Growing up in a country stifled by communist rule, world-class Czech pianist Emil Viklicky was introduced to the sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Count Basie via Voice of America and later embraced a career in jazz, celebrating its “freedom of expression.”
Now 66, Mr. Viklicky is renowned not only as a pianist but for his mesmerizing compositions blending Moravian folk music with jazz — in effect, taking a uniquely American musical genre and synthesizing it with the rich Czech culture.
“That is my trademark,” he told Global Atlanta in a recent email interview. “The melodic and dramatic elements of this music fascinates me. Of course, the harmonies are written by me.”
Moravia, a region with roots in the 13th Century, encompasses most of the eastern Czech Republic. Mr. Viklicky is a native of its former capital, Olomouc, known for its distinctive cheese.
The son of a university art professor and a mother who played piano, Mr. Viklicky says he started listening to the American jazz greats at age 10-12. “There were some piano fill-in licks behind the singer and I felt that this is what I would love to do.”
He practiced and studied jazz piano while a student at Palacky University where he graduated with a mathematics degree in 1971, three years after the Soviet-led invasion of then-Czechoslovakia derailed the “Prague Spring” reforms being enacted by the Czech communist regime.
Mr. Viklicky said he decided against pursuing a doctorate in his field of study because “it was hard to do any academic career” with nearly all university teaching posts filled by party members, an affiliation that Mr. Viklicky, like his father before him, rejected.
Instead, he began his career as a musician. The Czech jazz scene was thriving despite the communist crackdown.
Three years later, he was named best soloist at the Czechoslovak Amateur Jazz Festival and, in 1977, won a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied composition and arrangement with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy.
“I have to thank Herb, because when I went back to the Czech Republic in the mid-’80s there were still a couple of big bands, radio bands going,” he said in a 2006 interview with the website “All About Jazz.”
“They mostly played pop music, but on the side they did a little jazz one or two days a week. They needed someone to write for them, and they asked me to do it—that’s how I made a nice living in the mid-’80s. Thanks to Herb I could compose and write full band arrangements for horn sections and everything.”
Czech jazz dates back to the 1930s, Mr. Viklickly told Global Atlanta — music that stunned Benny Goodman, the American band leader known as the “King of Swing,” when he listened to recordings at Radio City Music Hall in 1941.
“The main thing about jazz is freedom of expression and for me it is connected with an adventure — musical adventure,” Mr. Viklicky said, who has lived out that adventure performing in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland and elsewhere.
He also has produced musical scores for films and television and composed contemporary classical music for orchestras. In 2004, he wrote a 24-minute long jazz melodrama, “The Mystery of Man,” that premiered at New York City‘s Lincoln Center.
It was based on the prison letters, other writings and speeches of Vaclav Havel, the dissident who led the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled the Communist regime in 1989 and became the first president of the Czech Republic.
Mr. Viklicky first met Mr. Havel at a jazz club in 1977 and says he asked a friend, “Why this man had a toothbrush in his pocket. The answer: “Well, Emil, this is Victor Havel and police are chasing him so he wants to be ready for another 24-hour detention.”
Mr. Havel, a poet and playright who served a total of 13 years as Czech president, frequently patronized Prague’s popular Reduta Jazz Club — where Mr. Viklicky still performs — until he died in 2001 at age 75.
In an interview at the Reduta last December, Mr. Viklicky told Global Atlanta he is pleased with his life in the Czech Republic 25 years after it was freed from repressive rule. “I like it here,” he said. “This country is good for me now. I can play jazz. I can play anywhere.”
Note: Paul Varian, a former CNN writer, editor and senior executive producer, accompanied George Novak, honorary Czech consul general in Atlanta, to Prague last year where he met Mr. Viklicky and heard him play at the Reduta Club that has been a gathering point for jazz enthusiasts over the years.
Former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and many other prominent American political officials, business leaders and entertainers were invited to the club by former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who was a frequent visitor. The club even has a few photographs posted of Mr. Clinton playing his saxophone with Mr. Viklicky’s trio.
While in Prague, Mr. Varian conducted interviews with Czech President Milos Zeman; Andrew H. Schapiro, the U.S. ambassador to the republic, and Jan Burian, the director of Prague’s historic National Theater. He also attended an opera for his first time and wrote about the experience for Global Atlanta. To read that article, click here.
Mr. Viklicky’s visit to Atlanta including the Georgia State concert is being sponsored by Mr. Novak, the republic’s honorary consul general. It is being hosted by Global Atlanta and AIESEC, the world’s largest student exchange and internship program.
The concert is to be attended by young professionals from the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and numerous binational chambers of commerce; the Young African Professionals who are in Atlanta under a prestigious State Department program and jazz music lovers from throughout the state.
At the concert, Paul Gleeson, the consul general of Ireland and the current dean of the Consular Corps representing foreign governments based in Atlanta, is to be honored for his five years of service in the Southeast before he returns home, and Gandy Thomas, the consul general of Haiti, is to be recognized as the new dean of the Corps.
Admission to the concert is free, but registrations are requested by clicking here.