A Fireside Chat With Miroslav Vitous
“ I am a Slavic musician and it is deeply inside of me. I consider [Jan Garbarek] to be like my musical brother. ”
Fred Jung: Let’s start from the beginning.
Miroslav Vitous: They tested my talents and found out that I had talent by some tests they knew how to do as far as ear training and this kind of thing. I basically started playing violin at the age of six. That lasted about three years because my previous teacher died and the second teacher didn’t really know how to successfully get me going. Basically, I switched over to the piano and then at the age of fourteen, I picked the bass up because it was something that just came into my life. So I picked it up and I went to a conservatory one year later and started playing jazz and classical at the same time. So that is how I got started.
FJ: You won a scholarship to Berklee.
MV: Right, there was a jazz competition in 1966 in Vienna and I won the first prize, which was a Berklee School scholarship. At the same time, Cannonball Adderley, who was on the jury at that time, asked me to join his group, so I went to America because everything was in America. Then it turned out that he couldn’t have me because of some problems with the visa and they were traveling so much to Japan and stuff like that. I didn’t have my passport together to go because I was just fresh from Czechoslovakia, so I stayed in school, but for only a short while because the school was basically a lot under the level which I was used to from going to the high conservatory in Prague.
I come to the Berklee School of Music and basically they were learning how to do the scales, which is what I learned when I was six years old when I started on violin. I didn’t speak very much English, but I asked the director if he would be so kind as to move me up because I was sitting over there just basically wasting time. He said that they could not move me up and so I stopped going to school and I started to practice at home with the record player and tape recorder. I was heavily practicing. I had an eight hour a day schedule of practicing, which within one year, moved me a tremendous distance. I continued studying by myself in the field of jazz with my own technique of improvisation, walking bass lines, rhythms, all kinds of stuff, which I created for myself.
I was there for one year in Boston and then somehow I got this engagement with Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry to go to Chicago and play with them in the summer and so I did that. Miles Davis had me play and he hired me the following week and after that, everything broke wide open.
FJ: A good deal of pressure on a young man.
MV: Yeah, it was, Fred. It was happy pressure. I was pretty much prepared because I was already playing in extremely good ways when I arrived from Europe because I played jazz four or five years before I arrived here. I took it very seriously and got very far with it. I was pretty much on a high level when I arrived.
That one year in Boston got me very, very prepared for anything that was coming my way. That was a lucky thing that happened. Musically, I didn’t have any problems whatsoever. It was more because of such a talent which I have. It was received extremely well because it was recognized for someone very talented.
FJ: Based on your own admission, it seems during the Sixties, the European conservatories were far superior to that of their American counterparts.
MV: Yes, as far as classical music was concerned. They did not have jazz music at that time. That was a much higher level, I have to tell you, Fred. This was 1965, ’64, I was going to the conservatory there and later on, I became chairman of the New England Conservatory, which was a classical school with a jazz department.
I have to tell you, Fred, just by looking at this, this was ’85, ’86, twenty years later, and I can tell you that the school in Prague was a very, very special school because of the Communism, the teachers were extremely oriented in passing the knowledge and pride of the country, so to speak. There was the best teachers from the Czech Philharmonic, highly dedicated people, some of the best musicians in the world passing on the knowledge about the country, about the principles, and about the music. Everything was extremely serious. It was unheard of that students would not show up for lessons. They were thrown out of school, immediately.