Jaroslav Ježek in defence of jazz in 1934

26-02-2011

The theme tune for this series is from a song called Aesop and the Ant, and it was composed by one of the legends of twentieth century Czech music. Jaroslav Ježek died in wartime exile in New York at the age of just 35. He is best known for the songs he composed for the famous pre-war satirical cabaret, the Liberated Theatre, and he was also one of the pioneers of Czech jazz, fearlessly crossing the borders between popular and classical music. In November 1934, the young composer – he was 28 at the time - came into the radio and talked about jazz.

He started by explaining some basic principles of this radical new musical form, then demonstrating them on the piano:

“To put it briefly, jazz dance is based on the principle of four equal beats, with a simple tune on top, which in the course of the composition is modified in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. You go from quite simple configurations to the most complicated forms that the composer can think of. For example, this is the basic musical model for blues…”

On a crackly, but very atmospheric recording, he then gives us an example, following it up with a demonstration of the foxtrot.

The interviewer then asks the composer whether he feels that jazz can be adapted to suit European tastes. Ježek gives an amusing answer.

“Jazz has its roots in black American culture and it has been absorbed successfully into the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but anyone who has tried to establish their own alternative kind of jazz has ended up succumbing to second-rate imitation, or copying old forms of dance, putting on a jazz veneer. This is the case with Czech jazz, which is based on the Polka, and of German jazz which has been adapted for the local dance-halls and is banal and unbearably sentimental. Jazz is a new form of art. It demands a real composer and a proper orchestra made up of virtuosi. That’s not the case with most so-called jazz orchestras, which are nothing more than coffee-house dance-bands.”

In the few years left to him before his tragically early death in 1942, he went on to prove that at the hands of a true virtuoso, European jazz really can shine.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 22, 2007.

About this series

26-02-2011