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Sunday, August 22, 1999 Published at 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK

Jamming in Prague

The Reduta Club just off Wenceslas: From jazz for dissidents to music for tourists

By Max Easterman in Prague

I do not suppose that more than a small percentage of the people who thronged the concert halls and clubs during the Prague jazz festivals of the 70s and 80s really knew what jazz was about.

They almost certainly did not let that bother them because those biennial festivals were more important than bringing Count Basie to Prague.

They were beams of light shining through the black night of Communism, cool consolation, as it were, for the musically, intellectually and politically harrassed masses of central Europe.

Czecho-Slovak musicians conceived the jazz section of their trade union between sessions in the Reduta Club, just off Wenceslas Square.

But the jazz section was as much, if not more, about dissent, samizdat and debate than it was about getting recognition for jazz.

Less of a threat

The repression that followed the Prague spring brought in an artistic regime so stultifying that even the authorities realised there had to be some safety valve.

Jazz was, apparently, less of a threat than rock music so the jazz section was, at first, tolerated.

But not for long - its leaders soon got the same punishment as other dissidents. However, it made jazz a symbol of a world and a lifestyle that Czecho-Slovaks young and old could aspire to.

There were some fine jazz musicians around. I remember a Voice of America broadcast in that fateful year of '68, when the commentator remarked that the Czech Radio Big Band was one of the best he had heard.

A new generation

As recently as five years ago when I was recording jazz at the Reduta for BBC Radio, the club was still regularly packed out for sessions featuring a younger, but equally good generation of players.

They had grown up in the latter years of Communism, and begun experimenting with the new forms of jazz, which were percolating through the increasingly torn and ragged Iron Curtain.

They wanted to be good, not least because there was little point in being persecuted for doing something badly.

And jazz, which 70 years ago helped American Blacks begin to find a way out of their social ghetto, did pretty well the same job for the politically oppressed across Europe.

Jazz has not lost its vitality or its appeal in the USA - but its fate in formerly Communist Europe looks less optimistic.

In Prague today I have heard some fine stuff, and some pretty tawdry stuff.

Tourist music

The music has become a paradigm of what democracy and the free market have done to so many areas of artistic and indeed economic life - opened it up, subjected it to massive foreign competition, driven down the quality of the mainstream product, and, finally, put the price up.

Jazz has, in many places, become tourist music. There is nothing wrong in that perhaps, except that tourists are consuming it for the wrong reasons.

The Reduta Club lives on its former glories, as not only the launch pad of the jazz section, but as the place where Bill Clinton went during his barn-storming tour of the Czech Republic in 1994.

With President Vaclav Havel in the audience, the American president unwrapped the new tenor sax his Czech host had just given him - and jammed with the local musicians.

Commemorative pictures hang all over the Reduta, and the tourists follow the package tour trail down Narodni Street to take in the Reduta, just as they go to the Jewish Cemetery and the Tyn Church - a bit of local history, sandwiched between a souvenir and the next beer.

What makes this particularly sad for me is that most Czechs, even the few real jazz fans around, do not care that much.

The new generation of jazz players has largely given up on the Reduta.

"Not worth playing there" was what several told me - no atmosphere, no rapport with the audience.

Certainly, a Saturday night session I went to yielded a rather uninspired band playing to a less than enthusiastic house. The locals cannot, in any case, afford the entry price.

Raw, rhythmic emotion

It need not be so. There are other clubs in Prague, which cater for local audiences with bands playing more interesting jazz.

But, as one critic put it, too many musicians today have forgotten that jazz is not just about intellect - it is about emotion. And it is raw, rhythmic emotion that can still pull them in.

Thirty years ago, emotion was what it was ALL about_every minute of every day was an emotional challenge for those who did not conform.

As one musician told me, the apparat was waiting to pounce the minute you put a foot wrong, whilst, ironically, audiences would pounce on even a wrong note as probable proof that you had just made a revolutionary musical statement.

But at least they were all listening.

Today, not even the recording companies are interested.

So, it is hardly surprising that, like the women who line the streets around the Reduta Club, servicing the needs of the tourist trade, some of the musicians have also concluded that tourist bread and butter is better than no jam session at all.

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