Ondřej Havelka: I’ll be happy for everyone who is inspired by our documentary and starts to learn the swing

My tancujem swing Authored by: Matěj Třešňák

The second festival day the premiere of a new Ondřej Havelka documentary Swing We Dance will take place at the New Stage of the National Theatre.

"Let’s dance the swing" – when and how?

This is a documentary on the development of the Czech jazz and swing scene throughout the years, which is why we named it after a song penned during the war, performed by Karel Vlach. It’s not a sophisticated composition by any means, but its title is spot on. 

What gave you the idea to shoot such a film?

Radim Kratochvíl is the person behind the concept, which was picked up by creative producer Jiří Hubač at Czech Television. He then asked me to make it my own. 

We’ll find out by watching the film, but could you tell us about the beginnings of the swing in our country?

Young people listened to swing music even during the Protectorate. It wasn’t permitted, but gramophone records with swing music found their way to us. But if we’re talking about homegrown swing, the development was of course much delayed compared to America. Jazz made inroads into Czech culture only towards the end of the 1920s. Czech musicians were tabula rasa, and for a long time had no idea how to play the swing – as becomes painfully obvious from their initial attempts on recordings of Czech bands from the 1930s. Their interpretation was very naive, very gauche. The real change came only during the post-war "age of nylon", when Czech musicians finally got the knack of it; we may thus say that the first three years after the war were the golden age of Czech big-band swing. 

How did this music get here?

A number of American jazz bands had visited Czechoslovakia during the 1920s, and a few major bandleaders brought over first-class American performers. Whenever that happened, it caused a big jolt in sleepy Prague. Contemporary reviews make for very interesting reading: some complained how horrible it all was, and spoke of jungle music full of unlistenable noises, but other critics were enraptured. These more enlightened listeners were glad for concerts at the Lucerna Music Bar or the Varieté in Karlín, the latter actually serving for a full week as the venue of the Chocolate Dandies, an all-black jazz revue. In addition, Czech youth of course imbibed the jazz feeling through American gramophone records. Note, though, that Ježek for instance gave preference to English big-band jazz, which is why his style ended up being more refined. But Vlach, Traxler, or Běhounek – they listened to real, full-blooded American jazz and swing.

The music itself is only one aspect; we should talk also about dance styles and fashion…

Given that our youth at the time closely followed was what fashionable in Berlin and Paris, I’d say that they weren’t much behind on current trends. By contrast, swing dance only took hold during the war, if not in fact after the war. Swing dance was in fact illegal during the Protectorate. However, historian Petr Koura, who makes a guest appearance in our documentary, writes about surreptitious dance events in smaller towns. So-called potápkové – jazz rebels, if you will – attempted to imitate the swing as they understood it. But it took the American G.I.s, who liberated Pilsen and Western Bohemia as a whole and were stationed here for months, to teach the local youngsters how to properly dance the real swing – which at that time mostly meant the Jitterbug.

Which moment was key for the development of Czech swing? The arrival of the U.S. army you’ve just mentioned?

Without doubt. We know that Karel Vlach travelled to Pilsen to listen to American military bands, and even received arrangements from them. This was the key moment – being able to see and hear how this music is played live. 
But after a short while, this music was suppressed as a communist government came to power…
Indeed, the communists destroyed all of Czechoslovak culture; swing was called the depraved music of imperialist hatemongers. Consequently, the freshly planted sapling withered away – Vlach’s and Habart’s last recordings were made in 1949. After that, Vlach was reduced to performing at circuses or comping for degenerate, tendentious light opera. It was only later that Werich called him to join his theatre, where he gave Ježek’s songs a new, modern sound. 

Given that Western music was forbidden, swing probably didn’t have much of a life in the Soviet Union?

Odessa, that major port city with its very cosmopolitan population, had jazz bands. But when the Stalinist regime took hold in the 1930s, all of this was being suppressed, of course. 

Towards the end of the documentary, you suggest that swing is making a comeback. To what degree?

Even in the 1990s, youth began to flock to swing music, and the first clubs appeared where you could dance the Lindy Hop – the most typical among swing dances. About fifteen years ago, this trend reached the Czech Republic. You can’t really call it a global phenomenon, but it is beautiful to watch dancers with a broad range of steps and moves under their belt who have the ability to improvise and produce various creations. It is because of this variety that swing dance attracts so many people. Of course, the genre then received a boost of popularization thanks to performers such as Harry Connick junior, Michael Bublé, or Jamie Cullum. And electroswing, even though the fad has already passed, certainly played its part as well: it was a lucky infection that caught on in the dance scene. Many fans of electroswing turned to traditional swing, which they discovered to be much stronger and more interesting music. 

In your view, what is it that makes swing attractive for listeners, and how did you become emotionally attached to the genre?

My emotional attachment to historical jazz goes back a full forty years! I cannot remember a time at which I did not relish this music. I began as the lead vocalist for Pavel Klikar’s Original Prague Syncopated Orchestra, singing 1920s jazz, with the oldest numbers dating from 1919 to 1923. We played a repertoire which went up to the year 1931 – a time at which the first stirrings of the swing made themselves heard in jazz. Here we need to differentiate between 1920 big-band jazz and 1930s swing. After 19 years with this orchestra, I founded my own big band, the Melody Makers, which began with the 1930s and slowly moved into newer styles and genres. Today, we focus on peak American swing of the 1940s and, in the domestic context, the age of nylon. 

What intentions do you pursue with this documentary, which will be premiered at the Golden Prague festival? Is it simply a historical account of the history of Czechoslovak jazz music?

Of course, I’d be delighted if the topic strikes a chord with someone who then ventures to go to a swing dance hall and checks out for themselves what people do there, and what kind of atmosphere one gets to enjoy there. I’ll be happy for everyone who is inspired by our documentary, goes to a club and starts to learn the swing. However, the film works just as well as a bird’s-eye recap of the history of Czech jazz. Swing – that’s not just Rudolf Antonín Dvorský, however much he may have done for music. We do perform dance numbers from Dvorský’s repertoire, some of which are fantastic, but to us, the representatives of true swing, such as Karel Vlach, Jiří Traxler, Emil Ludvík, or Kamil Běhounek are most important.

The film includes several contemporary shots; where does this footage come from?

We’ve used several shots from America which probably no one around here has seen before. Then there is a shot of the Vlach Orchestra which were made for the weekly newsreel during the Protectorate – this has previously been on television on a few occasions, given that it is the only surviving footage of a swing band playing from those days. As for the 1960s, we’re going to show, for instance, an excerpt of Louis Armstrong’s Prague concert at the Lucerna music hall. True, this is already a slightly different genre – namely, Dixieland – but it was a total revelation when Armstrong came to Prague.