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.

All About Jazz: You were born in 1948 in Olomouc. A little about your boyhood—was 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 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.

AAJ: Bill Evans, one of your main influences, was known for reharmonizing Broadway show tunes, even pop tunes.

EV: "M.A.S.H."

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 pianists—Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, among others.

EV: Mmm ... I don't know—I would not agree completely. I'm harmonically more rich. Nothing against Mehldau—he'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 nice—he'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 YouTube—they 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 influence—early 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.
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