Encore: Jaroslav Jezek 1906-1942 - a great Czech composer who defies categorization

Jaroslav Jezek

Jaroslav Jezek is one of the legends of Czech 20th century music. His jazz composition "Dark Blue World" lent its name to a film, released in 2001, about Czech pilots serving in Britain's Royal Air Force during the Second World War. The film powerfully evokes the atmosphere of the time, thanks not least to Jaroslav Jezek's music on the soundtrack.

He is most famous as the composer, pianist and conductor at Prague's avant-garde Liberated Theatre between 1928 and 1938. His satirical songs for Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich made him a household name and his songs are still very much loved today. The theatre's energetic satire on the politics of the time was a genuinely liberating force in a Central Europe where Nazi Germany was casting a long and dark shadow.

Jezek was born in 1906 and had quite humble beginnings. His father was a small tradesman and the family lived in Kaprova Street, just off Prague's Old Town Square. As a child Jaroslav Jezek had little formal musical training but his extraordinary abilities soon became obvious. He was accepted by Prague's conservatoire at a time when exciting things were happening in music, both in Europe and across the Atlantic. The pianist, Patricia Goodson, says that Jezek positively soaked up the atmosphere of the time:

"From an early age he took an extreme interest in what was new both in the popular world - he loved Gershwin and listened fanatically to Rhapsody in Blue - and the 'classical' - he also played Ravel and Hindermith as early as 1924 for his school audition, which was really unheard of at the time, because that was really quite new music then."

Jezek's fascination with what was new can be found even in his earliest compositions. Patricia Goodson again:

"He developed an extraordinary facility at an early age. I was quite astonished when I listened to his piano concerto for the first time, that it was his graduation work. It is extremely polished and also very innovative. The first movement is a foxtrot and the second movement is a tango and another movement is a Charleston, because he felt that these new dance forms were every bit as legitimate as polka and minuet and waltz had been in their day, but if you listen to this tango, you hear that it is fantastically well orchestrated, extremely inventive and just superbly well-done. And this was his student graduation piece."

One of the most astonishing things about Jaroslav Jezek is that he was almost blind from birth. His poor sight explains the title of his song Dark Blue World - Jezek's world was literally dark blue, and he could only see properly in a blue light. For most of his life he did nearly all his work in a small blue room in his Prague apartment. This room is preserved to this day, and is open to the public once a week. So I joined Patricia Goodson and climbed up to the second floor in Kaprova Street for a taste of Jezek's dark blue world.

So here we are in Jaroslav Jezek's dark blue room.

"It's not as dark as I expected. The walls are light blue but the ceiling is a beautiful dark Prussian blue, and the light in the room tends to be blue also, because there are net curtains, a light blue colour, and the lamps have blue light-bulbs in them. So these cool colours helped him to see."

And if we look here in this room, everything's here, even his desk, all the furniture is made out of this 1930s chrome, and on the desk there's even a manuscript, isn't there?

"Yes, it looks like some kind of rag, something probably in the popular vein, there's a huge pencil, his glasses and some little aids to seeing, and it surprises me that he did all his work, both the popular and the so-called 'serious' work in this little room."

And the range of work that Jezek produced in this dark blue room is astonishing.

"An example is the second movement of the String Quartet No. 1, which he composed in 1932, and has a mood entirely different than his other works. It really knocks me out that the man, who composed Dark Blue World also composed this really intense and rather mournful, nostalgic piece."

Jaroslav Jezek's life was tragically short. He was just 36 when he died, the same age as Mozart. At the beginning of the Nazi occupation in 1939, Jezek, along with his colleagues Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich from the Liberated Theatre went into exile in New York. Although Jezek became a prominent member of New York's Czech exile community, he was never happy. He had a hereditary kidney disease and all his life had been dogged by ill health. Illness caught up with him and he died in 1942.

Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Petr Doruzka
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.


