Czech “Swing King” Jan Smigmator to perform at Carnegie Hall

Jan Smigmator

The “Swing King” of the Czech Republic, Jan Smigmator is headed to New York City this coming April to perform at the legendary Carnegie Hall. Smigmator is the first Czech solo-jazz singer to perform at the legendary venue. Amelia Mola Schmidt spoke to him about his love of music and the upcoming milestone concert in New York.   

Amelia Mola-Schmidt and Jan Smigmator | Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

I want to go back in time a little bit and ask you about your first music memory, what was the first time you heard a piece of music that made an impression on you?

“My mother used to sing to my brother and I, and I started to sing and listen to music from the beginning. Music is such an important part of my life.”

Aside from your mother, what were the first musicians that you remember in the genre that made you fall in love with jazz?

“My father used to organise a jazz festival near the city where I was born. It was in an old castle in the woods in the Czech highlands, and I saw many musicians from the Czech and American jazz scene there. When I saw some of the Czech jazz musicians performing, I said to myself- “I need to be a jazz singer”, and now I am a jazz singer!”

Jan Smigmator | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

What were the singers that you turned to for inspiration when you decided you wanted to be a jazz singer?

“My favourite singer is Tony Bennett- he’s my hero. He’s the greatest teacher, and I’ve been listening to him since I was ten years old. I also listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra, and all of the guys from the Rat Pack, and of course all the great ladies of jazz like Ella Fitzgerald, and so on. I think this is the most important thing for young singers to do, to listen to all the other great artists from all genres.”

Tony Bennett is an interesting artist because he’s constantly collaborating with new and younger musicians like Lady Gaga and K.D. Lang, he’s constantly reinventing himself. Is that inspiration for you, to be constantly reinventing yourself as an artist?

“It’s really important to bring this old music to newer generations. It’s the great American songbook, and it’s something very special. Thanks to Tony Bennett, most people around my age know this kind of music, and I want to continue with his way. Collaborating with young artists, and artists from different genres. This is the key.”

Jan Smigmator | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

When you were deciding that singing was going to be your path, were there any teachers that really pushed and inspired you?

“I had two great teachers at the Royal Conservatory of Music here in Prague. The first one is  Eva Svobodová and the second one is Josef Štágr. They were really important for me, they helped me build my vocal technique. The most important person in my life is legendary American singer, Marilyn May, she’s 95 years old. She is a very special lady, and I am proud to call her a friend of mine. We started working on the creative process together- the construction and stories of songs, and putting shows together really well. This is the most important person in my life for sure.”

You have four solo recorded albums, one in collaboration with Mitch Winehouse, what was it like working with Mitch on that collaboration and what did you take away from the experience?

It’s a really nice story, our collaboration. In 2010, I discovered that he is such a great singer, and I really wanted to work with him on a project. Three years after Amy Winehouse’s death, I sent him an email with some thoughts and ideas and asked him to join my project Sinatrology. He said yes, and invited me to meet him in London. After 15 minutes in our first meeting, we were best friends. We have the same taste in music and the same music heroes. He agreed to come to Prague and sing with my band and orchestra, and we had three sold out shows, it was really successful. During his stay here in Prague, he asked me to make a record with him, and I said yes, of course. Our album together is dedicated to George and Ira Gershwin, and we released it in line with the 125th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birthday. We had wonderful musicians and wonderful arrangements on this album, I’m so proud of it. It’s jazzy and swingy, with our favourite songs. We had ten concerts in Czechia, also shows in London, Germany, and New York City. He is a really great friend, we have a beautiful friendship.”

Jan Smigmator | Photo: Archive of Jan Smigmator

What was the inspiration for the Sinatrology project you worked on in 2015?

“He was the inspiration of course! He was a King, and Sinatra was and still is a worldwide legend. In 2015, I said to my colleagues, let’s celebrate Sinatra and his anniversary. It’s really important to hold this torch of his music and keep it alive. I put together a great group of Czech jazz musicians, and asked a few colleagues from around the world to join in on the project. We had three sold out concerts here in Prague. On December 12th, the day of Sinatra’s birth, the concert was totally sold out, everyone was there in black tie, drinking champagne, and celebrating my favourite music. It was like a dream.”

What was going through your head at that moment, looking at the sold out crowd?

“It was a huge feeling of satisfaction. In Czechia, this kind of music is not as popular as it is in North America, and it’s difficult to successfully do a project like this. This project was a very important moment in my career.”

Speaking about career stepping stones, you have another big milestone coming up on April 29th at Carnegie Hall in New York City. What’s going through your head when you think about that?

“It’s a crazy dream! But my dreams are coming true. For musicians all over the world, Carnegie is the most famous concert hall on the planet, and I am going to be there with the creme de la creme of musicians from America and Czechia. Other musicians playing in the band are going to be from Tony Bennett’s quartet, which is unbelievable. I hope we enjoy our time together in the most swinging city in the world.”

Is there one song in particular that you’re looking forward to performing the most at Carnegie Hall?

“Yes, I will sing songs from the great American songbook of course, but the first encore will be a Czech folk song. I’m really curious to see how the audience will receive the song, because it’s something totally different for the American audience. It’s going to be good for the American audience to hear something totally different, and it will also be a special gift for Czech people to hear a typical Moravian folk song at the end of the show.”

Do you see this show as an opportunity to bring Czech jazz and Czech musicians to the international stage?

“Yes, definitely. It’s a big step for me, but it’s also a big step for Czech jazz music. I’m going to be the first Czech jazz singer at Carnegie Hall with his own solo concert. It’s real and it’s possible, of course it’s difficult to get the final yes from Carnegie. We were negotiating with them for almost two years.”

Jan Smigmator | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio

Are you at all concerned about the younger generations in society falling out of touch with the genre of jazz? How are you hoping that this music is going to stay relevant in Czech society and broader society?

“I think the most important thing is to know this kind of music through your parents and grandparents. The best thing for me is to be on stage and to see three or four generations together in the audience. Grandparents, their children, and grandchildren - it’s the best. I think this is a great view to the future, if you see young people at the concerts, they will hopefully continue going to these shows, and then give their children the gift of this music.”

Jan Smigmator | Photo: Lenka Žižková,  Radio Prague International

You have your own jazz show here at Cesky Rozhlas, Klub Evergreen. What do you like about having your own jazz show the most?

“It’s wonderful having my own show, we’ve dedicated it to all the greats in the jazz genre, my co-host Dasha and I. For 13 years we have had this show, and it’s still so much fun, we’re always looking for something new, and also discovering older things. It’s one of my biggest dreams to have my own radio show, especially a Czech Radio show. I love it.”