Composer/conductor Rudolf Mazač discusses ‘Jazz Bridge’ festival

Kentonmania Big Band with Rudolf Mazač

Today’s guest in the Arts is Czech-German composer and conductor Rudolf Mazač, who heads a big band orchestra dedicated to the works of Stan Kenton and other jazz greats. In 2004, Rudi Mazač founded Jazzový most (or Jazz Bridge) a festival bringing together international musicians in selected towns and cities in the Czech Republic and Germany. The festival returns to Prague next month. In our interview Rudi talks about line up this year as well as the initial idea behind the long-running project.

Kentonmania Big Band with Rudolf Mazač
“The first Jazz Bridge – Prague & Munich took place in 2004 to celebrate the Czech Republic’s entry in the European Union. The Prague concert was broadcast live by Czech Radio’s Vltava and at midnight on May 1st radio Frankfurt broadcast from Mánes in Prague to German-speaking countries.”

Today Czechs are more critical of EU membership than when they first joined and of course it is clear it is a difficult time now for the EU with the eurozone crisis. Do you think some of the visitors might balk or take the festival’s slogan from Prague to the EU with a bit of irony?

“Well the frsitval isn’t political of course, it’s a cultural event with a political backdrop. But above all it is about culture. I would say that at time like these we need more projects like this, more concerts like this! It’s a bridge that brings people together – that’s the vision.”

Musicians this year will be performing in a number of cities and towns: are they the same as last year?

“Not quite. Hluboká nad Vltavou is a new addition. We are very happy to be performing there. There will be a performance on the castle grounds there, a famous and beautiful historic site. Other concerts will take place in Munich in Dresden, in Prague.”

Let’s talk about some of the acts: as a conductor you lead Kentonmania Big Band which celebrates the work of jazz great Stan Kenton. My understanding is that this is Big Band with a twist: you have eight French horns which is unusual. Why so many?

Hluboká nad Vltavou, photo: CzechTourism
“Well, I myself am a French horn player so that is one reason! The other is in the ‘60s and ‘70s Stan Kenton was a composer who included French horns in his orchestra. His music was very progressive and classical at the same time. My idea is not to have a Stan Kenton ‘revival’ band but to draw inspiration from him and his compositions and style. To combine the French horn sound with Big Band: fives saxophones, five trombones, rhythm and so on.”

What kind of character or emphasis do French horns add in terms of the sound?

“That’s a god question. You know, I studied classical French horn but then moved later to jazz and my mission when I was younger was to put the French horn group sound, like Brahms and others into Big Band. Sometimes the sound is very soft and colourful; at others it is big. And we play swing, rock, jazz, rock-jazz, funky, all styles.”

What are some of the jazz standards that you perform?

“Well, we play some by Louis Armstrong like What a Wonderful World or by other musicians, stuff like My Funny Valentine... but we also play a lot of new arrangements and new compositions. We have some jazz legends as our special guests like Don Menza, Jay Ashby, Kim Nazarian and many others.”

Last year you issued the Best of Jazz Bridge Festival mapping the fest since 2004: are there plans for a similar release this year?

“Maybe, maybe not! I haven’t got as much money as much as before!”

One of the attractive things about this festival for visitors is that it is free: how does it pay for itself and the performers?

“Well we do have a lot of help from various organisations, everything from the Czech-German fund to Prague 2 town hall, local funding in Germany and so on. There are very many without whom none of this would be possible, who have helped the festival became better known in Europe and the US.”

So you think it has caught on the Czech Republic?

“It is half-and-half. A lot of course depends on the performers you can get and they have to be big and that is sometimes a problem financially. But we are a young festival still and there is room to grow. Czech musicians I know like taking part. We perform together and they enjoy my dramaturgy of Big Band.”

Jazz Bridge Festival
I’ve read that you personally divide your time between Munich and Prague: what is it like being at home effectively in two places?

“It’s actually very nice. I live in Munich but I also live here and I am always ‘crossing the bridge’ so to speak. I speak German and have a lot of friends among musicians in both countries. You know, back under communism jazz was one of the few ways we could be free and that still connects me with some of my colleague here. It meant freedom for us at a time when Communism was like a religion.”