Ondrej Havelka - keeping 1920s jazz popular in the Czech Republic


The Czech singer Ondrej Havelka and his group the Melody Makers do faithful and charming versions of jazz and popular songs from the 1920s and 30s. They are currently touring the Czech Republic. This week they played at Prague's magnificent Lucerna Hall, part of a complex which was designed by Vaclav Havel's grandfather and completed in 1921. When I spoke to Ondrej Havelka in a café in Lucerna just before Wednesday's concert he told me it was one of his favourite venues.

"I can say that it's very unusual and very thrilling to be every time in Lucerna, because it's a place with genius loci, it's fantastic to be there. When the hall is sold out it's incredible and the atmosphere there is fantastic. I remember that I have attended there a lot of fantastic concerts with really world stars; for instance, I saw there Sonny Rollins and other big musicians. And Louis Armstrong played at Lucerna, so it's really 'the place'."

Ondrej Havelka has quite an artistic background: his mother Libuse Havelkova was a well known actress, while his father Svatopluk was a composer.

"I think that both of them had a big influence on me, of course. My father gave me when I was a boy of 12 or 13 some recordings of old jazz and blues music. But I think that basically I grew in a very artistic family, so maybe that was the most important thing for me."

Ondrej Havelka is a real renaissance man: as well as being a band leader, he is an accomplished actor and director. And, as his career in music began to take off, and he found himself playing at ever bigger venues, he also became a very impressive tap-dancer.

"I met a very interesting person, a very old teacher from Carlsbad [Karlovy Vary]. He was 80 years old and he taught during the '20s even, so he knew and remembered a lot of very special figures and very special steps from old dances, like the Charleston, Black Bottom, the Shimmy, and so on. I learned a lot of things from him. But, basically, most of the things to do with singing and dancing I learned myself from videos of old movies, and so on."

For several years Ondrej Havelka sang with the group Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra, before setting up his own 14-member big band, the Melody Makers, in 1995. Isn't it hard for such a big group to earn a living?

"We have some friends in Europe, and they always tell me that I'm a very lucky man that I can keep such a big orchestra formation. It's fantastic for them. It's very difficult to have a stable formation of a band of that kind. So I am lucky (laughs) and it's fantastic, because we can work continually on the style, we play together all the time, so we are really a band!"

You sang in English in the 1980s, I understand. How did the authorities regard somebody singing in English in the communist days?

"That was very difficult. For instance, we couldn't perform on television or on the radio with our English repertoire - we could play only Czech songs (laughs) on official television or radio. We played concerts for people in theatres and halls and jazz clubs, and we could sing in English."

The music the Melody Makers play is from inter-war period, an era many Czechs regard as the greatest in their history. Ondrej Havelka says some people tend to idealise the First Republic, as it's called, but argues that in some ways it really was a golden era.

"The cultural milieu of those times was really different from now, because it was more concentrated. All kinds of arts influenced each other. The musicians knew literature writers or poets and painters. Everything was together, and I think it was very important for artists."

Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong era?

"Well...(laughs), sometimes I feel that it may be possible (laughs). It once happened to me that Pavel Klikar, the former leader of the jazz band I worked with before, played me one recording of an absolutely unknown singer from the 20s, and he had only one recording from that singer. The voice and everything, the colour of the voice and diction, and style of singing - it was me, really (laughs). So I was shocked and surprised - it was really me!"

The Melody Makers' current tour is entitled Sladce a Zhave, or Sweet and Hot, and is a tribute to Bing Crosby, a particular hero of Ondrej's. And given the season that's in it, the band performed his classic song White Christmas during their concert at Lucerna.

"This year is the hundredth anniversary of Bing Crosby's birth, so I dedicated the programme to Bing, because I love him. For me, he was the best jazz singer: he could very sing jazz in a very hot style, but he could sing very sweet songs as well. He was perfect, I love him."

Why do you think this music continues to appeal to people, 70 or 80 years after it was first written and recorded?

"I think that basically it's a matter of fantastic rhythm, of very high level and very sophisticated harmony in the music. And, of course, people are missing at the present time melodies; I think it's very important that they can whistle (laughs) to themselves the melodies of these songs. These three parts of the music are the most important. And I think it's a matter of interpretation as well, because we are trying to play it authentically like it was in that period. People feel that we love it, and we really want to present the music to the audience as it was with everything, with that love, with that energy."

You can find out more at www.melodymakers.cz