Jazz organist Ondřej Pivec on making it in New York: Don’t ask questions – just learn it all and be prepared

Ondřej Pivec, photo: Ian Willoughby

Ondřej Pivec plays organ with one of the biggest stars in world jazz, singer Gregory Porter. This makes Pivec, who is in his mid-30s, perhaps the most successful non-classical Czech musician of his generation. When we met at a café in his Brooklyn neighbourhood, the conversation took in his struggles to establish himself in New York, the specific nature of performing in churches and his live baptism of fire with Porter. But first Ondřej Pivec explained how a stay of several months in the Big Apple 10 years ago turned into a long-term move that tranformed his life.

Ondřej Pivec,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I found this small church in Brooklyn, where this phenomenal organist Corey Henry – now he’s widely known – was playing at that time.

“Nobody knew really knew about him then – that was before he even played with Snarky Puppy.

“And it just freaked me out completely. Not only him. It was the whole band. There was a three-piece band and the pastor was singing.

“It sounded like a miracle. I never heard music like that before, ever in my life.

“I realised, OK, I just discovered something that I really need more of in my life. Otherwise I would never feel good about returning. So, how can I stay a little longer?

“I went back to the Czech Republic and came back here.

“Thankfully it worked out. I was able to get my artist visa and then I was legal for three years.

“And then I’m like OK, so now what? I had no gigs, I had no friends, no girlfriend, nothing.

“It was hard. And then the reality hit me – I’ve decided to make this change and now what?

“Nobody knew me, nobody was calling me for anything.

“On top of that, pretty much everywhere I went I was one of the worst musicians around. You know, the standard here is pretty high.

“And not only that, when I came here what I was largely doing at home was playing my original music.

“So I knew how to play my original music, but I didn’t know how to play other people’s music.

“I didn’t really know that many jazz standards.

“There are musicians in the Czech Republic that know quite a lot of standards, but it’s not a prerequisite for you to have a career as a musician.

“I didn’t really know that many jazz standards. Here, if you don’t know music, if you don’t know songs, you’re useless in most situations.”

“While here, if you don’t know music, if you don’t know songs, you’re useless in most situations. So that was I.”

So you really had to step up your ability?

“Pretty much in every field. Because, you know, every gig is different.

“I started going to these sessions and writing stuff down, trying to learn songs and just figure out how I can become hireable, how I can become useful to anybody, for any work.

“It started paying off eventually. I got my first gig at this place called the American Legion – it’s a place where war veterans go in Harlem and just, you know, get drunk.

“They had an organ there, a Hammond. I had a regular gig every Wednesday with this baritone saxophone player, Jason Marshall.

“So I did that for a while, while working really hard on my ability to play in church.

“That was tremendously difficult for me, because it’s a very traditional skill.

“It’s not something that’s taught. And even if it is taught, it’s not just playing songs – it’s a whole other discipline all together.”

One thing isn’t clear to me – did you play Hammond before you came here or did you discover it here?

“I played Hammond before I came here. That’s pretty much all I did.

“I never played piano, really, professionally. Or keyboards. I started with that here in New York.

“It was kind of the other way.

“I came here as an organist and very quickly realised that, especially with my limited skills, at least by New York standards, it’s not going to cut it.

“So I had to kind of expand.”

Ondřej Pivec,  photo: Petr Vidomus / Czech Radio
At what point did you think, This is working, coming here was a good idea, I did the right thing?

“Two years ago [in 2016]. I recorded with Gregory Porter and they started calling me for tours.

“Then other people started calling me for big things. Then I started feeling pretty good about.

“But up until then, honestly, it was up and down.

“New York has a way of proving to you that you’re not really doing that well.

“It’s just hard. Everything is expensive here so any money you make it extracts out of you.

“There are a lot of great musicians, there are of great people in any field of expertise.

“So it’s a constant reminder that you can’t really think that you have anything going on – because next thing you know, you might not have it going on.”

Is that insecurity hard to live with? Or is it just part of being a musician?

“It’s just like anything else. If you push through it, if you persevere, you can get through it and then it actually becomes great security.

“Because you know just from experience that you’ll be able to make it, no matter what happens.

“What it did to me was I realised a lot of it has to do with preparation.

“I might not have a particular skill right now, but if somebody calls me for a gig that requires a slightly different skill, I can zoom in on it and in two weeks prepare for it well enough that it’ll be good.

“Eventually it becomes… I’m kind of addicted to it right now.

I was reading that you hooked up with Gregory Porter through Prague.

“That’s correct. There’s a festival, Strings of Autumn…”

Which I should say is one of the most interesting festivals these days in Prague.

“It really is a very happening festival. The president, a friend of mine, Marek [Vrabec], came up with this idea.

“I don’t know if they still have them, but they used to have these spring galas, these kind of luxury concerts with dinners for donors.

“A ticket would cost a lot of money and they would use it to fund the festival later on in the year.

“They would always invite either a rising star or an established star, and they would always invite a special guest from the Czech Republic to play with them.

“One particular year he picked Gregory Porter and he saw that it fit for me to be the special guest, since I play the organ and Gregory grew up in church.

“Gregory didn’t want to do it. He doesn’t want to play with guests and I don’t blame him. Everybody bothers him all the time

“Sometimes, honestly, we laugh in the dressing room. He brings up his phone and reads an email that somebody sends him: I’m such and such from so and so and I play guitar – can I sit in with you for one song?

Gregory Porter,  photo: Tore Sætre,  CC BY-SA 4.0
“It’s just like, what are these people thinking?

