)
Emil Vicklický with Steve Houben, Petr Dvorsky and Laco Tropp, Bohemia After Dark (PJ Music, 1997)
Emil Vicklický and James Williams, Together (Supraphon, 1996)
Jarmo Sermila and Emil Vicklický, Confluence (Jasemusiikki Finland, 1995)
Emil Vicklický and Alex Svamberk with Lucie Bila, Last Connection from Niirasaki (Monitor/EMI Records, 1995)
Ad lib Moravia, Fast Falls the Rain (Lotos, 1994)
Emil Vicklický Quartet, 'Round Midnight (Arta, 1991)
Benny Bailey Quintet, While My Lady Sleeps... (Gemini Records, 1990)
Emil Vicklický Trio, Beyond the Mountains (Supraphon, 1990)
Emil Vicklický Quartet and the Talich Quartet, Homage to Joan Miro (Supraphon, 1988)
Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall (New York Beat, 2004)