Jazz in Prague


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...before the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, musicians in Prague secretly exchanged bootleg jazz records, fearfully avoiding the watchful eye of the Communist regime. —Rene Trossman
Vit Svec (right) eerily opens up his last set with bass chords that flutter like bat wings in a dark cave.

To his right, the head of pianist Matej Banko begins to dip and bob and, just before his nose touches the piano keys, he begins to play quick, staccato notes that bounce around the tourists seated in U Stare pani, a jazz club located just blocks from bustling Wenceslas Square.

By the time the Vit Svec trio closes with a brilliant, fast-paced version of Thelonius Monk's "I Mean New," the indifferent audience members are busy finishing their drinks, grabbing their coats, and heading for the door.

Banko smokes cigarettes at a lone table in the back while waiting for Svec and drummer Jan Linhart to pack up their instruments.

He rubs his fingers through his thin blonde hair, takes a long drag, and watches the last tourist climb the stairs out of the club and into the street.

"The jazz scene here is stagnant," says Banko, his face barely visible through the flickering candles and smoke. "Musicians don't feel any pressure to play well because every night they are playing to new faces. They'll play the same songs for 10 years."

He pauses, looks at his wife seated across the bar, and then says, "But tourists are the only reason we are alive."

With over two million visitors per year, Prague is a tourist's haven. This is especially true in the summer months when the Charles Bridge swells with hordes of international vacationers eager to guzzle cheap beer, feast on goulash, and listen to live music. Only in the bitter winter months of January and February do map-wielding tourists clear out of the cobblestone streets to make way for sleet and slow.

So it's obvious why jazz musicians like Rene Trossman, an expatriate blues guitarist from Chicago, flock to Prague. Trossman came in 1993 not only to perform in tourist-oriented jazz clubs, but also to capitalize on the Czech Republic's conveniently centralized location. From Prague, he can travel easily into the nearby countries of Germany and Austria where club owners pay more per show and then gladly shell out travel expenses, too.

"Five gigs in Germany are like playing 20 gigs here," says Trossman, who performs every Wednesday night at U Maleho Glena with his act, The Rene Trossman Band.

Trossman moved to Prague to escape the impenetrable Chicago blues scene and to get away from Americans.

He quickly scored gigs with local acts playing to large expatriate audiences thirsty for American blues and, for the first time, he wasn't stuck playing backup guitar for Chicago blues legends. Instead, wild crowds of nearly one thousand music fans packed into club basements to hear his blend of funk, blues and jazz alongside Prague favorites like Ronnie and the Stingrays.

Today, his weekly act draws about 75 music fans, 80 percent of which are tourists.

Trossman arrived just before the peak of the Prague jazz scene and has endured its steady decline ever since.

He said that before the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989, musicians in Prague secretly exchanged bootleg jazz records, fearfully avoiding the watchful eye of the Communist regime. The government only allowed certain artists to perform and it was difficult to obtain guitars, trumpets and drum sets.

"My teachers would have to listen to [American jazz on the] radio in secret and transcribe the notes by ear," says Banko, who studies music composition at the local music school Konservator Jaroslava Jezka. "They were so hungry for the music."

After the Velvet Revolution, the dam broke and a river of progressive American jazz flowed through Prague. Carefree musicians could now turn on the radio and listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and then rapidly work to make up for lost time.

This fiery buzz of excitement peaked in the mid 1990s and, by the time it cooled like windblown embers, the city was left with too many musicians and not enough places to play. Saxophonists littered street corners and long, sad trumpet notes echoed in the subways late into the night.

British singer Jaime Marshall, who has been singing for The Rene Trossman Band for the past two months, recounts greedy club owners at the time demanding exorbitant entrance fees that kept out low-wage local Czechs, depleting any chance of establishing a local following.

Also, even with hundreds of new jazz musicians playing here, the older generations still relate modern jazz to the oppressed handful of artists from the Communist eras. They didn't want anything to do with jazz back then, and they still don't today.

But the tourists could always afford to pay and they kept coming. To adapt accordingly, bands like Trossman's began to play American blues and jazz covers.

Soon, bands across the city were gearing their acts towards the reliable influx of visitors. Musicians fell into a rut of playing the same, worn out jazz hits because they knew that the audience members only wanted to be entertained for one evening before going back to their respective countries.

The result today is a jazz scene filled with hundreds of interchangeable faceless musicians from various countries, most of them one-trick-magicians, only capable of performing American covers.

"American jazz music is like an alphabet for jazz musicians who don't speak the same language," says Banko. "As long as they know the alphabet, then they can play together."

Banko is from the post-revolution generation that was lucky enough to grow up with artists like Herbie Hancock and Chic Corea. He composes all of the music for the Vit Svec Trio, as well as the Latin rhythms for his other weekly act, the No Borders Trio.

He talks about struggling to make money as a jazz artist here, about how he passes up profitable, yet uninspiring gigs on riverboats and in restaurants to spend more time writing music, and how he wishes the rest of the musicians here would do the same.

But then he catches himself, smiles, and says, "It doesn't really matter though. My music is what makes me happy."

Photo Credit
Kevin Dean

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