Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

Victor Verney By

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EV: Actually, I've been approached recently by some Swiss Czechs who are interested in having me write an opera about Kafka. Right now, the money isn't there for the project, but it could happen. Back in the communist days, I doing a lot of theater and film music, but I was not a member of the Party, I wasn't allowed to work on feature films or anything. But I could do a short, three-minute children's films, cartoons and theater. At the time, they had an 80-person orchestra, but they were just sitting around; the film directors were under the influence of American rock music, and they had a young guy playing guitar. They didn't even use the orchestra.

AAJ: More wasted resources!

EV: Yes. And I was an aspiring composer, and I approached them asked if I could the orchestrate some of the cartoons, and they said, "Of course! That would be fantastic!" They were delighted because the orchestra was just sitting around doing nothing. I made mistakes with my scores at first. Then I had the opportunity to score a somewhat longer children's film, again making some mistakes there, too. So I did that for five or ten years, and it was an invaluable learning experience. Then, later, in 1998, after the communists were gone, I was feeling a bit dissatisfied. "Jesus Christ," I said to myself, "All my life all I've written are these little pieces for children's cartoons and twelve-bar or sixteen-bar blues, and messing up this folklore music." I felt like I wanted to do something bigger. By coincidence, an announcement came in the mail for a competition to score a new opera, Faidra, being produced by the National Theater of Prague. The entry requirement was to fully orchestrate an eight-minute scene. I had learned about orchestration from doing those children's films and cartoons, so I said, "OK, I'll try."

It was a story about two Czech soldiers who were accused of raping an American sergeant in Yugoslavia. True story. What I didn't know at the time—I learned later on—was that she was quite ugly. The two Czech soldiers—they were privates—slept with her, and the next day at the cafeteria they were laughing at her. She said, "Oh you're laughing at me? I'll show you!" And she blabbed a big story, "Those guys raped me, etc. etc!" And they were found guilty of raping her.

AAJ: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

EV: Exactly. At the premier, one of the generals came up to me and said, "Emil, there is a problem. The singer you have playing the female lead is quite beautiful." I said, "Yes, she is." And he said, "But I can tell you that in real life she was very ugly." Anyway, when I first looked at the opera I realized how similar it was to the ancient Greek tragedy about Pheadra, an older woman who tried to woo her young stepson Hippolyte. He wasn't interested in her, so she accused him of raping her.

AAJ: A little bit like the story of Joseph and the Pharoah's wife in the Bible.

EV: Yes, same thing. I went see the librettist, a very educated lady. I figured I had nothing to lose by entering; if I didn't win, I could always use the score for some film or television project. Anyway, out of sixty entrants, I was chosen as one of ten finalists. I said, "Uh-oh—I'm in trouble now." What started as a joke, all of a sudden it was serious. But I went to work on it and submitted a 350-page score, again I said to myself, "Who cares? If I don't win I can use it on somewhere else." Well, what do you know—I won! They gave me the prize money and all that, but then what happened was then they said, "OK—now you owe us a chamber opera"; it was kind of like an option they felt they had.

So I said, "All right, I'll do one on Karel Macha, a Czech romantic poet. Then I said to myself, "Jesus Christ—how am I going to write an opera about the erotic diaries of a man who lived in 1810 and died when he was 26?!" It's very interesting: they're only eight pages, and they were locked away for 170 years. They didn't want to show that this Czech national hero, considered the creator of the Czech language, had this erotic element.

AAJ: I see you worked with Milan Kundera.

EV: Oh, we only used his poem, but he gave us permission. That belongs to my next project. We were lucky to get his cooperation because he can be complicated. But Zuzana Lapcikova, that folksinger I mentioned before, she somehow got permission from him, and he said, "Yes, you can use my poem." It's a story about a boy who kills his girlfriend because he loves her so much.

