One of Europe’s foremost jazz critics, of a status comparable to Nat Henhoff in the States, died on 16 December 2013 in Prague.Lubomír Dorůžka rose to become the preeminent Czech-language jazz historian in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. He was a Czech musicologist, music historian and critic (not just jazz), author, literary translator (including, naturally, the Jazz Age writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, amongst others) and much more. Lubo Dorůžka had the ill-starred fortune to be a jazz aficionado under two totalitarian regimes, during periods when to call jazz dangerous was an understatement.
He was born on 18 March 1924 in what was then the capital of Czechoslovakia, Prague. Growing up, he bore witness to Czechoslovakia – after 1933 the last remaining parliamentary democracy in central and eastern Europe – pressured into ceding territory beginning with Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in late 1938. The War, sorry, History channels regularly repeat Nazi propaganda footage of Wehrmacht vehicles turning that hairpin bend that leads up to Prague Castle.
Anyone caught listening to swing jazz during the Nazi regime in occupied Czechoslovakia and France could expect imprisonment and possible internment or death in concentration camps. Loving jazz and the freedoms it represented was dangerous. Mike Zwerin, the author ofLa Tristesse de Saint Louis: Swing Under the Nazis, called this music “a metaphor for freedom”.
The Monica Ladurner film Schlurf (Im Swing gegen den Gleichschritt(‘Schlurf: With Swing against the Goosestep’) Austria, 2007) documents the American swing jazz-loving, underground youth movements in their German, Austrian, French and Czechoslovakian guises. The Austrian idiom Schlurf had been derogatory – though now it sounds quaintly antique – came from schlurfen – ‘to shuffle’. The word communicated a sense of wastrels, sluts (more correctly Schlurfkatzen) and ne’er-do-wells loitering in the shadows or an alleyway. It’s rather like an antecedent of punk. Its subtext summoned jazz, inferiority and degeneracy. In Germany one equivalent was the Swing-Jugend (‘Swing youth’) fond of substituting ‘Sieg Heil!’ with ‘Swing Heil!’ in the right circumstances. In occupied Czechoslovakia they were called Potápky, so-called after great crested grebes – its literal meaning. They ducked and dived like those birds – and, of course, they have the habit of resurfacing somewhere else than expected.
At a screening of Schlurf… at the Kino Světozor in Prague, where it was running as part of the MOFFOM (Music on Film Film on Music) festival in 2009, something unexpected happened. Partway through Lubo was in the film recalling the movement and those times. It took a while to click that he was speaking in German – in cultivated, Czech-inflected German – because we had never talked in German. At the time I was based in his and his wife Aša’s Prague apartment while they were away travelling. I was surrounded by framed photographs like him and Louis Armstrong, his book collection, certificates and so on. It seemed unreal. Between 1944 and 1945 he began writing about swing for a samizdat publication. In the screening I wept in the darkness. The day I flew back to London on the way to the Metro station, a deluge forced me to take shelter in a pub off Wenceslas Square. Waiting out the rain, I wrote a lyric directly inspired by Lubo and another cinema called Kino Laterna for the violinist-vocalist Iva Bittová. It is now part of the repertoire of Checkpoint KBK, her trio with clarinettist David Krakauer and accordionist Merima Ključo.
Lubo went on to become the Czechoslovakia correspondent forDownbeat during the Communist era as well as writing extensively forBillboard. Jazz was American and the authorities kept an eye on it and anyone peddling it. It meant that he was receiving all manner of US releases for review including ESP LPs like the Fugs. The country’s earlier official party line had been that jazz, like blues, was the voice of social struggle, the voice of the oppressed Negro in the United States and so on. In this ghetto jazz was safe and containable. As jazz’s popularity grew and its counter-cultural possibilities made themselves apparent the Czechoslovakian authorities picked what made political sense.
His Panoráma Jazzu (‘Panorama of Jazz’) was published in 1990, during the time of political climate change. It covers the standard jazz history and its Czechoslovakian complexion with, say Jaroslav Ježek and Karel Velebný, but extends to musicians such as Anthony Braxton and David Murray as well as the jazz released on Eastern bloc labels such as Amiga, Melodiya, Muza and Supraphon. His 2002 book Český jazz mezi tanky a klíči (‘Czech jazz between tanks and keys’) (2002) – though klíči has parallel possibilities like ‘musical keys’ and ‘passports’ – is another of his books on the nation’s jazz history. ‘Between tanks and keys’, his son clarified, refers to the exact time interval between the Soviet tanks in 1968, and the Velvet Revolution
in 1989, when crowds at Wenceslas Square rattled their keys as a symbol of resistance.
He and his wife (who died four days after him) came to love Cornwall on the Atlantic tip of England in the period when travel was possible. Into their 70s they would travel overland by coach from Prague to Victoria Coach Station and then on to Cornwall. The freedom to travel was something they prized highly, having spent time when possibilities were so restricted.
In late May 2013 Lubo, his music critic and broadcaster son, Petr and I attended a concert at Libeňská synagoga in Prague 8. It was a concert by Iva Bittová, his guitarist grandson David Dorůžka, the pianist Aneta Majerová (David’s partner) and the cellist Peter Nouzovský. He was treated like a dignitary, being addressed by all but family and close friends as Pán Dorůžka where Pán functions more on the Lord side of Mister. I felt myself privileged that for more than 20 years he and I were Lubo and Ken.
He was one of the greatest champions of jazz of our era. He rode out so many storms.
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