In Prague, things just sort of worked out

May 3rd, 2023

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Prior to the show in Prague’s Jazz Club Reduta, April 30, 2023

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…..I began my vacation in Europe last week, choosing the gorgeous Czech Republic city of Prague as my starting point.   Shortly after arriving I took a wonderful bike tour and noticed that among the countless historic landmarks, tourist shops, museums, pork knuckle restaurants, pilsner pubs and Czech chimney cake shops that make up this fascinating city were several clubs advertising “jazz” nestled in the narrow-laned baroque neighborhoods and along its major boulevards.

…..While I knew prior to coming that the town had jazz clubs, the number of them surprised me, and after the ride I consumed a half-liter of pilsner and amended my list of possible things to do while in Prague, adding visiting a jazz club or two to it.  Unfortunately, when I subsequently visited the websites for the two most convenient for me to reach on foot, the repertoire wasn’t particularly inspiring.  So, when I set out for dinner I had no expectation to be in a jazz club.

…..I wandered, crossing over the astonishing Charles Bridge into Old Town, meandering along classic cobblestone streets in the perfect light of the descending sun, stopping in at an appropriately dark pub for pork knuckle and another half-liter. Afterwards, feeling heavier in the body but lighter in the head, I began what would turn out to be a significant walk.  It wasn’t long, however, before I was distracted on New Town’s Nardoni Avenue by a modest sign that read “Jazz Club Reduta,” which I recognized as one of the clubs whose evening programming I had determined was not up to my lofty standards.

…..Despite that self-imposed, rigid barrier, I was curious about the club because in the alley leading to the box office hung colorful posters of Sinatra, Ella, and Armstrong, as well as the famous photo of Bill Clinton playing saxophone in the presence of Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel.  In retrospect, what a joyous time in history that was, and such a feel-good moment made it impossible not to at least step inside and check it out.  It was only minutes before the first set would begin, and I had already made up my mind not to attend this show, but I began a conversation with the young man in the box office about the club’s beginnings in 1957 and the next evening’s show when a charismatic and affable man nearby introduced himself as the drummer for the evening, and for tomorrow’s show as well.

…..Thus I was introduced to Otto Hejnic, a jazz drummer of significant stature in Prague who has (I have since learned) recorded several compact discs as a leader, and when he discovered that I am from America and that I publish a website celebrating jazz, insisted that he host me for the next evening’s show.  He eagerly shared information about his career with a genuine enthusiasm that I found irresistible.  I learned long ago to honor that, and he was one helluva salesman, so I accepted his invitation.

…..I left the Club Reduta and set out on my long evening walk, taking countless photos in the perfect light along the way, eventually ending up at the steps of the National Museum at Wenceslas Square, looking down over the length of the square and the entire city.  It was a spine-tingling introduction to my European trip.

…..I made my way back down the square, turning aimlessly down one street, then another – my hotel just on the other side of the Charles Bridge a mile or so away.  My only immediate intention was to get to bed and sleep off some jet lag, but a modest sign caught my eye ahead of me:  “Live Jazz.”   It was available, right here, right now, at a subterranean jazz club known as the AghaRTA.

…..I checked my phone and realized this was the other club whose programming didn’t really catch my fancy, but by now I was determined to take in some contemporary Prague culture before the evening came to a close, so I paid my 300 crowns (about $15), and made my way into the club to experience a drummer-led quartet known as “Captain Fingers,” who proudly market themselves as “the only band on the Czech music scene that is dedicated to an almost missionary promotion of fusion jazz.”  For those who may recall, in 1977 the guitarist Lee Ritenour released an album titled Captain Fingers (his nickname) which actually charted in Billboard for a few weeks and from which this band derives its name.

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Captain Fingers

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…..I made myself comfortable at a front row table among a young audience of about 40 people, and with a glass of drinkable red found myself, surprisingly, getting into it.  The music was entertaining and the atmosphere was very fun.   I stayed for about four or five songs – as long as my jet lag would allow – three of which I have some general recollection of.  One was the Ritenour tune, along with one composed by the 80’s fusion band Steps Ahead, and the other a pretty good Pat Metheny song, which the guitarist handled nicely.  I can’t remember the name of either tune, and it really doesn’t matter, does it?  They played them all very well and true to the spirit of the genre, the drummer Michal Hejna was immensely proud of his group (who he introduced – as well as each song – in fluent English),  his bandmates were all quite competent, and I left happy and with the realization and satisfaction that I had to go to the other side of the world to hear a fusion band interpreting long forgotten and generally ignored music.  I made my way across the Charles Bridge and tucked myself into my hotel,  knowing I had supported the local jazz scene on my very first night in Europe, and that another evening of jazz awaited me at the Club Reduta the next evening.  Which was a thoroughly wonderful, inspiring experience.

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Inside the Club Reduta, April 28, 2023…(left to right; Jakub Tokoli, Lee Andrew Davison, Jan  Fečo and Otto Hejnic)

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…..  Otto met me at the box office and introduced me to his visiting friends, members of the band, and then showed me to the best seat in the house, which is a very warm, comfortable, visually rich space.  The band was fronted by the singer Lee Andrew Davison, a native Oklahoman who has lived in Prague since 1991, and he led the trio through entertaining, competent renditions of American standards – “Route 66,” “Answer Me,” “Summertime” and “Georgia” among them.  At intermission Mr. Davision worked his way through the entire audience, asking where everyone was from, and as he introduced the second set called out the countries represented – virtually every country in Europe, the U.S. and Korea (he made a point of saying they were from SOUTH Korea).

…..So, the ensemble was charming, Otto played the hell out of the drums, and the evening provided me with a warm memory for the outset of my trip, as well as a reminder that, like the night before, jazz is an American art form that finds its way into every corner of the globe, interpreted by quality people and top-notch musicians who have a strong desire to keep the art alive, and to do so with their own vision for it.

…..And, in the case of Otto, his vision goes beyond the ensemble, and he is enthusiastic in sharing it.  He has demonstrated through his creation of multiple recordings (which I’ve enjoyed on Spotify while traveling between cities on the train) that he has a grasp of what is important to him – musical artistry and integrity, a gift for composition, a respect for tradition, and a passion for collaboration.

…..This trip is off to a fine start, and, though not part of my original plan, jazz music and the good people who play it, present it, and witness it has become a central part of it.  Funny how things can just sort of work out.

…..More on that (from Vienna) next time.

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Joe Maita

Editor/Publisher

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In Wenceslas Square, April 29, 2023

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Prague, April 30, 2023

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Watch a 2021 filmed performance of the Otto Hejnic Organism playing “Survival Fight,” with Hejnic (drums); Brian Charette (organ); and Osian Roberts (saxophone)

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“Come Up” is from the album Beringia

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Click here to be taken to Otto’s website

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Watch a December, 2022 live performance of Captain Fingers performing at AghaRTA Jazz Club, Prague

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Other posts about and from my European journey

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Click here to read “My pursuit of the exterior”

Click here to read “In Prague, things just sort of worked out”

Click here to read “Beyond Category…Two Vienna jazz clubs”

Click here to read “A friendship made in Verona”

Click here to read “C’est Si Bon’ – at trip’s end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude”

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Click here to subscribe to the Jerry Jazz Musician quarterly newsletter

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2 comments on “In Prague, things just sort of worked out”

  1. All those jazz clubs?
    Prague sounds wonderful…

    It’s official: you’re off to a great start, Joe.

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