AAJ: Your most recent thing is The Mystery of Man, in New York as part of Wynton Marsalis' Broadway production Let Freedom Swing. You used the prison writings of Vaclav Havel for that. So did Marsalis just look you up?

EV: Actually, it stemmed from a recording I played on by George Mraz, Morava (Fantasy/Milestone, 2001), so far the only recording I've been on produced in America. The producer was Todd Barkan. He was working at the Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis—whom I had met when he was in Prague working on a project called Blood on the Field (Columbia, 1995). We talked about my opera work then. So, when Wynton started putting that project together for the Lincoln Center, he mentioned my name to Todd and had him call me.

AAJ: I understand you had a chance to play with another famous American musician in Prague, but it didn't quite work out. I'm referring to former President Bill Clinton, and I'm using the term "musician" rather loosely here, of course.

EV: Yes, Clinton visited Prague in January of 1994, and among the ceremonies held for him was one where he was presented with a Czech-made saxophone. Some government officials came up with the idea of having him play it with a local band, and they asked me to back him up with my band. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to go visit my son and grandchildren, who were living in Hawaii at the time. I'd had to purchase my ticket far in advance, and if I'd cancelled and bought a new ticket, it would have been very expensive! So I told them, "I'm sorry, but I already have travel plans which can't be changed."

AAJ: Did Bubba still play with the rest of the band?

EV: Yes, they had another pianist cover for me, and Clinton played with them at the Reduta, one of Pragues's most renowned jazz clubs. So, I guess I missed my chance to be really famous. [laughing].

Selected Discography

Emil Vicklický Trio, Cookin' In Bonn (Dekkor, 2006)
Emil Vicklický Trio & Scott Robinson, Summertime (Cube-Métier, 2004)
Emil Vicklický Trio and Steve Houben, What's New (Cube-Métier, 2003)
Emil Vicklický, Laco Tropp, Frantisek Uhlir, Trio '01 (Arta, 2002)
Zuzana Lapcikova, Emil Vicklický, Petr Ruzicka, Lullabies (Multisonic, 2001)
George Mraz, Billy Hart, Zuzana Lapcikova, Emil Vicklický, Morava (Fantasy/Milestone, 2001)
Emil Vicklický, Live in Rudolfinum (PJ Music, 2001)
Benny Golbin with Emil Vicklický, An American in Prague (ClearWater, 2000)
Zuzana Lapcikova with Emil Vicklický, Moravian Love Songs (Lotos, 1999)
Emil Vicklický Quartet, Food of Love ( Lotos, 1998)
Emil Vicklický with Jarmo Sermila, Alex Svamberk and Miroslav Posejpal, Neuro (Gallup Music, 1998)
Emil Vicklický with Anita Wardell, Greg Hopkins, Gergely Ittzes, Eric Marienthal and Julian Nicholas, Duets (Lotos, 1998)
Emil Vicklický Quartet with Bill Frisell, The Window and The Door (Bonton, 1997)
Emil Vicklický with Boris Urbanek, UV Drive (Arta, 1997)
Emil Vicklický with Steve Houben, Petr Dvorsky and Laco Tropp, Bohemia After Dark (PJ Music, 1997)
Emil Vicklický and James Williams, Together (Supraphon, 1996)
Jarmo Sermila and Emil Vicklický, Confluence (Jasemusiikki Finland, 1995)
Emil Vicklický and Alex Svamberk with Lucie Bila, Last Connection from Niirasaki (Monitor/EMI Records, 1995)
Ad lib Moravia, Fast Falls the Rain (Lotos, 1994)
Emil Vicklický Quartet, 'Round Midnight (Arta, 1991)
Benny Bailey Quintet, While My Lady Sleeps... (Gemini Records, 1990)
Emil Vicklický Trio, Beyond the Mountains (Supraphon, 1990)
Emil Vicklický Quartet and the Talich Quartet, Homage to Joan Miro (Supraphon, 1988)

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Victor Verney
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