Meet Mr Ježek

Opus Osm

A concert with a Jaroslav Ježek work is part of the Prague Spring series; and a documentary about his cohorts is part of the American Spring series.

Jaroslav Ježek was the son of a tradesman and had little formal musical training. Yet he was granted admission to the Prague Conservatory and was one of their most talented students.

And you’ll run across many influences from his short but not completely tragic life. For example, Ježek’s Dark Blue World is a jazz composition whose name was borrowed for the 2001 film about Czech pilots serving in the British Royal Air Force during WW II. Ježek’s world was literally dark blue. He could only see properly in blue light and, for most of his life, he did nearly all his work in a small blue room in his Prague apartment.

Born in 1906, Jaroslav Ježek suffered from cataracts as a child and had to attend a school for the blind. He then went on to contract scarlet fever, which left him almost completely deaf. As if that wasn’t enough, he had chronic hereditary kidney trouble which brought about his untimely demise. He died in New York just two days after marrying his beloved Frances Bečáková, at the age of 36, the same age at which Mozart died.

But for Ježek the inter-war era was an exciting period of innovation and change. He met Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, two lawyers with a penchant for left-wing political satire, and together they formed an unforgettable trio. He composed the scores for the anti-Nazi performances of Voskovec and Werich (“V+W” — see Opus Osm, May 6, 2013) at the avant garde Prague Liberated Theatre. As a result, in January 1939, all three of these gentlemen emigrated to the USA, but Ježek would never return.

Ježek’s Contributions to Czech Music
Jaroslav Ježek’s life and work have been immortalized in the name of the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory and Higher Specialized School. Originally founded in 1958 as The People’s Art School, for ideological reasons it did not gain the status of a conservatory until after the Velvet Revolution, and when it did, it adopted Jaroslav Ježek’s name. It’s one of only a few secondary schools of its kind which focuses on pop music, jazz, and other forms of non-traditional art. It places great emphasis on public performances of its students at concerts, competitions, and other events. (See Opus Osm, “Music in the Metro,” Apr 13 and 20, 2012.)

As far as his music is concerned, Ježek’s first works were chamber, piano, and concert compositions. Later Ježek became fascinated with American jazz – he was a Duke Ellington fan – and started composing some of the most original music in Europe at the time. Ježek’s Bugatti Step, for example, is popular to this day as a hot jazz piano solo. His Polonaisa mingles Polish dance rhythms with hot syncopation, as if Chopin and Gershwin had collaborated. (Ježek loved Gershwin and for a time Rhapsody in Blue was all he could hear.)

Opus Osm

The Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra (SOČR)

Unfortunately, many of his recordings did not survive the Nazi occupation and WW II, and so are almost completely unknown in North America.

But if you would like a live sample, his Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra will be performed May 18 at The Rudolfinum, by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Prague Spring Festival as part of a concert to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of Czechoslovak Radio broadcasting and the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Artists Association, of which Jaroslav Ježek was a member.

Screenings of the documentary film, My Father, George Voskovec, with discussion by its director Libuše Rudinská, will be offered as part of The American Spring Festival June 7 in Horaždovice and June 21 in Dobříš. — oo

– Hana and Frank Trollman

Photo Credits: Bottom: SOČR website

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