Emil Viklický on finding freedom in jazz, Havel, Murakami and more

Emil Viklický

Jazz pianist and composer Emil Viklický, who has just turned 75, has led his own groups as well working with some major domestic and international names in the genre: Ema Olmerová, Iva Bittová, Bill Frisell, Miroslav Vitouš and many more. He even did a project with Václav Havel. Viklický, originally a maths graduate, is known for his connection to folk music and has also worked in the modern classical field and composed operas and film and TV scores. The Czech jazz great spoke about his colourful career on a visit to our studios.

I presume pretty much all jazz pianists must begin as children doing classical piano? Was that your case?

“In a way, yeah, because there was a piano at home – a grand piano. So I was banging on it.”

How old were you when you actually made some music?

Emil Viklický | Photo: Zdeněk Slavotínek,  Czech Radio

“It’s hard to say. Music? You just make noise [laughs]. But there was probably some kind of musical talent, so I was going for piano lessons from a young age.

“I went to school and I wasn’t yet six, because I’m born in November, right? But I wasn’t very diligent, to tell the truth, because you have to play these etudes and that’s boring. Like with any instrument.

“But then my father had a student, whose name was Jiří Pravda. And he said, Emil, whatever you play in music school is one possibility, but it’s kind of boring – how about you play these chords, no notes? And I will play alto saxophone and you will accompany me.

“I said, Wow, that’s interesting. So this is how I got hooked on jazz.”

When did you actually start considering yourself a jazz musician, or even become a jazz fan?

“I was just a kid who had that family background were your uncle has been sent to prison by the Communists, for no reason. I was feeling a certain freedom in jazz.

“There was [radio station] Voice of America and when you were listening to, say Ella Fitzgerald or Frankie Sinatra doing the classics, the good old standards, intuitively I was guessing that whatever the pianist was playing, behind, is a kind of freedom – it’s not really written.

“I don't know how I knew it, but I just felt it. I fell in love with it and this is what I was trying… I liked the music, I liked the freedom.”

After some successes in jazz already, in the second half of the 1970s you went to the Berklee College of Music and Boston. How was that experience, especially coming from I guess deep normalization in Czechoslovakia?

“Oh yeah, that was that was something [laughs], to the truth. I had the opportunity to go [to the West] in ’68, when I was 20, or nearly 20. I went to Vienna because it was possible to go right just before the Russians came, so I saw concert of Oscar Peterson at the Vienna kulturhaus with Ray Brown and Bobby Durham – a trio – and was totally overwhelmed.

“I had a certain experience of how the West looks, but to get to America, that was obviously a bigger shock.”

“So I had a certain experience of how the West looks, but you know to get to America, that was obviously a bigger shock

“I remember when I arrived it in Berklee the first thing. I did I just put my things down and went down to the lobby and the room E16, where there was a jam session, immediately.

“There was a group of players playing and there was a tall saxophone player and he called Giant Steps. The guy who was playing piano said it was too much for him, but I was an already established guy, you know. I had started to play professionally in Prague in ’72.”

Emil Viklicky, Bill Frisell, Kermit Driscoll, Vinton Johnson. Dvere / Door. 1985

So you already had like five years’ experience when you went to Berklee?

“I had the experience. He called a very heavy tempo, and then we played Giant Steps. Then we became friends. That was Scott Robinson, and we’ve played together since that time, since my very first evening in America.”

You are known for your interest in folk music, perhaps specifically Moravian folk music. Is that something simply that you grew up with, coming from Olomouc?

“Not really. At the time Moravian folk was mainly in villages, though at the time it was probably slightly better.

“I got into folk because I admired Janáček.”

“Of course I knew about it, but I wasn’t a folklorist, no, no, no. I got into folk because I admired the Czech composer Leoš Janáček. Janáček has a fantastic ability to create drama in two bars. In two bars, you have drama. So I said, Jesus Christ, how does he do it? And I realised that his source of inspiration was speech patterns – and folk music.

“When I was studying mathematics I was walking down the street and there was a secondhand book shop. They had Janáček and Pavel Váša’s collections of Moravian folk songs. That was for 15 crowns so I bought it – and I still have it.”

You've also worked in many other fields, including modern classical film and TV scores, opera. Living in a small country like this, do you need to work in so many genres? Or is it something you’re just drawn to – you want to work in many different areas?

“I was drawn to it, because I was always on the edge, you know. I tried to play jazz and I still had the kind of classical training. Because I kept going to my professor lady and she put my hands in good shape.

“Some jazz players have kind of strange hands. So she's responsible for my technique.

“But to your question, I just love to do all this stuff.”

Emil Viklický | Photo: Smetanas Litomyšl Festival

You list of collaborators is very long and includes names like Eva Olmerová, Iva Bittová, Wynton Marsalis, Miroslav Vitouš, Bill Frisell and many more. Typically when you collaborate with somebody, what are you looking for in a collaborator?

“There are a lot of aspects. You have to be on good terms with the person – that’s the main thing.”

There has to be a connection?

