Laco Deczi – Jazz and real life in Prague and New York

Laco Deczi

American jazz trumpet player Laco Deczi - born in Czechoslovakia – needs little introduction, especially for anyone familiar with the world of jazz. At 73, Deczi hasn’t let up one bit – most recently playing a two-month-long tour in his homeland. Despite a busy schedule, Laco took time off to come to Radio Prague’ studio; in this week’s Arts he discusses everything from life in New York to his spring tour.

“We started performing on April 7 and the last gig is on May 28. We have a big show on May 13 at a venue called Aventinum in the city centre. It’s not a typical club but an older building. It’s going to be a jazz and rock festival and hopefully a lot of young people will come out.”

It’s not the first time you’ve played there, is it?

“We played there last year as well. The producer has put together some good bands, young players. Tom Kučera is coming, a guitar player and singer and many others.”

Your schedule is pretty busy: you guys are playing somewhere almost every night...

“Yeah, I think the whole time we have had maybe three nights off. We have a system which basically stays the same: to come in the afternoon, do a sound check and then go back to the hotel to sleep for a couple hours so we will be fresh for the evening.”

One of the things I admire about you as a musician is your emphasis on performance: you have recorded quite a few live albums. In that light, would you say ‘live’ is the way to experience jazz?

“We did a newer live CD taped at a club that I think is important: it was the last show there. The next day it closed its doors, no more money. That’s normal for New York! As far as recording is concerned, taping live can be pretty tricky. Mostly we tape sixteen tracks that are then re-mastered. Sometimes there can be mistakes. Some things can be fixed in the studio, others are left in. It’s real life.”

Laco Deczi & Celula,  photo: David Puschmann
In past interviews you’ve talked about performance being the thing and best when the whole band is really ‘cooking’, that at that point it’s not important whether the music is this or some other genre: do you still feel that way?

“Yeah. For me it’s very important that young people show up and they can say I like this music although I don’t listen to much jazz, I don’t even know the name of the band. This is very important for me. Last time we played Rock for People where there were about 20,000 in the audience. And the young kids didn’t know us and they were really excited. For me that is one of the best things.”

Over the years have the different types of genres in jazz become more complex or more difficult to describe the different strains?

“I don’t care about the names! People ask me is it bebop or fusion or whatever. Definitely not fusion: I never liked it. There used to be a big radio station in New York that played only that for ten years but they’re not around anymore. You probably know fusion: it’s nothing.”

Well I’m under the impression it was big in the ‘70s and that Miles Davis released Bitches’ Brew...

“Miles Davis was never fusion. He mixed jazz and rock and that was still pretty good. He was different. But fusion is terrible: every song is the same, same tempo, I don’t know.”

When you’re performing do you approach standards differently from your own material?

“I used to play a lot of standards: a lot of the time that’s what they want for some gigs. So you say what key, and the name and go-one-two-three. Most of the stuff that we play now I write for the whole band: people ask what kind of style it is but I don’t know. Of course the solos are mostly bebop at the Line; or it’s part Latino. I listen to all kinds of music and sometimes take stuff from Brazilians or from Africa, so like that. New York is all bands like this, a mix and not ‘straight-ahead’. Straight-ahead has already been done, you know? John Coltrane, Fats Navarro and others were the best. They played the best straight-ahead in the world and nobody will do it better.”

That’s a good point and New York is such a huge ethnic mix that it must be inspirational.

“Oh yeah, so many different people.”

Tell me about Celula New York: have there been any line-up changes?

“There haven’t. I’ve been working for a long time with Nob Kinokawa who is from Japan or the keyboardist Brian Charette. Great musicians to work with. My son plays too: he could never tour before because he owns a club on the East side, but for eight years he has toured with me. Celula means ‘cell’ and I had an earlier band with the same name in the former Czechoslovakia. Charette used work on Conan O’Brien’s show: Conan’s the best, my favourite.”

Speaking of clubs, has the scene changed a lot over the years?

“A lot of new places opened, others moved. I lived in New York for 12 years and played different gigs. I used to play with a piano player, then it was a Latino band. But it was tough too. New York is a tough city. For two years I lived in a basement apartment on 48th street on the West side and saw only legs and shoes! Later I moved and today I live in East Haven in Connecticut.”

What kind of impression did you get from NYC coming from Czechoslovakia?

“That was different: I came from communist Czechoslovakia. Here, you never knew what was going to happen, when you would get in trouble with the Communists. There, well New York is a tough city. But we were not weak, we were not soft, you know? A lot of people came over from West Germany or from France, they couldn't handle it. It was too difficult for them, Not for me. Not for people with experience from Communism.”

What year was it that you came?

“It was ‘84.”

So it was still sort of the old New York you see in the movies, high crime rate and all that...

“Oh yeah. I memorised... I soon memorised a couple things like that the airport and Harlem were totally dirty. It was a small problem: back then in Harlem there was a club on every corner. Now it’s clean and there are just a few.”

So that’s the price.

“That’s the price.”

What is it like for you when you come back to the Czech Republic or Slovakia now? How do you see the home country?

“I like it, it’s nice. It’s much cleaner, everything is nice, much better. Every house was dirty and had a broken roof...”

You mean under communism...

“Oh yeah. It was terrible. They damaged everything and completely destroyed this country.”

New York
Do you guys... does it still happen that you’ll play a concert and that you won’t finish at 11, 11:30, or 12 pm?

“In New York sometimes the concert only starts at 1 am!! But it happens less than it used to. A lot of clubs where you’d get that are not around anymore.”

I still have a romantic notion of clubs that don’t even have names or no one even knows are open, or have a back room where things only start late at night and go until five in the morning.

“I played at Daniel’s club on 14th street on the West side that began at two in the morning. It was like a hundred stairs and three floors down into the basement underground. It was full of unusual characters, many years back.”

Be sure to look up current Laco Deczi performance dates on the internet.