Satchmo and the liberating power of jazz

15-01-2009

Nothing better symbolizes the political thaw in 1960s Czechoslovakia than the boom in jazz, which many saw as embodying the very idea of individual expression and freedom from constraint. It is not hard to imagine the excitement when Louis Armstrong came to Prague in March 1965. Many people felt that Czechoslovakia had at last come in from the cold, and his concert at Prague’s Lucerna Ballroom was a cultural milestone. It ended with Satchmo thanking his audience, commenting that the Czech passion for jazz had come as quite a surprise to him.

Louis ArmstrongLouis Armstrong “We want you to know that we had a very pleasant week here in Prague, to be playing to such a wonderful audience and meeting so many fine people, and to know that there are so many jazz clubs in Prague. We’re very happy about that and we want you to know that we’re leaving tomorrow and that as long as we live there will always be not only a memory, but it will be right here in our hearts.”

The concert had been introduced by Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr, whose “Semafor” theatre had become legendary by the mid-60s. In the spirit of Voskovec and Werich before the war, they combined satirical and humorous cabaret with a love of jazz.

As the regime relaxed, Suchý and Šlitr found their way onto the cultural mainstream. Despite several risqué jokes at the expense of the regime – for example, in one sketch Semafor’s Miroslav Horníček jokes that he will only use foreign words if he is paid in hard currency - Czechoslovak Radio was quite happy to broadcast Semafor’s New Year’s Eve show on December 31 1967. The show included a delightful parody of Strangers in the Night, with Jiří Šlitr singing in deliberately dreadful English!

Everything seemed to augur well for the New Year - 1968.

15-01-2009