At least in terms of the musicians he has played with George Mraz (born Jiří Mraz in Písek, south Bohemia in 1944) may well be the most successful Czech in the history of jazz. Indeed, the list of people the acoustic bass maestro has accompanied reads like something of a Who’s Who of jazz, including Dizzie Gillespie, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker and Charles Mingus. Incredibly, George Mraz has appeared on over 1,000 albums. When the New York-based musician was in Prague recently, we discussed his beginnings in jazz, as a teenager.
“Well, I was lucky that the high school that I went to in Tábor actually had a jazz band, strangely enough. When I came to Prague to study at the conservatory there were about three clubs at the time, so I was playing pretty much almost every night.”
Was jazz the cool young person’s music before bigbít [1960s Czechoslovak guitar pop]?
“Pretty much so, yes. It was.”
What was it that first attracted you personally to jazz?
“When I was about 13 or something like that on Sundays they usually played these light operettas and things [on the radio]. And somehow they mixed in Louis Armstrong, one hour. Of course he was singing, and I couldn’t figure out how can he get away with a voice like that, you know, following these people! [laughs].
“I liked it much better than what I heard the whole day, so I started looking into it and that was like my first…the first time I was introduced to jazz.”
What led you to the acoustic bass, the instrument for which you are known?
“That was also an accident. I started on violin when I was about seven and then played clarinet and saxophone…anyway, the bass player in the band – I don’t want to say any names – he was a nice guy, but he was a genius, he managed to play all the wrong notes. Even by accident he should have played a right note once in a while.
“So I picked it up in the break one time, and it didn’t seem to be that difficult. I liked the sound…and became a bass player.”
“Oh yes, yes. He used to sometimes be behind the bar. When the old lady got tired of us playing, you know, instead of two hours maybe 10 hours. He would attend the bar.
“Although I have played for him since, last year was the first time that I saw him. It was very nice, he gave me a book, and we are still on a first-name basis.”
Tell us how you ended up living in America, living in New York.
“I was in Germany, playing at the Domicile [jazz club, in Munich], and I had a stipendium for Berklee school of music in Boston. It just so happened that in August ’68 the Russians came in, and I just used that stipendium – it just seemed to work out.”
You simply stayed in America?
“I just stayed, yeah.”
Was it hard for you to get established in America as a musician? I imagine in New York for example there must great competition in the world of music.
“I actually started in Boston and I was very lucky because they kind of knew about me already, because I had a couple of records out already. I was in the jazz competition in Vienna that Friedrich Gulda had there. So I met Cannonball [Adderley], JJ Johnson and Ron Carter, Joe Zawinul, Mel Lewis, Art Farmer, and all those guys.
“I pretty much started working right away. In ’69 I was playing with Dizzie. Then Oscar Peterson gave me a call and I ended up playing with him for a couple of years.”
The list of people you’ve played with is simply a Who’s Who of jazz. Was there any particular moment where you thought, this is it, I’ve made it?
“Not really. Once you say that you might as well…not get up any more [laughs]…you never really ‘make it’.”
I was reading also that you’ve played on something like 900 albums. Does it all become a bit of a blur over the decades?
“Well, there are people who know more about it than I do. Because I don’t have most of them. There’s always some kind of surprise, things that I don’t even remember.
“It’s probably more – quite a few over a thousand. I assume maybe eleven, twelve hundred by now. Somebody had a discography on the web, that was about 10 years ago, and they had 880, 860, I don’t remember how many exactly, listed there.
“Of course they missed some, and since then I’ve recorded some more. So it must be over a thousand.”
Were there any particular albums or any particular encounters with musicians that stand out for you?
“I was lucky to play with a lot of great people. I had a really good time playing with Joe Henderson, especially when we played just in a trio with Al Foster. And also with Tommy Flanagan…I’m still playing with Hank Jones, on and off. Of course the big bands, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis – that was a great band.”
Is it hard to adapt – when you play with so many different people, is it hard for you to adapt to different musicians’ style?
“Not really. Sometimes it’s a problem because some people only see you as playing a certain style, and they’re surprised to find out I do other things. But I like to do that, I like to do different things.”
“It was kind of difficult. For me it’s a lot easier to be a sideman, because I don’t have to take care of business so much. And I get enough calls to be able to do it.
“But I think I’m going to start again. I have some ideas, some new tunes, and I think it would be nice, while I can still do it, to do my own thing again.”
By the way, I have to ask you, when did you start calling yourself George?
“That wasn’t my idea either. There are two reasons. The first one was that whenever they paid me by cheque it was impossible – I had to return it three times, because it was always misspelled.
“Even when I tried to open an account at the First National City Bank in Boston it took 15 minutes to get my last name right…When we got to the first name, I just gave up, I said ‘George’ [laughs].”
Jiří was too complicated for the Americans?
“Too complicated. There was only one American, except for a few girls
that came close [laughs]…Willis Conover [jazz producer and broadcaster]
could say it perfectly. He was able to say it correctly.”