10.10.2004: Anybody who travelled east before the fall of the Iron Curtain remembers the Trabant. A funny little car with a motorcycle engine manufactured in Eastern Germany. The word Trabant was used in many jokes. In a slightly transformed form, it serves as a name for a band. Yes, Traband, with a D, is a band with a strong sense of humour, and contrary to the Trabant car, they have a lot of energy to spare - and also some remarkable musical ideas. Recently Traband finished a new album, which is ready for release. On their past albums Traband have always used a unifying theme behind their songs, so I asked the leader, singer and composer Jarda Svoboda, what is the concept of their new CD? "It's called Hyje, which means 'Go horses!'. The songs are full of knights, horsemen of Apocalypse, riders and golden chariots." Despite the fact that Traband has existed for 10 years, they are not a band who can fill a stadium, and I am also sure this is not their ambition. Yet they are quite successful abroad - they often play in France and recently they returned from the first tour of Japan. Even though Traband put a great deal of energy into their lyrics, you do not have to speak Czech to enjoy their music.

Link: www.traband.net

For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.


12.09.2004: The Eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Slovak border, happens to be very fertile source of traditional music. Up in the north, the wooded highlands once were sheltering thieves and outlaws. To make this region safer, four centuries ago the land was offered to farmers and shepherds who also functioned as a border patrol. Most of the settlers came from the East, even from Romania. This newly populated region was given the name Wallachia, after the historical name for the Romanian kingdom. Today, their descendants speak Czech, but the region is known for its distinguished wooden architecture, sheep herding and also music. The Wallachian ensemble Docuku could be seen as a regional all star band. The set-up features a violin player, who's also leader of one of the best local cymbalom bands, Solan. The drummer used to play with a well-known Czech rock band Mnaga & Zdorp for 10 years. And one of the key members of Docuku is a gifted young woman, who sings and plays mandolin: Lucie Redlova, the daughter of veteran foksinger Vlasta Redl. Their first album was released this summer, featuring contemporary arrangements of folk songs.

Link: www.docuku.centrala.org

15.08.2004: In the era of major companies and global pop it takes a lot of courage to be independent. The fretless bass guitar player Sina and her partner, guitarist Daniel Salontay, formed Slnko Records in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In the beginning, they burned the CDs on their home computer, packaged them and sent by mail - but with growing success of their company this became harder more difficult. With their band, Dlhe Diely, they were one of the brightest surprises of last years Colours of Ostrava festival. Magic Carpet features both Dlhe Diely and Sina's solo albums.

Link: www.slnkorecords.sk

18.07.2004: The history of the Prague band Jablkon reaches deep into the past. In 1977 they started as an acoustic trio with two guitars and percussion and their music was in stark contrast to every existing fashion.Jablkon blended instruments with voices in very unorthodox way. The musicians invented a wide spectrum of howls, wails, screams, grunts and other deeply human sounds, and used just the right amount of this vocal seasoning to build a pattern, a momntum of a non-verbal message, or just a joke. Their music was like a well crafted building with a wild back yard; in the large scale architecture you can feel delicate melodies and musical forms of a sophisticated European origin.As years went by, the classical elements of their music became more apparent in 90's, when the band played with the classical violinist Jaroslav Sveceny, and made a rare appearance with a symphonic orchestra. Last year, the band celebrated the first 25 years of it's existence. On a memorable concert in the Prague Archa theatre, Jablkon performed with the Moravian Symphony orchestra and other guest players. Magic Carpet features the live CD from this concert.

Link: www.jablkon.com

23.5.2004:At the beginning of May the Czech nation celebrated joining the European Union. In Prague a big festival was held: The United Islands, with live music played on the 10 islands on the course of the Vltava River in the city. Yet the final concert took place on the mainland, with the Gypsy Kings, the world famous band from Southern France topping the bill, plus two promising local Roma bands as support, Gulo Car and Bengas. Why are the Gypsy bands so popular? Is this just a short lived fashion, or are Czech audiences bored with the non-Roma mainstream? And what can the Roma bands offer to international audiences?

Link: www.bengas.cz

20.6.2004:For generations the zither was one of the best loved instruments in Czech households. But now the delicate wooden box with a generous array of strings looks more like an antiquity than an instrument people play. The decline of zither in the Czech lands started with independence from the Habsburg Empire. The instrument was often identified as a German import, and the next generation choose to play guitar instead. Now the zither is coming back. One of the most gifted Czech players, Michal Müller, chose to study the instrument at the Vienna conservatory. He graduated 3 years ago, and now he's the one and only Czech zither teacher with a diploma - and also an adventurous and prolific musician.

Link: www.michal-muller.cz

See also The History of Music.

Magic Carpet Archive.