Laco Deczi is one of the most respected trumpet players to have ever come out of former Czechoslovakia, a jazzman who got his start in 1960s Prague playing Be Bop and so-called Hard Bop. Deczi (who has lived in the US since the mid-1980s and is now in his late 60s) still routinely tours the Czech Republic and his homeland Slovakia.
I caught up with Laco in Prague recently to discuss his career and music. He told me that it all started something like this:
"My father was in engineer and he just bought me some trumpet as a hobby. Some cheap trumpet he bought I don't know where and gave it to me. I played it for maybe a couple weeks and then I tried to play the trombone - also a couple of weeks - and then I came back to the trumpet. My father didn't like it too much, he thought it was a hobby. He thought if I'd be an engineer like him it would an easier life. But I started like this."
Laco Deczi studied but did not complete the conservatory in Bratislava, and after his mandatory service in the Czechoslovak army, not the most pleasant of times, Deczi returned to his career in music.
"After the army I never went back to Bratislava I just went straight to Prague. I started to play with the S.H. Quintet - that was a theatre band, very famous at this time. We played something like 'cool' jazz - vibraphones, flute, something like that. I never liked 'cool' jazz too much, I preferred 'East Coast', and we played this music! In Prague at this time everybody played 'West Coast', soft, a little bit California, which to me sounded a little bit like elevator music! I like mostly hard Bop, Bop, and later Latino music too."
The S.H.Q. - or the S.H. Quintet - led by the Karel Velebny, was one of the most famous groups of its time. In the 60s, jazz also enjoyed the benefits of the political and cultural thaw in Czechoslovakia, the period that would be later dubbed the Prague Spring. It helped, says Deczi today, that the communists paid less attention to jazz during this period.
"They didn't know what jazz was. They didn't bother too much with jazz. Rock, that bothered them, because that had lyrics that could be used in protest. Not jazz. There was a jazz festival here, so the only time we had any trouble was when we wanted to play abroad."
The 1960s then saw the opening of some of Prague's most famous clubs, including Reduta - which exists to this day on the city's National Street. That is where Deczi performed one very fateful night: August 21st, 1968.
"I remember this time exactly. I was at the Reduta Jazz club on Narodni Trida (National Street) and we had finished playing and gone to the bar upstairs. At around two in the morning we were there and suddenly famous Czech actor and comedian Pavel Landovsky walked in. 'Listen guys the Russians are here! Tanks are outside!' and we were laughing because we thought it was a joke. So we went out and saw Russian tanks in the street in front of National theatre. Russian tanks!"
The Soviet-led invasion brought to an end the experiment of "communism with a human face" backed by communist reformer Alexandr Dubcek. Deczi still scoffs when reminded of communist rule today. Despite the reforms of the Prague Spring, communism for him came down to only one thing:
"You know that was all bullshit, all Communist bullshit: now we're gonna be nice, now everything will be beautiful! Dubeck and those guys were all a**holes. Communism with a human face! That's not a trick... a human face. It's all bullshit. I never trusted the Communists. Never."
Deczi, with his wife and child, chose not to escape Czechoslovakia then, but remained in the country of his birth to continue as a musician. In 1967 he had founded the band Celula which earned critical acclaim, and he recorded a number of albums in the 70s, all the while working for Czechoslovak Radio's jazz orchestra, where he and many other well-known musicians made a living.
"At this time I worked at Czechoslovak Radio - their jazz orchestra. I worked there almost fifteen years. A lot of my best friends were there: extremely good musicians. We got a salary although it was very little, so we had jobs on the side too, recording something for TV, or to play backup for pop singers. I also started my band Celula then."
Almost twenty years later, on another continent, Deczi would start up Celula New York. It was the 80s and Deczi had finally left communist Czechoslovakia behind. Starting all over again was not easy, even for a jazzman of Deczi's calibre. In the beginning the musician, who had settled with his family in New York, took different gigs to make ends meet, sometimes helped by friends already in the city.
"I got a bunch of gigs, I started to write music for film too. I had a buddy who was a cameraman and there was a studio on 13th street so I got a couple jobs writing music for short films. Sometimes no money because there was no contract, other times it was paid. I played a lot of clubs and bars like Zanzibar on 3rd avenue: at this time it was a 'real' bar. Really shitty bar! There was an old black piano player, old guy, who didn't know any tunes and he'd fake it! People would come in. 'Hey, you know the song Laura?' And he'd say 'Sure!'. I'd play the song dee-do-dee-do-do and he'd fake it, fake all the changes! The son of a bitch! There was this glass on the piano where people would tip change and at the end of the night he'd take it all himself!"
Gradually, the musician got more established and additional projects followed, plus more concerts and more clubs.
"This time was pretty good because we played almost every night. The money was very low but, you know, who cares? I was pretty lucky because I was playing with big band and Sonny Constanza, then I built up Celula. My son didn't play with us then because he didn't have any time to play with me because he had a club, which was twelve hours a day working like a slave. Then I got another drummer from Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Andrea Valentini, originally from Italy. A lot of good musicians."
"I played with Elvin Jones, five days, we did a small tour. We played clubs, the Village Vanguard... Then I was lucky, I was in Club 88 and I jammed and started to play with Junior Cook. We jammed and they we played together for almost a year. That was the best saxophone player I ever met in my life."
"The first thing is that there are a lot of good musicians over there! New York is definitely the capital for jazz. I played in Washington, in Seattle, in California: it was okay but not like New York!"
Deczi still enjoys playing - writing dozens of compositions and performing live often - either with Celula - in which his son Vajco is the drummer - or with other musicians. Laco admits younger crowds these days aren't all that sure what to think of jazz, one reason why he likes to mix it up.
"You know, it's a problem for young people because a lot of music like jazz - especially in Europe - is pretty dead, you know? Too cool, we call it 'too much philosophy' - no balls! No power! We play music where we mix Latino and other stuff and the people don't care who the composer is, they're just looking for the rhythm. Nice, so they can dance. Some of them come to me and say 'I don't know what kind of style you play... but I like it."
At other times, his band will perform songs he wrote more than two decades ago. He doesn't really like to do it, preferring to play newer material.
"Some songs I hate, like 'Osteomellitis'- I wrote that 21 years ago, in the '80s when we recorded it at Jan Hammer's studio in upstate New York. But we still play it because people like it. I don't like it, you know, because... it's puke to play the same shit so many years! But when we tour we always have a bunch of new songs, three, four, five new songs."
And he always happy to be back in Prague, if usually only for short periods.
"When communism collapsed I was so happy. A couple of months later we visited Czechoslovakia because we couldn't come back before. Yeah, of course it was beautiful!"
Now the artist has branched out even more, recently publishing a book of paintings in the Czech Republic titled Pravdy - Truths - which features dozens of works by the musician showing new vision and humour.
"I said on a recent TV show here when I was asked 'why I liked painting' that I was greedy and that I did it for money."
JV: No, I don't believe you.
"No, seriously, I was greedy and a big time miser!"