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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

Victor Verney By

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AAJ: You'd like a video I recently saw of Miles, a concert he did in Paris very shortly before his death. It was kind of an all-star deal—Kenny Garrett, Zawinul, Shorter. Miles was calling guys up for tunes, you know, with that gravel voice, "Jooooe, Jooooe." Herbie was playing one of those keyboards you wear like a guitar. So anyway, one thing that intrigues me is that originally you were a math student in college. Was your first idea to be a mathematics professor?

EV: No, my first idea was to be a musician, but my father said to me, "Look, you already have two artists in the family, me and your uncle ... and you see the trouble he had! Do you want another artist in the family—are you crazy or what?" I was a good boy and, "Yes, you're right." He said "You have a talent for mathematics; you make fun of your secondary school math teachers. This will cost you nothing, and you can always continue to play music." He showed me the hard side of being an artist. So I said, "OK, I'm going to be a good boy and study mathematics." I could've done it.

AAJ: So, you could've been a math professor if you'd had to, if things had gone differently?

EV: Oh, yes. When I graduated—this was in 1971—my professor asked if I wanted to stay at the University I was kind of rude, like 23-year-olds can be, and said, "No thank you, Professor. I'm going to Prague." He said, "Are you going to study mathematics there?" I said, "No." He said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to play jazz in Prague." And he said, "Oh, no!" He felt that my senior thesis was really excellent work. It dealt with what are called "symmetrical polynomials." He said, "You could easily upgrade it to qualify for a doctorate in six months to a year, but you'll have to see the dean of the faculty." So I said, "OK, I'll try" and went to see him. He was this little, small, guy who said to me, "I don't give a damn about your bloody symmetrical polynomials—if you want to be a doctor of mathematics you will have to study Marxism-Leninism really hard!" This was after the Russians came in 1968; things had gotten quite bad. I stood there looking down at him and immediately I thought to myself, "I hope this won't last more than fifteen seconds because if it does I'm going to blow up at him!" I knew right then that was my very last five minutes in mathematical circles. I said, "Bye-bye," and that was the end of my doctoral degree in mathematics.

AAJ: I see a kind of a parallel there with the cherry orchard: the waste of resources under communism—on one hand natural resources, on the other intellectual resources. So, you won some prizes and competitions in Czechoslovakia and Monaco, and then you went to Berklee [School of Music] to study composition and arrangement with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.

EV: Herb was a big influence, I have to thank Herb, because when I went back to the Czech Republic in the mid-'80s there were still a couple of big bands, radio bands going. They mostly play pop music, but on the side they did a little jazz on or two days a week. They needed someone to write for them, and they asked me to do it—that's how I made a nice living in mid-'80s. Thanks to Herb I could compose and write full band arrangements for horn sections and everything.

AAJ: OK, then you continued composition studies with Jarmo Simila?

EV: Yes, Jarmo is a Finnish composer who was quite an influential figure in my life from the point of view of contemporary music. He's a very good jazz trumpeter. He's about ten years older then me, about 68. Jarmo went to Prague to study contemporary classical music in the '70s, so he could speak a little Czech. Everybody of any importance went through his band, George Mraz, everybody; it was the band to be in. He was the Godfather of Czech jazz. He was like the Miles Davis of the old country. He came to see me play and we became friends. Eventually, he undermined my intention to play jazz exclusively by introducing me to the things he was doing as a former jazz musician turning into a contemporary classical musician. None of the Czechs really took me there; they'd go a little way in that direction and then it would get too complicated and they'd want to back off. In fact, Jarmo recommended I go study at the Prague Academy of Music. I said, "Nah—they're all communists, and I hate them and their music!" He said that there here was one professor who was worthwhile, a friend of his. So I went to see him and asked if I could be, how you say, an external student?

AAJ: What we call a non-matriculating student?

EV: Yes, and I sat in on his classes; it was usually five regular students or so and me. He might have been a member of the party; I don't know. The professor was quite knowledgeable, and Jarmo used to show up. They showed me a lot of things; they were the ones who opened the window for me into contemporary classical music.

AAJ: Who are your favorite composers in that genre?

EV: Oh, that's kind of hard to say—I guess Leos Janacek is my favorite!

