Jaroslav Jezek: 100 years since the birth of a Czech musical legend


This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jaroslav Jezek, a man whose musical compositions from the late 1920s and 1930s have stood the test of time. Critics agree that Jaroslav Jezek belongs to the canon of the First Czechoslovak Republic, and his short life mirrors that of many of his artistic contemporaries: educated in Prague during the interwar era, Jaroslav Jezek achieved fame in his homeland before being forced to flee Czechoslovakia with the advance of the Nazis in 1938, and he spent his last years in exile in the United States.

To mark the 100th anniversary of Jaroslav Jezek's birth, the Czech National Museum of Music has prepared an exhibit detailing the composer's life and artistic achievements. Fittingly, the exhibit's chosen title matches that of what is probably Jezek's most famous song, "Zivot je jen nahoda," or "Life's full of coincidences." The exhibit is divided into four main sections: the first featuring Jaroslav Jezek's childhood in Prague, the second his work in the area of classical music, the third his activities connected to Prague's Osvobozene divadlo (Liberated Theatre) where he worked closely with the famous duo of Jiri Voskovec and Jan Werich, and lastly a section devoted to the final phase of Jezek's life which he spent in the United States.

The exhibit's coordinator is musicologist Vera Sustikova, who explains how she dealt with the most productive period of Jaroslav Jezek's life, which dates from about 1927 to 1938.

"I have divided the period of Jezek's great popularity in the Czech lands along two themes, because I wanted to stress that his creativity touched two different areas. On the one hand, he composed music for the masses, though his folk songs are also very artistic. This part of his work is reflected in folk songs, jazz, and music for the theatre—all what we would call 'useful genres.' But on the other hand, he also composed highly avant-guard classical pieces and he was known throughout all of Europe as a young avant-guard composer. He was recognized as a representative of Czech Cubism and people like Darius Mio and Igor Stravinsky knew him, as did our own Bohuslav Martinu who was living in France at the time. Jaroslav Jezek was respected greatly by our own leading Czech composers like Josef Suk, Bohuslav Ferstr, and Alois Haba."

Born in Prague in 1906, Jaroslav Jezek died in New York in 1942—a life cut short by a hereditary kidney disease. In his brief 36 years, Jaroslav Jezek managed to leave a musical mark on those of his own generation, and many beyond. Vera Sustikova:

"Despite the fact that he was very young, his graduating piece from 1927, 'Concerto for Piano and Orchestra' was played by the Czech Philharmonic, the most prestigious orchestra in our country. His other compositions for orchestra were also performed by the Czech Philharmonic. Jezek was also unique in the world of classical music because he introduced a new type of sound by bringing the music from the street, so to speak, into concert halls. It's likely that he was inspired by the Paris Six in this sense because Jezek too used jazz techniques in various combinations for classical music. On the other hand, it's also possible to say that Jezek was the founder of Czech dance songs. Here he used classic methods and raised the level of the genres that were popular with common people."

Although Jaroslav Jezek popularized the sound of jazz in Czechoslovakia, meaningful recognition of his work as a jazz artist on the international scene came only after his premature death in 1942. When the great American jazz legend, Benny Goodman, heard a recording of Jezek's on the radio, he couldn't believe that what he'd heard originated from pre-WWII Czechoslovakia.

Jaroslav Jezek left Prague after 1938 when Hitler's army annexed Czechoslovakia. He found refuge in New York City, where he married and became a prominent member of the Czechoslovak exile community. Though still, the years of exile were generally unhappy ones for Jaroslav Jezek. Vera Sustikova reveals some of what visitors will find at the exhibit concerning this chapter of Jezek's life:

"It's impossible to separate artistic work from the personal aspects of life, but as a musicologist I am interested in reflecting on Jezek as a composer, a man of music. But you can't isolate Jezek's music from his life, so the exhibit includes materials that document his arrival in New York, his place of residence, his workplace, explanations of who he knew, where he appeared in public, and even documents from the police regarding his problems getting a visa, and so forth.

His wife, Francis Jezkova, brought her husband's remains back to Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, and thanks to her we also have an album that Jezek kept, where he saved American newspaper articles, photographs, and even his fingerprints! So we had a great source of information about his time in New York City. These documents should be very interesting for the Czech public because for the forty years that we were cut-off from America, it wasn't possible to see these materials here. So it's the first time that Czechs will have an opportunity to see original documents from the American phase of Jezek's life."

After the dust of World War Two had settled, Francis Jezek brought her husband's remains home to Prague. Jaroslav Jezek was laid to rest in Prague's Olsany Cemetery on January 5, 1947.

During the period of communist rule which lasted from February 1948 to December 1989, the interpretation of Jaroslav Jezek's legacy was mixed. His classical compositions and popular songs were allowed by the authorities, yet his work as a jazz musician was not officially recognized. So, Jezek's legacy came to represent different things to different people: he was generally known and sanctioned as a man of popular song, and to the members of the dissident Jazz Section, he served as a model of musical freedom.

Jaroslav Ježek  (1906-1942) composer | Photo: Museum of Czech Music
Jaroslav Jezek's contributions to 20th century Czech music are vast, and Vera Sustikova reminds us of one additional extraordinary fact:

"Very few people know that as a child, Jezek was not only nearly blind, but he was also disabled by a hearing impairment—the result of an infection during an illness. So you could say that his disabilities were so serious that it was hardly thinkable that one day he's be able to devote himself to music. And not only did he become a composer, but he was so successful that he stood at the helm of the interwar Czech music scene."

For those interested in seeing the exhibit honoring Jaroslav Jezek, it runs at the Czech National Museum of Music in Prague 1 until February 26, 2007.