46. Karel Velebný & Martin Kratochvil

Two Czech genius jazzmen – one made fun, the other made money.

Neither played the old time jazz I liked. Both composed and played what was called “Modern Jazz” in the 1960s and 70s. I was a stubborn “Mouldy Fygge,” a lover of antediluvian, traditional, Down-Home, New Orleans-style Jazz.  But, in my early days in Prague, in 1961, I was taken to a concert of a modernist group with the classy cultural name, “Studio 5,” thus avoiding the “bourgeois” American term “Jazz.”  It was this type of word-jiggery that allowed citizens to get around the stiff-necked communist restrictions.  Several  brilliant modern jazzmen emerged in Prague during the 60s & 70s. These two  involve me the most.

Studio 5 consisted of a vibraphone, a flute, a trombone, a baritone sax, and drums.  The vibe & tenor sax-playing leader of group was a bony guy named Karel Velebný.  I sometimes had the chance to use jazz music in my films, and I was impressed with what these five White Guys could put out.

During the mid-1960s I was developing my NUDNIK character, I had  the musical concept of a steady slow-drag blues, moaning relentlessly as the hapless Nudnik bumbled from one inevitable fumble to another. I recorded Velebny’s group improvising “Nudnik’s Blues.” I loved the effect, and the film won an Oscar nomination. But Paramount hated the lowdown blues, thinking it depressing; “Cartoons should only have jolly music!”  So I had to take the opposite tack, jolly music in the face of frustration. It was also a Nudnik facet – he smiled through hopelessness. So I picked the ironically jolly old Depression-era song,“Wrap Your Troubles Troubles In Dreams, and Dream Your Troubles Away.” As Nudnik’s theme song it also worked, but it was was no longer for Velebný.

By that time, Karel, nicknamed, “Kaja, ”(pronounced, Ki-ya),  become our close friend, and I was able to engage him and his band to play the music for my so-called “Self Help,” series, SELF-DEFENSE FOR COWARDS, HOW TO AVOID FRIENDSHIP, HOW TO WIN ON THE THRUWAY, HOW TO LIVE WITH A NEUROTIC DOG, and THE GIRL-WATCHER’S GUIDE.

Kaja’s music became aceepted in the Czech mainstream, and his group got a steady job at the famous Spejbl & Hurvinek puppet theater, so they adapted the name “S&H Quintet,” a name he continued to the rest of his days, shortened to SHQ.  I had other chances to use them, most notably with a full-band Duke Ellington sound, in my animation of Tomi Ungerer’s book, MOON MAN.

There was another, non-musical aspect of Velebny’s talent.  He was one of the originators of a finely masked parody of the communists, a fabricated legend about an imaginary Czech genius named “Jara da Cimrman.” There were bizarre lectures and exhibits in obscure locations in Prague. It was so subtly put forward that they not only got away with, but it has endured to this day as a Czech comic institution.

One of the first things I became aware of, in trying to cope with the pervasive and suffocating communist version of history, was that Czech children were schooled to believe that Soviet science invented everything, and that most of it was inspired by the teachings and thinking of V.I.Lenin.  For example, contrary to what I learned in school, the electric light bulb, the phonograph, color film, the airplane, the submarine, antibiotics, etc. etc. (As  my old CBS Radio boss, Jim Cantwewll would say, “Everything, including the whirling spray,” were all invented by Soviet geniuses.)

So Velebny and his cohorts put together exhibits of inventions by the “Little Known Czech Genius, Jara da Cimrman.” (a Czech-language alteration of “Zimmerman.”)  In a small gallery they put on a display of pseudo-documents, old engravings, faked objects, weird old photographs with a blurred, unrecognizable face, said to be that of the forgotten Czech genius. They even made a faux documentary clip, showing several rusted cans of 35mm movie film dug up in an obscure country barn, which they proclaimed to be the first movie ever made, long-lost proof that Jara da Cimrman invented the motion picture!

All of this gained tremendous popularity, with everyone except the communists perceiving it as a parody of Soviet boasting.  The government was assured that the joke was about Czechoslovak creativity. So even a feature–length movie was authorized, starring one of the co-creators of the Cimrman stand-up, Zdenek Svěrák. One joke in the film was how Cimerman arrived at the US Patent Office with a diagram of an electric light bulb, just 10 minutes after Thomas Edison had been there!