AAJ: And non-contemporary figures?

EV: Dvorak, for sure.

AAJ: Of course, you know he lived here in Iowa for a while, right, up in Spillville?

EV: Yes, I do. And jazz musicians always like Bach, you know, because of the mathematics.

AAJ: There's a quote you're probably familiar with I've heard—I can't remember who said it—that goes: "Mathematics is music for the mind, and music is mathematics for the soul."

EV: I think I know who said that—I believe that was Liebnitz.

AAJ: Yes, yes—that's it; you're right! I thought you might be familiar with that quote. I think that for many people operating from stereotypical images of mathematicians and jazz musicians, however, they might have a hard time reconciling what seems to be, you know, a real right-brain/left-brain kind of contrast between those two.

EV: I've had to answer that question many times, "What do you see as the relationship between music and mathematics, etc," You know, jazz musicians often have other intellectual interests. The British expert on Bill Evans, Brian Hennessey, he's the one who invited me to teach that jazz workshop in Wales. Evans was a houseguest of his many times, and Brian told me that [Evans] never wanted to talk abut music; when he wanted to converse about something, it was always poetry and linguistics he wanted to discuss.

AAJ: I understand he was into Blake.

EV: Yes, William Blake and English literature. I saw Evans once at the Village Vanguard in '78. He was very nice to me. I was living in New York and I played a little bit with Joe Newman and I happened to run into Chuck Israels. I played with him and rehearsed with him a few times at his house; he used to have that Ellington Big Band. He never actually gave me a gig, but he gave me references. So, when I went to see Bill, I told him that I'd been playing with Israels. Bill asked me how Chuck was doing and he talked to me for a while. I could see that he really was ... not healthy.

AAJ: I hear his fingers were all swollen up; they looked like sausages. He had hepatitis.

EV: Yes. I was clever enough to not ask him for his autograph or anything like that. There were a bunch of Japanese tourists who were asking him for autographs and he really hated doing that. I just told him I was a pianist and I admired his playing, and had been playing with Chuck, so he was nice to me.

AAJ: It's a rule of mine, whenever I meet someone famous, to never ask for an autograph.

EV: Yes, I did the same thing with Herbie [Hancock]. He was a houseguest of mine in Prague. We met at a jazz festival in San Sebastian [Spain] in 1976. I knew he was staying on a different floor in the same hotel as mine, and I called up the desk and asked for his room. I left a message and the next night—I was already in bed—he called me up and invited me to his room. We chatted and finished a bottle of Remy Martin. Then, ten years later he came to Prague for a concert at the American Embassy, with [drummer] Tony Williams, Marsalis, [bassist] Buster Williams, I think. He called me up and said he wanted to see me, so I invited him over to my house. I played the piano for him and we had dinner, but I didn't ask for his autograph or even take a picture or anything. Actually, he was late for his performance because of me. I'd picked him up at 12:00 [noon] and brought him to my house, and at 3:10 I said, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be at that gig?" He thought he didn't have to leave until 3:30 and the gig was at 4:00. I drove him to the Embassy, and we got there at 4:10. Everyone was frantic because he was supposed to have been there at 3:00!

AAJ: Wonderful story!

EV: Then, when I was in L.A. in 1991, I visited him at his house on Doheny Drive. We've run into each other many times—at the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, and again at the Pori Jazz Festival in 1982—there's a picture of us from that on my website. We met up again about a year ago. He was playing with George Mraz. That was great because I was playing the same festival in Vien [France], about 60 kilometers south of Lyons. It's a big, two thousand year-old Roman amphitheatre. They came late—there was [trumpeter Roy] Hargrove, [saxophonist Michael] Brecker, Mraz, some African drummer—George didn't like him—and Herbie.

AAJ: So you two guys are regular old buddies now, it sounds like. Getting back to literature, I see you're reading Mailer; do you like him? Do you have any other particular favorites?

EV: Yes, I like Mailer. The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte is one of my favorites, and I like Elmore Leonard a lot.

AAJ: I'm struck by the number of scores you've written for dramatic works by writers like Strindberg, Nietzsche, Albee, Arthur Miller, Mishima.

EV: Oh, yes, so many!

AAJ: It would seem like a natural for you to do the music for something on Kafka.
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