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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

By Published: October 31, 2006
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 him—he 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 wife—I'm pretty sure that happened—and 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 side—she was Jewish—she 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 removed—they 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 now—I'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, no—I 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.

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