Jazz Section celebrates 30th anniversary November 2, 2001

This week saw a small party in the historical part of Prague, at the premises of the Artforum-Jazz Section, marking the 30th birthday of this organization, whose members suffered greatly under the Communist regime. Alena Skodova was there and brings this report.

Karel Srp has been Jazz Section's director since it was established so I asked him first to describe the 30 years of the Section's existence:

"Well, on one side there were difficult years, on the other hand easy ones. During the first twenty years we lived under a totalitarian regime, the last 10 years in a democratic society. I would say back in the 1970s and 80s we were chased by the police, today we are being chased by economists because of money."

The Jazz section started its activities in 1971, during a period - following the Soviet-led occupation in 1968 - which the Communists called 'consolidation' or 'normalization'. What was the situation like back then?

"It was something really unbelievable, because already in 1969 I submitted an application for the establishment of Jazz Section to the Interior Ministry. It was a time of party purges, so the clerks were changing every day. I spoke with at least 15 people, each day with somebody else, and finally one of them put his signature to my application - which must have been one of his biggest faults."

Jazz Section members originally intended to devote themselves fully to music, though they had a quiet fear in the backs of their minds that the music they wanted to play would certainly not appeal to the communist authorities. Mr. Srp told me they had started with pure jazz, but then other genres were added such as jazz-rock, alternative music, and conceptual and creative arts, so that in the end they had become a kind of lightning conductor for almost all cultural activities.

People showed immense interest in Jazz Section's activities, but at the same time, everybody connected with them was at great risk. The Section was banned - first only over the phone - for instance printers were warned not to print their materials - and later on the ban became official. But it was the only organization brave enough to appeal. It was something unthinkable to appeal against a decision made by the Communist party's Central Committee. And it marked in fact the beginning of the Section's fierce fight with the regime:

"Very soon we became known also among other countries' diplomats and foreign media, who could not grasp the fact that in Czechoslovakia, jazz music and culture was being banned, and above all how it was possible at a time when the Helsinki Agreements on European cooperation were approved and Czechoslovakia was one of their signatories."

Many of Jazz Section's activists were imprisoned, and Mr. Srp himself spent 16 months in jail. Now the times have changed, and the Jazz Section is facing economic problems. Mr. Srp told me not a single employee was paid for his work for the section, that they had no computers, no e-mail. But their activities keep on going. To celebrate its 30th birthday, Jazz Section organized a dozen free exhibitions showing the life and work of foremost personalities on the Czechoslovak and Czech jazz scene. One of the Section's most popular activities are reading marathons, during which voluntary readers read from selected books for three consecutive days and nights. The Jazz Section also publishes books and cooperates with other cultural organizations in preparing such significant ventures as the International Writers' Festival and Prague International Book Fair.