“Anyway, I was that guy, except it was the festival trying to do it.

“I think him sending over a YouTube video of me playing some church music eventually got the Yes from Gregory’s people.

“And I was kind of reluctant too, because at that time I didn’t really care about touring, I didn’t really care about doing anything: I wanted to play in church, I wanted to learn how to play in church. That was my goal.

“Also I had just my first well-paying church gig, which was also going to save my butt in terms of paying rent and surviving in New York.

“I was afraid to sub it out because I had just got it. I wasn’t very good at it, but they had me.

“I thought, If I sub it out in the first two or three weeks, are they going to fire me? Well, they didn’t. I put in a good sub.

“So I did it because Marek said I should and I believe in his judgement.

“And it worked out. It ended up being great.

“Gregory seemed to have liked it, the band liked it, it made sense, it blended well musically.

“I prepared really well for it, or the best I could at that time.

“And long story short, I stayed in touch with them and they invited me to a recording.

“I didn’t end up playing on that recording but through the producer – who knew some Czech musicians and it turned out actually knew my music as well – I ended up on the next record.”

How is it playing in church? I don’t know if you’re religious, or if that’s a factor, or if it makes any difference?

“It’s an interesting topic that I don’t necessarily want to get into, about the religiosity of church musicians. So if you don’t mind, let me just leave that alone.

“However, how is it playing in church? It’s a deeply spiritual experience.

“If it’s good, you can get yourself crying from behind the instrument.

“It largely depends on the other people. On the people that you are playing with, on the people that are behind the mic, on the singers, on the pastor, what is he saying, how they’re building the service.

“Some people would say it’s highly emotional. Some people say that those are not emotions – that that’s the actual spirit entering the room.”

Are the audience, or the churchgoers, whatever you want to call them, are they different, or more demanding, than an audience at a regular gig?

“Oh yeah, they’re way more demanding. They expect a spiritual experience and they get it through the word and the music.

“And if you’re not delivering, they’re not going to have it.

“A lot of times there will be these old church mothers and you can tell that they don’t know anything about music. But if it’s not right, they’ll let you know.”

“It’s funny because a lot of times there will be these old church mothers, they’re called, these old church ladies, and you can tell that they don’t know anything about music, at all really.

“But if it’s not right, they’ll let you know it’s not right.

“They can’t tell you what they want, but they’re just like, Nah, this doesn’t feel good.

“So you realise that you really have to step your game to please these people that don’t even know how to tell you what it is that they don’t like.

“It’s amazing. It made me realise that it doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to please somebody, or I’m not trying to make somebody like what I’m doing because they know about the mechanics of it.

“Which then I realised a lot of times is the tendency with jazz music, especially currently.

“It’s kind of this self-perpetuating, self-feeding scene of people who know about it and then they like things just because they might be technically hard or they might be weird or maybe they’ve never been heard before.

“These people just like or don’t like it based on how it feels; and if it doesn’t feel right, they don’t like it.

“And it’s way simpler, in a way it’s primitive – and that’s what I love about it and admire about it.

“Because to me that’s living – that’s real life.”

Coming from the Czech Republic to New York, what was the biggest adjustment you had to make to be successful here?

“A couple of things. We have a lot of traits that are not necessarily healthy.

“I can only speak form my personal experience, about what I was able to observe in my own behaviour.

“There’s just a lot of talking. I don’t even think there’s even a word for it in English – people just like to talk and ask.

“Here, if somebody hires you for a gig and if they tell you what music they’re going to be playing, and especially if they tell you what songs you’re going to be playing, don’t even ask anything else.

“Just don’t. Just show up and play and do it well. Don’t ask, What parts do you want me to play? What sounds?

“Just learn it all, just be prepared – learn the whole thing.

“Sometimes they would hire you and they don’t even tell you what music you’re going to be playing. You have to guess it based on what they normally do or figure it out.

“My first gig with Gregory Porter was at Royal Albert Hall. That was my first tour gig with him. A full show – songs that I’ve never played in my life.

“My first gig with Gregory Porter was at Royal Albert Hall. A high profile environment, new band, new situation. And no rehearsal.”

“A high profile environment, new band, new situation – they were not used to having organ.

“There’s already a piano player in there, so I had to figure out how to carve out some space for myself musically, while not stepping on his toes. And no rehearsal.

“I had to learn the whole thing off of YouTube. For two weeks I woke every morning at 6 am and went to church; my pastor gave me the key to the church.

“I downloaded a couple of YouTube full concerts that somebody had put posted from TV shows, because they play it differently than on the recordings.

“And I learned the show off of YouTube.

“Then we started playing and I made it seem that my ears are that good and I can react to things that well. That was BS – I knew it from YouTube, from before.

“But it doesn’t matter. You need to prepare and show up ready and know every little detail.

“And still you’re not going to know certain things.

“But then when they saw that I was kind of in it, then they start helping you. Then they’re like, OK, you’re serious, you respect what we do, here.

“If you show up just asking, What key is this in and how…? then they’d be like, Oh, Did you know you were going to do this gig, or, like, what’s up?”

I guess from everything you’re saying, your decision to come here 10 years ago must have been the best thing you’ve ever done?

“Absolutely. It was the most phenomenal thing for me, professionally and personally – I’m married now, happily.

“I feel like it did very good things to me as a person, and I’m extremely grateful for it.

“I’m grateful for all the hell that I’ve been through [laughs].

“And yeah, I think you summed it up – it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”