The world-renowned jazz guitar player Rudy Linka was born in Prague but moved to Sweden at a young age. After half a decade there he left for the US, and has been living in New York for nearly a quarter of a century. In recent years, however, Rudy has been home in the Czech Republic every summer, organising the Bohemia Jazz Fest, a great free event which brings world class jazz musicians to a number of Czech towns and cities. We met at Café Slavia, one of the haunts of his teenage years.
“I started to play violin when I was six. Everybody in my family played an instrument, it was either piano or violin. I got in touch with the guitar when I was 13. That was when I was at a camp and there was a guy who played really, really good. He was really a profession player and somehow just happened to be there. I fell in love with the instrument. And also the guy was so friendly and so much fun to be with.
“From that moment I started to listen to the Beatles and tried to play those songs. And very early on I got into jazz, because I met really good friends who were just crazy about jazz. I started with Miles Davis and basically jumped over the whole rock’n’roll thing.”
Is there a big tradition of jazz here? I know the generation of people like [writer Josef] Škvorecký, who were older than you, were into jazz. But in your generation, was there a big interest in jazz in this country?
“I think so. Škvorecký grew up under the Nazis and jazz was totally forbidden. There were these pamphlets saying a solo couldn’t have more than three swing notes, all these crazy things.
“I think the communists for obvious reasons really didn’t encourage jazz at all. I think there was a big attraction to it from intellectual people, and I remember people like [great jazz musician and music teacher] Karel Velebný, who was really a great mentor to me and a great teacher, and there was always a lot of young people around him.
“But also the American embassy, they had a cultural centre. You could go and walk in, they had all the magazines, they had all the LPs. You could borrow three LPs for a week, you’d tape them at home, return them and pick other ones. So I had a really good jazz collection, through the American embassy, in the ‘70s.”
In I guess about 1979 or 1980 you, at the age of 19 or 20, moved to Sweden. Why Sweden?
“First, I didn’t know anything about Sweden. I was already studying German for nine years, so I knew that I didn’t speak German. And it’s also the historical thing about the Czech Republic and Germany and Austria…there were also a lot of tensions, but there were never any tensions with Sweden.
“Sweden always had great jazz. And also a very good friend of mine stayed in Stockholm – he was a saxophone player who went to Karel Velebný also, so I knew I had a friend I could stay with. So I went to Sweden.”
And later you went to America. What was it about America? Was it a work thing, that you knew you’d have to go to the States to get somewhere?
“You know, I was in Sweden for five years…and I also left Czechoslovakia because I wanted to study jazz. Somehow I was naively thinking that once you cross the line, once you cross the Iron Curtain, that there would be immediately be a lot of jazz schools all over the place.
“But that was not the case in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. So I went to Stockholm and there basically I started to study classical music, which I had been doing at the Prague Conservatory.
“And I started to understand that if you want to do jazz, and if you really want to learn it, you have to go to the United States. Because these guys played so much better. Even in Sweden when these guys showed up they were on a totally different level than the Swedish guys, and the Swedish guys were very good!
“So after five years I got a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and went there for a year. After that I got another scholarship to New School, in New York, and I studied there for two years. After that I basically stayed in the United States.”
I understand also that you getting to know the great guitar player John Scofield was also a big thing in your life and career.
“I’m so lucky that I studied with some really amazing guys. John was one of them. Jim Hall was another, and John Abercrombie was another. These guys were just really, really nice to me.
“When I met John for the first time he was giving a clinic at Berklee. I asked him if he could give me private lessons and he said, yeah, when you’re in New York give me a call. It was just when he left Miles Davis and he wasn’t so busy with his own band. And I was so lucky that I had 20 lessons with him, in his basement…”
Jumping forward in time, you two somehow ended up busking on Charles Bridge – two of the greatest jazz guitar players playing for free on Charles Bridge.
“That was really funny. We went on vacation to Prague, I think it was in 2000 or 2001, and John’s wife bought a book about Prague and she was studying it. It said, all the musicians in Prague play on Charles Bridge, this is the thing to do.
“Before we left she said, you guys take your guitars and play on Charles Bridge. And for that money we will go and have dinner, and we cannot spend one dime more than what you make.
“So we had our two acoustic guitars and we went to Charles Bridge and we sat down right in the middle and took them out and tried to play. The moment we started to play there was a little crowd around us, because people were watching us and thinking, this is not happening, these guys look like somebody…
“But also immediately these two police officers showed up and started to ask if we had a permit to do that, and of course we didn’t. I was pretending that I don’t speak Czech and John was being totally honest saying, I don’t speak Czech, and of course they didn’t speak English.
“They just wanted to take us to the police station. And luckily enough there was a Czech TV crew walking by, because they’d been filming something on the other side. And they started to film this. This Czech reporter said to the police, these guys are really famous. The whole thing was caught on tape and they showed it on the main news the same day.
“The police said, OK, you can play one song. So we played one song, we didn’t make any money because we didn’t have the permit [laughs], and we almost got arrested. It was one of the most bizarre periods in my life, I think.”
And you had no dinner that night.
“We had no dinner, of course. But, you know...”
A few years ago you set up the Bohemia Jazz Fest, which is a touring jazz festival. You play in six or seven Czech cities and towns every summer. How did that come about?
“It started six years ago when I bought a house close to Prachatice, which is a tiny little town in southern Bohemia, a beautiful town, it’s on border with Germany.
“I really fell in love with that little farmhouse and started to renovate it. I renovated it just when I was here in the Czech Republic – it was the first time in a long time that I spent two months here.
“Those two months were amazing for me, because in some way I had [previously] kind of returned home without returning home. But those two months really opened my eyes. I realised, the people are so nice, the food is great, the nature is unbelievable.
“But the music that they play on the radio is terrible, I couldn’t find a station. And I suddenly realised that I’m so lucky, because I know the guys who can really play some good music. I thought it would be so great to have these guys play in this amazing environment of these beautiful towns.”
You don’t have any trouble persuading world-renowned musicians to come and play in a little town like Prachatice?
“That’s really funny because it always helps to know the guys. It’s kind of, how do we do this? The pay is terrible, but…let’s do a massage in some other town, let’s do this, let’s do that. So the guys have gone for it.
“There were also some people who were extremely sceptical. I remember last year we had Tuck and Patti from California. He plays guitar, she sings, Tuck Andress – he’s an amazingly good jazz guitar player, really virtuoso.
“So they were coming to Prachatice and I remember the contract was, we don’t want to come in our own car…they were so afraid. They booked themselves a hotel in Linz, they were staying in a hotel in Linz, and we would just come and pick them up for the gig and then after we would just drive them back. And after they would have dinner in Linz, because they wanted their shrimp cocktail and vegetarian things…
“So we picked them up, drove them to Prachatice, where there was an amazing crowd of 4,000 people standing and waiting for them. The concert was totally amazing. They stayed in a hotel in Prachatice, a two-star hotel. In the contract they had that the hotel has to be deluxe, five-star, a boutique hotel – boutique!
“And they stayed in this little dive in Prachatice because they just had so much fun that they couldn’t really leave, immediately.
“I somehow felt, even that is great, that the festival works in that way also. It’s almost like the two sides are discovering one another. I’m sure that Tuck and Patti after they left have been telling many friends, all over, how much fun it was in this tiny little town, in Prachatice.
“And they actually will play in Prague, in the fall, because it was such a big success and now they’re just like, the Czech Republic is the place to go.”
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