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A Fireside Chat With Miroslav Vitous

AAJ Staff By

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I am a Slavic musician and it is deeply inside of me. I consider [Jan Garbarek] to be like my musical brother.
A founding member of Weather Report, featured soloist on Chick Corea’s infamous Now He Sings, Now He Sobs Blue Note album, and leader of the genre bending Infinite Search has largely remained silent for the better part of two decades. Miroslav Vitous, once referred to as one of the perennial bassists in jazz, went into a self-imposed performing sabbatical. And then there was Universal Syncopations, Vitous’ (unedited and in his own words) first recording in over a decade. And with a stellar lineup, the bassist makes his triumphant return.

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.

I found out when I was at the New England Conservatory, we couldn’t even have a mandatory piano. It was a joke. I said, “You are kidding. This is twenty-five years later and the school I was going to in the middle of Communism had a piano.” This was unbelievable. Also, this was very interesting. The money in the schools overpowers the principles of the purpose.

I was the chairman at the New England Conservatory and what happened was, a student didn’t show up for the lesson and he told that the teacher didn’t show up. So I was the chairman and had to go to the president to speak for the teacher and said, “Listen, this is not true. The student didn’t show up. He just didn’t want to tell the truth because he doesn’t want to get spanked by his father.” The president says, “I believe that, but unfortunately, I have to go with the student because they are paying the money.”

I looked at him and I said, “You cannot discourage the teacher in such a way.” There is no respect from the student to the teacher. The whole principle is turned upside down. The next year, that happened to me. My student didn’t show up for three lessons and he said that I didn’t come. At that point, I said, “It happened to me and if you don’t believe me, I quit.” And I quit.

That was really so upsetting when you are trying to pass on some very serious knowledge and be basically, treated worse than a student coming off the street because his father pays the tuition. Come on. Give me a break. This is no school. This is a joke.

FJ: It is an epidemic of the times. Students lack the reverence for their teachers.

MV: Yes, I was very disappointed to find that out. Being victimized by this myself, I could not believe that this was possible. I found out that in the States, a lot of teachers are people that couldn’t make it in their own line of work and so they go teaching, unfortunately. Over there, that was not the case. They taught us because they wanted to pass the knowledge on and educate young musicians. It was not because they had to teach because they failed as musicians. There is a huge difference in the reasons why someone is teaching and what they can offer and what they cannot offer.

FJ: Your latest for ECM ( Universal Syncopation ) reminded me of Infinite Search.

MV: Right. I would say about Infinite Search, it was basically the top of modern jazz with European influences at that time, 1968, ’69. It was extremely advanced because the concept was modern. The main thing that those two albums have in common aside from my music, which of course, a sense of it, you can recognize, it is that the bass on Infinite Search was playing much, much less like a bass. It was playing more on an equal level to the other instruments. We had more of a conversation than a bassist keeping a role in the rhythm section. That was very advanced at that time.

I just continued this concept because, partly, bass players at the beginning of jazz could not play their instrument. Most of the bass players used to be ex-trombone players and they just picked the bass because there was no bassist around. So the whole basis for jazz music is based on the fact that the bassist could not play his instrument.

Isn’t that funny? That is what happened. So our ears got used to listening to jazz in the place that it was that the bassist could not play. No one really realized it and really addressed it until the bass players who could play their instrument came along and started doing something with it.

So I am one of those bass players who can do something and musically, it was back then and now it is even more, if you noticed on the new album, I am not playing all the time anymore. I am playing a phrase and Garbarek answers me or Corea comes in and answers both of us, then I say something or Garbarek says something. It is a constant conversation.

There is no roles. No one is keeping any roles. The drummer is also answering everybody and everything. So it is a constant conversation and communication between musicians on an extremely high level with extremely valuable material, motifs, and melodies.

It was magic because, in my own opinion, this is the best I have ever heard Garbarek play, on my new album. The music and the whole setting has brought this out of him. This is the best I have ever heard him play and I was completely knocked out the way he executed all my motifs and all my lines. His mother or his father was Polish and I am from Czechoslovakia, which is something they call Slavic. The Slavic part of him has a feeling for the Slavic part of the music and he perfectly understands and feels my melodic and harmonic roots.

I am a Slavic musician and it is deeply inside of me. I consider him to be like my musical brother. Anyone who comes close is him at this point.

FJ: Since playing on Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, you have collaborated with Chick Corea, most recently featuring him on your latest recording.

About Miroslav Vitous
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