Double bass player Jaromír Honzák draws on own experience as head of country’s first dedicated jazz school

Jaromír Honzák is one of the most important figures in the Czech jazz world. The double bass player recently turned 50, marking that milestone with the release of a new Jaromír Honzák Quintet CD entitled Little Things. As well as gigging regularly in the Czech Republic and further afield, he is the head of the Czech Republic’s first dedicated jazz school. I spoke to Honzák before a show at the Prague venue Jazz Dock the other night.

Did you come from a musical family?

“Yes, I did come from a musical family. My father is a trumpet player – he used to have his own swing big band in the ‘50s, which became a reduced band later, in the ‘60s. He also a incorporated rock’n’roll group into his band, to attract young people when rock’n’roll became the hip thing.

“My father actually encouraged me to play bass, because as a band leader he very often had a hard time finding a bass player. He thought it would be a practical instrument for me – I could get a lot of work as a bass player. I liked that idea, so I became a bass player.”

I was reading that your father’s band has been going for over five decades.

“That’s right. Actually last year they celebrated 55 years. There was a really big celebration in the town of Litoměřice in north Bohemia. There was, like, 700 people at the Cultural House, where this event took place, which was amazing. I can compare – when I play there, 40 or 50 people come. Seven hundred people came to see my father’s band.”

By the way, how old is your father now?

“He’s 85.”

Tell us about your studies. Where would a young jazz musician go to study here, in I presume the late ‘70s or early ‘80s?

“When I was studying, my only choice was to attend a classical conservatory. I studied classical double bass, which I consider a good background, particularly with this instrument – it’s good to have a classical background.

“Otherwise, when it came to jazz we were all just self-taught. We had to pursue information our own way, because there was no official jazz school.”

I know later you also studied in America at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston. How did that come about, and what did it mean to you?

“When I applied for a scholarship at Berklee I had to do it in a very official way. I actually had to do it through the Ministry of Culture, because I was officially sent there. I needed to collect many stamps and signatures…but this was 1989 already and the communist regime was not very tough any longer. So I must say I didn’t have so much trouble getting all those permits.”

Artistically, what did you gain from studying at Berklee?

“Artistically, it was really an amazing experience, because if you imagine the situation here in Prague in 1989 and before: it was a very, very small scene, much more limited than it is now, very few musicians, very few clubs. We didn’t know much about other scenes, we didn’t have many connections with the rest of the world. So for me this was like opening my eyes.

“First of all the school was great, because I could learn very much about jazz theory, which I didn’t have the chance here. But maybe the most important thing was that I could meet many great people, many great musicians. I was lucky, because at the time I was there people like Chris Cheek [who appears on Little Things], Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jorge Rossy, Joshua Redman, Roy Hargrove – these people were there. Later they became the new jazz generation, so I was lucky to be there when they started.”

Getting back to the present, I was reading an interview with you and you said that sales of 500 copies were normal for a Czech jazz album. How do you Czech jazz musicians make a living, then?

“Of course you can’t make a living from selling your jazz CDs. People either teach, which is my case, or they play other kinds of music, not only jazz, some people play with pop singers…Some people are more lucky when it comes to going abroad – going abroad usually means playing for better money than here in Prague.

“In general most people just combine a few things – playing with more bands, not just one group, and they teach.”

Where do you teach yourself, and when you teach what are you trying to impart to your students?

“I teach at the Jazz Department at the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory. It’s quite a new school, quite a new department, because we only started six years ago. I consider this to be a great change – finally we have a real jazz department. In all European countries, not to mention the United States, jazz schools are a normal part of the educational system.

“When I put the programme together…I knew I would incorporate and use my Berklee experience, but the most important thing is people. Because you can have a great programme on paper, but if you don’t have the right people it means nothing.

“I was able to ask people on the Prague scene, the best musicians on their instruments, who I know and who were interested in teaching. I think the staff at the department is quite good, and we’re doing our best.”

Photo: www.jaromirhonzak.com