The Cimrman movement grew and split into various units.  Kaja Velebny grew ill, was no longer able to play the saxophmone. He died sooner than the Velvet Revolution came, which propelled the Cimrman cult into the mainstream. Today in Prague,  the Cimrman Theater thrives, with a large repertoir of absurdist plays, supposedly written by the “forgotten genius,” Jara da Cimrman.

We have our films, tapes, and CDs with Kaja’s music, to remember him by, and a few photographs. He was one of our greatest and most-fun friends.  His SHQ group played at our wedding in 1964, in the Old Town Square Wedding Hall. They played a discreet rendition of “our” song, “When I Fall in Love”. The Nat King Cole version of the song plays over the end-titles of the documentary movie “For The Love of Prague,” found in credit 42. Zdenka!

Musician, composer, arranger, actor, writer, pedagogue…The greatest creator of the Czech school of modern jazz, Karel Velebny was a true genius, A player from the age of 7, tragically dead of heart disease at age 57.

Rudolf Ticháček, Karel Velebný, Josef Vejvoda, Petr Kořínek, Karel Pafich.

Kaja on the vibraphone.

He looked like a business man, but his busines was high humor.

• • •

Kaja was dissed by the Devil, but Martin Kratochvil played on. After the 1989 revolution he became a zillionaire music and media mogul.  But in the 1970s, still under the communist blanket, he too had nearly become bedeviled. In the politically dismal days of the late 70s he had a chance to record an LP with his “Jazz Q” group.

In those days, just as now, if there’s any chance of becoming known or even making a living, an artist of any sort needed to get his or her work seen or heard. In that aim we had a hand in rescuing Martin Kratochvil’s nearly zapped music career.

With musicians it was vital to get a record made. Stereo LP production was still in its infancy in communist Czechoslovakia, and there was a shortage of just about everything. The one thing that was plentiful here was musical talent, and the authorities realized that stereo records could be a useful export item, to bring in hard currency. So they had to spring for high-end stereo recording equipment. But they overlooked that high-end packaging was necessary for international marketing. Discs for the local market were slipped into flimsy paper envelopes with cookie-cutter design and no individual labeling.

Recording artists had to wait months for the single Czech printing plant which could produce glossy, full-color album covers up to world standards.  So Martin Kratochvil’s music career was on hold, waiting for an album cover for his first recording. So was the career of the young graphic art school graduate Aleš Vijidák, who was chosen to design the cover for Martin’s first LP.  Both eagerly looked forward to some hard-currency royalties if the disc was sold in the West. Vyjidák’s art school library had a rare copy of the glossy graphic arts magazine, Graphis. Looking for his chance to shine, he sought and found inspiration in it.  This is what he came up with, and which awoke the Wild Thing in me:

© 1979 Aleš Vyjidák           Not bad, but look closely!

Crude, but an obvious rip-off of Maurice Sendak’s world-famous “Where The Wild Things Are” book illustrations!

©1963 by Maurice Sendak

We had recently produced our animation adapation of Maurice’s world-famous book, and we knew his lawyers were fiercer than any of the pictured Wild Things!  It was clear to me that Martin, Aleš and Czechoslavak Supraphon would get skinned alive is that album cover would reach U.S. shops!

I managed to get the manager of Supraphon Records on the phone, and managed to get across to him that doom loomed. Knowing his bosses would castrate him if thousands of long-awaited and expensive albums would have to be trashed, he begged me to beg Sendak to have mercy.

I did. When I phoned Maurie, he told me this was not the first time his artwork had been sticky-fingered. He told me I could give Supraphon two choices: 1. They could limit distribution to Czechoslovakia, whose market was no threat to him, or 2. If the wanted to distribute externally, they would have to attach a label to each copy carrying Sendak’s copyright notice.

Obviously, the second option was the only one to save their mutual asses.  So the labels were printed and the entire office staff of Supraphon Records were up all night sticking them onto the complete run of the Kratochvil Jazz Q albums!

Thus Martin went on to Himalayan heights in the music and movie world of this country. I mean that literally as these days his business is handled by others, and he regularly flies his private jet to Lhasa and the Himalayan culture he loves.  When he’s in Prague he still loves to play his convoluted jazz at his own “Golem Club,” which otherwise caters to top Czech business and political leaders.

Would all of this been lost if I hadn’t intervened to save his debut jazz album?  I doubt that, but at the time it seemed to have been a career trashing catastrophe.

What I still don’t know is whatever happened to the misguided graphic miscreant, Aleš Vyidák.  Stealing is not an uncommon occupation in this world, but getting caught at it is unforgivable!

Martin Kratochvil playing madly at his Golem Club, 2012.

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