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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

Victor Verney By

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When most American jazz buffs think of the Czech Republic, they probably think of bassists George Mraz and Miroslav Vitous or keyboardist Jan Hammer. However, Europeans knowledgeable about the same topic probably think of Emil Vicklický, the acknowledged "Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano." Known for combining the melodism and tonalities of Moravian folk music with modern jazz harmonies and classical orchestration in a distinctly individual style, Vicklický grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, where his father was a university art professor. He graduated in 1971 from Palacky University with a degree in mathematics, and applied to graduate school with a view to becoming a professor himself. His first postgraduate lesson was also his last: learning that in communist Czechoslovakia circa early 1970s, political correctness was more important than academic merit, convincing him to pursue a musical career instead.

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.

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