“There has to be a connection and it has to be music you like. Me and Bill Frisell met at Berklee. He recorded my semester work. It was called May Tune. I was living in America in May ’78 and I had the idea that I might split from the Communist times and maybe I would stay.

Emil Viklický | Photo: Lukáš Hurník,  Czech Radio

“I played with Joe Newman in New York and Mel Lewis offered me, Hey, Emil, when you come back in September you can have a job with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, minus Thad Jones.

“At one concert in New York Thad Lewis came and they played: Thad Lewis-Mel Lewis, with Bob Cranshaw on bass and me. I was in seventh heaven.

“I met Roland Hanna, the piano player. We were in the bathroom and he said, Emil, I thought you were a bass player. I said, Why do you think that? He said, You’re always hanging out with [Czech-born] George Mraz. I said, Yes, I do.

“He said, Don’t go back. This was followed by a lot of dirty words and then he said, Don’t go back – I’ll keep you busy.

“So there was a certain period when I wanted to stay. That was in May. But then I just said okay, I’ll go to Czechoslovakia for, let's say, a month, August 78. I’ll go back.

“They took my passport. Nobody explained anything to me.”

“Oh my… For four years I didn't go anywhere. They took my passport. Nobody explained anything to me, nobody told me anything.

“But when I came back in in July ‘78 my next travel was in October ‘82, through Slovkoncert, because I stopped existing for Pragokoncert [who controlled musicians playing abroad].”

To jump forward in time a lot, I was reading a list of the projects you have worked on and one jumped out at me: “The Mystery of Man”, melodrama for Wynton Marsalis Concert Big Band and two narrators, text Václav Havel.” What exactly was that?

“I was recording with George Mraz in New York and the producer of that record – that was in 2000 – was Todd Barkan, a very well-known producer who did, I don’t know, 350 known jazz records.

“One day he called me, because he also worked for the Wynton Marsalis organisation and said, Do you also write big bands? I said, Yes, I do.

“He said, How come? I said, When I was in Berklee I was studying with Herb Pomeroy. Herb Pomeroy took only 15 people a year and he was teaching for 20, 21 years, so it’s like 300, 350 boys who had that class.

“Sometimes I was joking that when I was studying math I wasn’t that diligent as when I was studying orchestration and line writing and whatever Herb did, you know.

“I was through. He said, Be ready in three days. Wynton Marsalis and Phil Schaap and other guys asked me some questions and said, We want you to do a jazz melodrama on a text by Václav Havel.

Emil Viklický | Photo: Czech Centre Brussels

“They were doing a project. It was going to be Kennedy, Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel.

“I said, OK, I can do that. So the next thing was the libretto. I visited Havel in Voršilská St. [where he kept an office, post-presidency] and I told him about it and he said, Would you like some scotch? I said, No, I’m driving.

“Then he gave me all his books and said, Just pick whatever you want. I thought, Oh Jesus, what am I going to do?

“Then he had an excellent idea. He said, With these melodramas, don’t use one narrator, use two.

“The basic idea – which is why my chart was successful – was that the first narrator would be doing all Havel’s serious thoughts and the second would be doing the most banal remarks you can find, like, Dear Olga, don’t send me lemons, they are too heavy – send me 300 good cigarettes. Or, My fellow prisoners have asked about the exchange rate for French francs.

“So I put these two narrators against each other. You had the serious Alfre Woodward, she was a Shakespearean actor, and then you had ‘the black Belmondo’, Mario Van Peebles; in the Lincoln Centre he was in a leather jacket, jeans, and he was running on stage saying, Oh, don’t send me lemons – they’re too heavy!

“That was a success, because my opera experience helped me.”

I have a question for you that I've always wanted to ask somebody who is from the jazz world. You got a prize in 2011, a medal of merit, from president Václav Klaus, who used to put on jazz concerts at the castle. Is he a real jazz fan? Or is it more like a pose?

“No, he's a real jazz fan. I’ve known him since 1974 when I was starting to play with Karel Velebný, SHQ. I remember Karel saying, This is some clerk from the bank – he likes jazz.

“I know Václav Klaus more than 50 years and he is real jazz fan.”

“So I know him more than 50 years and he is real jazz fan. He likes some jazz, not all of it, but it’s OK. That’s like all of us.

“I played once in Lucerna with [Jiří] Pavlica, this folk stuff, and Klaus said, Emil, are you going to play your folklore things, or your real jazz?

“He likes hard bop.”

You’ve got a famous fan in Japan, the writer Murakami. What's your connection with him?

“Haruki Murakami came to my concerts in a period of 10 years. Of course I knew about him, because I liked his books. Even before they were translated into Czech I was trying to improve my English by reading his books.

“And he likes very much Janáček. If you remember his book 1Q84, it starts with a scene where the main character is going on a Tokyo highway, and there's a traffic jam and – on the very first page –Janáček’s Sinfonietta is playing on the radio.

“Murakami knows very much about music, and I’m glad he comes.”

Emil Viklický trio & Imogen Ryall – Gone with water | 10 let ČT art