Josef Skvorecky: Jazz vs totalitarianism

January 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm (fascism, good people, history, Human rights, humanism, jazz, Jim D, liberation, literature, music, national liberation, stalinism)


From The Bass Saxophone to The Swell Season, to The Engineer of Human Souls, and now Dvorak in Love, one thing that comes through loud and clear in your work is your love of music.


Well, I always wanted to be a jazz musician, and was really never much of one.


How did you first get turned on to jazz?


There was a Chick Webb recording called “I’ve Got a Guy,” which featured Ella Fitzgerald. At the time I didn’t know it was Ella, because most records then didn’t list the names of the singers; the showcase was the band. That was around 1938, when Ella was twenty. “I’ve Got a Guy” also had a wonderful saxophone chorus, and when I heard it for the first time, I thought I was listening to the music of the heavenly spheres, and I still think that.

The full interview here


The great Czech author Josef Skvorecky died aged 87 on 3rd January, just a fortnight after his friend and fellow-dissident Vaclav Havel. Skvorecky was less well-known, not having entered formal politics, but he was just as important in his way and, in fact, was responsible for publishing Havel’s work and smuggling it back into Czechosovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion. He also published the first edition of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, again smuggled back into the author’s country of origin.

But it should be for his own funny (ha-ha), sad, wise and humane writing that he is mainly remembered: The Cowards (banned as “Titoist and Zionist”), The Tank Battalion, The Miracle Game, and the book that many people regard as his masterpiece, The Engineer of Human Souls. Skvorecky’s  passion for jazz runs through his work. Many of his novels feature a saxophone-playing hero called Smiricky, and the author himself was a saxophonist-manqué

In the introduction to his best-known book, The Bass Saxophone, Skvorecky explains some of the appeal of jazz for a free spirit like himself:

“In the days when everything in life was fresh – because we were sixteen, seventeen – I used to blow tenor sax. Very poorly. Our band was called Red Music which in fact was a misnomer, since the name had no political connotations: there was a band in Prague that called itself Blue Music and we, living in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had no idea that in jazz blue is not a colour, so we called ours Red. But if the name itself had no political connotations, our sweet, wild music did; for jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successfully ruled in my native land.”

Later, in the same essay, Skvorecky reproduces an almost unbelievable set of rules drawn up by the regional Gauleiter during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and binding upon all local dance bands. Skovorecky assures the reader that this is not satire and his recollection is accurate, as these rules “have engraved themselves deeply on my mind“:

1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;

2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;

3. As to tempo, preference is to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Ayrian sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;

4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);

5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, etc);

6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);

7. The double bass must be played soley with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;

8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan masculinity; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;

9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal imporovisations (so-called scat);

10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.


Below: in memory of Josef Skvorecky, here’s the undisputed champ of the bass sax, Adrian Rollini, in 1927 with Joe Venuti (vln) and Eddie Lang (gtr). The tune’s called ‘Beatin’ The Dog’:

Daily Telegraph obit here


  1. representingthemambo said,

    Hi Shiraz Socialist.

    Once again we’re craving a boon.

    Would you possibly be willing to put our article on Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent piece for the Guardian on your blog as we think something that is rather fishy could do with slightly wider circulation:

    Many thanks

  2. representingthemambo said,

    In answer to your question, yes we are special. Which I’m guessing is why you felt the need to respond. It’s amazing how much abuse we are getting considering we are, as you say, so unrepresentative.

    Hilarious change of the name btw. Very droll. Is your real name Tim Vine?

  3. Dave said,

    6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);

    Who could object to that? 😉

  4. SteveH said,

    If we are doing requests how about posting something on pissing soldiers or better still, civilising Britains recent meeting with Saudi Arabia?

  5. Jim Denham said,

    Pissing on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters was unfortunate and unwise for all sorts of reasons. But I’m more concerned about this sort of thing:

    • Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

      pissing on dead corpses of nazi fuckkers – as jim says – unfortunate. but not in the way that steeVEHaiTCH imagines it to be.

  6. SteveH said,

    Ok, if you can defend soldiers pissing on corpses without bothering to question why this would happen in the first place then I guess anything goes (including death camps). You video does not ask any questions, it merely poses one scandal against another. But if you want to defend this don’t get on your high horses please, that’s all I ask.

    To the other request, what about the Saudi meeting?

  7. Jim Denham said,

    “don’t get on your high horses please, that’s all I ask.”.

    Nazis deserve all they get.

    • Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

      they got off lightly.

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