Installment: Prague, Czech Republic by Elliott Hester
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around Prague in summer is like strolling through a 15th-century
fairytale. Gothic church steeples protrude from clusters of trees
and seem to prop up a blanket of blue sky. Stone bridges stretch
across the sleepy Vltava River, 500-year-old clock towers chime,
and Prague Castle (a sprawling complex of churches, convents, courtyards
and palaces) sits high atop a hill, presiding over this medieval
from deep below the cobblestone streets, comes the contemporary
sound of Chicago blues.
by my friend Michaela Vasickova, a Czech lawyer and jazz/blues lover,
I spent an evening at Prague's hippest "underground" club.
U Maleho Glena (A Little Glen) sits, quite literally, beneath cobblestoned
Karmelitska street not far from Prague Castle.
club's hippness lay in its uniquely intimate atmosphere, and the
fact that many local musicians hang out here when they're not gigging
at one of a handful of clubs that add to Prague's burgeoning jazz
before the Rene Trossman Band belted out their first blues number
of the night, Michaela and I walked through a ground-level entrance,
bypassed the U Maleho Glena restaurant and teetered down a cramped
staircase. After I paid a $6 cover charge (Michaela got in for free
because she knows the musicians), we squeezed into a tiny bar area
packed with blues lovers from England, Germany, the U.S, Czech Republic
and other points on the globe.
one of the world's smallest live-music venues, U Maleho Glena conjures
up images of a midget submarine that has been chopped in half at
its midsection. The narrow bar area was crammed with perhaps 20
standees who mingled like vertically-packed sardines. A slender
doorway led to a performance area the width of which barely accommodated
the keyboard player, bassist, drummer and guitarist who adjusted
their instruments at the back of the room.
herein lay the beauty of the club. Four or 5 tables, all of them
occupied except one, ran along either side of the smoke-filled room.
The only available spot was in the front, at a petite table pressed
against the keyboard. We inched our way along a hint of an aisle,
sat, ordered drinks. Our table fit so snug against the keyboard,
however, I worried that my drink might spill on its keys. We sat
there, nevertheless, feeling as if we had entered the darkened living
room of a musician friend.
friend in this case turned out to be guitarist Rene Trossman. I
found out later that Trossman hails from my hometown of Chicago.
In 1994, only 5 years after the "Velvet Revolution" (the
Czech Republic's relatively non-violent transformation from communism
to democracy), he moved to Prague and has been living here ever
since. Using the Czech capital as his home base, Trossman plays
gigs in Germany, Russia and throughout Eastern Europe. "I came
here because the cost of living is affordable," he says. "And
because it gave me the opportunity to form my own band."
band leader from Chicago took the microphone, welcomed the crowd,
and then leapt into a funky blues number that rocked the little
submarine along with most of the audience crammed inside of it.
say "most" because a few Czech patrons sat frozen in their
chairs while the rest of us, Michaela included, were swept up in
a flood of blues rhythms that bobbed our heads, forced our torsos
to gyrate, or at the very least made our fingers tap on the table.
When it comes to the blues, Czechs seem to have a difficult time
letting loose and expressing their appreciation. But like everything
else in Eastern Europe, things are changing.
keyboard player Jakub Zomer, winner of the celebrated "Junior
Jazz Competition" in Usti nad Labem, had no problem expressing
himself. With each dramatic stroke of the keys, his face contorted
into expressions that ran the gambit from ecstasy, to comedy and
5th member of the group, Czech singer Veronika Vojtiskova, wore
loose-fitting jeans and dark glasses while effortlessly belting
out Koko Taylor cover songs. I didn't detect her Eastern European
accent until she thanked the cheering crowd at the end of the show.
bassist Taras Voloschuk and Slovakian drummer Daniel Soltis round
out the band's international lineup. Their tight "bluesy-jazz"
sound, as Trossman likes to put it, rivals that of any good blues
band back in Chicago. But the uniqueness of the band and the club's
cozy environment, made the night something special.
next evening I hung out in the brick-walled basement that is Zelezna
jazz club. Here, I was treated to the expert saxophone of Beda Smarda,
who according to Trossman (he happened to be in the audience) is
"probably the best jazz saxophonist in Eastern Europe."
ultimately made my way to Reduta, Prague's oldest and best-known
jazz venue. Founded in 1958 under the yoke of communism, Reduta
has played host to jazz greats such as Wynton Marsalis and notable
wannabes like former president Bill Clinton. Yes, Big Bill played
his saxophone to a cheering crowd here in 1994.
was he?" I posed the question to the club manager who also
happened to be working that day nearly 10 years ago. "Just
okay," he said, smirking.
the end, I returned to U Maleho Glena. Unlike most jazz clubs in
Chicago, here you pay to listen to 1 set and can sit at your table
for all 3. After a few nights the bartender, cocktail waitress
even the musicians knew me by name. Though most spoke with
heavy Czech accents, it was the first time in 10 months of traveling
that I felt as if I were home.
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